When Gates accepted Bush's plea to replace Rumsfeld after the 2006 midterm elections, he did so with two aims: to improve security in Iraq, which seemed to be spiraling out of control, and to restore ruptured relations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congress.
Gates had spent most of his life in the classified cloisters of the government as a Russia specialist in the CIA, rising from junior analyst to director in some of the darkest days of the Cold War, with a stint as deputy national security advisor in the White House of Bush's father. But he'd never worked at the Pentagon. Because he arrived with little time and a narrow mission, he felt no need or obligation to play the role of steward. He looked around as an inside-outsider, and he was appalled by what he saw.
U.S. troops were fighting and dying in two foreign wars, but the Pentagon bureaucracy was shuffling through its peacetime paces. The Army and the Marines, for example, had a new armored vehicle, the MRAP, which could provide greater protection against Iraqi roadside bombs and save many troops' lives. But the brass were doing nothing to accelerate production. Similarly, the Air Force had a new generation of unmanned aerial vehicles, "drones" equipped with real-time video cameras and remote-control-fired missiles; troops in the field were clamoring for more, but Air Force leaders were not stepping up deployment.
Gates quickly intervened, taking both programs outside normal channels. He added $16 billion to build more MRAPs on a crash schedule. And he fired the Air Force's chief of staff, Gen T. Michael Moseley, in part for negligence with the nuclear command, but mainly, according to knowledgeable officials, for his sluggishness on the drones. Gates replaced him with Gen. Norton Schwartz, head of the Air Force's unglamorous Transportation Command. He picked Schwartz because he had tirelessly worked out a way, at Gates's request, to speed the air delivery of MRAPs to Iraq; that is, he'd acted as if a war was going on. (Schwartz's promotion made him the first Air Force chief of staff to come up through the ranks as neither a bomber pilot nor a fighter pilot; the move marked the beginning of a huge cultural shift in that branch of the military.)
Gates also noticed that the Army's most innovative colonels -- brigade commanders who not only understood counterinsurgency theory but practiced it in Iraqi cities and villages -- were getting stalled in their careers by generals with much less battlefield experience and who were wedded to Cold War precepts of combat. So, near the end of 2007, Gates called on Gen. David Petraeus, then the U.S. commander in Iraq and the architect of the counterinsurgency strategy there, to chair that year's Army promotion board, which would advance 40 colonels to the rank of brigadier general. More than a dozen of the Army's promising colonels, at least one of whom had been passed over twice, got their stars. With this single stroke, the Army's culture -- the signals sent to the troops of what kind of soldiers get promoted and what kind don't -- changed dramatically.
There was much more to do but too little time before Bush's presidency expired. So Gates began giving a series of public speeches. Their main theme was that the military needed to embrace the 21st century in its deployments, training, operations, and weapons buying. It needed, specifically, to shift away from what he described as "baroque" single-purpose weapons designed for Cold War scenarios (or big wars against big powers in a distant future that wasn't likely ever to happen) toward cheaper, more versatile weapons better suited to the low-intensity conflicts the United States was actually fighting. In an almost unprecedented move, Gates also called repeatedly for more funding for the Pentagon's traditional bureaucratic rivals in the State Department, warning of the "creeping militarization" of U.S. foreign policy.
Gates was explicitly laying out an agenda for the next defense secretary. Then he became him. Or, as he now puts it, "I punted all these balls to my successor and discovered I was the receiver." In the first half of Obama's term, he has followed through, catching the punts and running with them farther and faster than anyone expected. (One exception is the notion of transferring money to the State Department; that hasn't happened.)
Even before Obama's term formally began, Gates launched a three-month review of every major line item in the half-trillion-dollar defense budget, drawing the entire building -- the highest-level civilian analysts and military officers -- into the process. By April 2009, his teams had compiled a list of 50 programs primed for change. Gates decided to kill, slash, or restructure 33 of them, including some of the services' most cherished weapons systems. (Rumsfeld talked about "transforming" the military, but in fact canceled just two weapons: the Crusader artillery gun and the Comanche helicopter, the latter of which the Army didn't want anyway.)
Gates stopped the Air Force's F-22 Raptor stealth fighter plane, killed whole sections of the Army's multiplatform Future Combat Systems, and sank the Navy's DDG-1000 destroyer, to name a few. The F-22 was the great white whale. Many Air Force officers saw it as their dream weapon, the most sophisticated fighter plane in the world. Gates saw it as a Cold War relic at a time when no enemies had fleets of advanced fighter planes and decades after any American pilot had fought an air-to-air duel. The United States already had 187 of these planes (none of which had taken part in any of the wars the United States was fighting), at a cost of $65 billion. The Air Force wanted 381 in all or, as a last-ditch compromise, 247. Gates and his analysts calculated that 187 were enough. After a drawn-out debate, the Senate agreed, defeating an amendment to restore production.