By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009; A04
After reading a newspaper article's report that a particular armored vehicle had dramatically cut fatality rates in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other senior defense officials traveled 80 miles northeast to Aberdeen Proving Ground in spring 2007 to see for themselves how the V-shaped hull of the costly Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle deflected the worst blast effects of buried explosives.
Within weeks, and after some pointed demands for the MRAPs from Capitol Hill, Gates decided to make accelerated production of the vehicles his top priority, using a special task force that circumvented the department's normal purchasing methods -- and the initial opposition of the Army and the Marine Corps. The results were not perfect -- an inspector general's report said later that in its rush, the department overspent by tens of millions of dollars -- but they were effective: Thousands of additional MRAPs flooded into Iraq and fatality rates dropped precipitously.
Aides say that the experience was like a baptism for Gates into the weirdness of the Pentagon's weapons-procurement system, which experts have long assailed for buying the wrong arms and paying far too much. Hired by President George W. Bush mostly to fix the Iraq war, Gates initially left key buying decisions to his deputy, Gordon England. But they say Gates's decision to buy more MRAPs and a similarly frustrating battle to build more unmanned aerial vehicles for use in Iraq persuaded him that he would have to wade deeply into the procurement mess.
Gates concluded that "the building was not being responsive to the requests for these vehicles," his spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said.
In calling yesterday for "a dramatic change in the way we acquire military equipment," Gates showed his slow but palpable alienation from the so-called iron triangle of defense contractors, lawmakers and military service executives that has long promoted building the best weapons systems, no matter what the price. In the future, he said, weapons should be engineered to counter "the actual and prospective capabilities of known future adversaries," not what a potential adversary might create with "unlimited time and resources."
Gates has signaled his frustrations with the broken and "rigid" purchasing system for months, and in a January article in Foreign Affairs magazine, he noted that the pursuit of perfect solutions combined with a lack of flexibility and innovation had made it "necessary to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities needed to protect U.S. troops and fight ongoing wars."
But Gates sees this year as a rare opportunity to pursue politically controversial ideas, one of his top aides said, largely because of two factors. First, President Obama's repeated claim that procurement reforms can increase efficiency and save expenses across the government will provide "top cover" for Gates in his head-butting with a group of service chiefs that proposed last year to alleviate their woes by adding tens of billions of dollars to the budget instead of making hard choices or undertaking major reforms.
Second, Gates feels the nation's woeful economic status will give him added leverage in beating back attempts on Capitol Hill to continue financing weapons that troops don't need or want. "It is important to remember that every defense dollar spent to overinsure against a remote or diminishing risk, or in effect to run up the score" is a dollar that might otherwise be spent on troops or winning the wars we are in, Gates said yesterday.
To some military experts, the two-year wait for Gates to take such a step since his December 2006 appointment has been long. Kori Schake, a National Security Council staff member during the Bush administration and adviser to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, said that "with the important exception of his emphasis on MRAP acquisition, he submitted two budgets and several supplemental spending requests that were straight-line extensions of previous spending."
Now, Schake said, Gates has called for ruthlessly separating appetites from real requirements, but Congress may "serve him up his own previous justifications for the very programs he proposes to cut."