By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 11:22 AM
On five occasions the past three weeks, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has tried to nail down his departure from the Pentagon by telling members of Congress in budget hearings and in speeches to cadets at West Point and the Air Force Academy that this would be his final appearance before them in his present role.
President Obama and other senior officials have privately been pressing Gates to stay on - at least through the end of the first term - because no one else can guarantee implementation of the budget cuts and institutional changes that the defense secretary has set in motion.
Gates, along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been working and traveling at an extraordinary pace. "He is tired," a longtime Gates friend told me recently. In addition, he does not want to be an issue in next year's presidential campaign. Though he regularly is referred to as one of two Republicans in the Obama cabinet, he is a political independent, having spent most of his life as a career government employee, serving in the White House under both Democratic and Republican presidents.
Finding a successor who could quickly be confirmed and easily pick up the reins will be a problem for the president, more so because no one comes easily to mind with Gates's national security experience and stature.
His farewell lectures have hammered at several themes, all of them captured in last week's speech at the Air Force Academy.
His past actions, Gates acknowledged, "at various times brushed up against the traditional preferences and bureaucratic sacred cows of all the services." With the Air Force it was pushing to get needed unmanned aircraft built to perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. He compared that process to "pulling teeth."
He complained to the cadets that his messages to the services were "being distorted by some, and misunderstood by others."
He suspected his remarks about the Air Force last week "will be construed as an attack on bombers and TACAIR [tactical fighter aircraft]." But he pointed out he has committed to producing "the most advanced and expensive tactical fighter program in history, the $300 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter," and also funding "long-range strike systems, including a new optionally manned nuclear-capable penetrating Air Force bomber."
Though he wanted the Navy to think again about carriers he has approved, he also called for "more attack submarines, a new ballistic missile submarine and more guided missile destroyers."
His controversial quote at West Point that a future defense secretary who recommended sending large armies in the future into conflicts abroad "should have his head examined" was "interpreted as my questioning the need for the Army, or at least one its present size." Instead, Gates said, "We will invest billions modernizing armored vehicles, tactical communications and other ground combat systems. "
The Marines' multibillion-dollar amphibious expeditionary fighting vehicle is to be canceled but "the existing amphibious assault capabilities will be upgraded and new systems funded for the ship-to-shore mission."
He said, "It's much harder to do when tough choices have to be made within and between the military services . . . taking into account broader priorities and considerations."
Two days before the Air Force Academy speech, Gates put down a different type of challenge - this one to the Congress.
In testimony before the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, Gates confronted the 21-term subcommittee chairman, Rep. C.W. (Bill) Young (R-Fla.) over the blocking of a $1.2 billion reprogramming of Pentagon funds that Gen. David Petraeus requested, which involved "urgently needed equipment to protect our troops in Afghanistan," according to the secretary.
Such reprogramming needs the approval of House and Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees. But, Gates said, "As of last week, all congressional committees except this one have approved this request."
Gates said he knew the committee was concerned that some reprogrammed funds were to come out of the Army Humvee program. He pointed out the Army has 154,000 Humvees and had determined over a year ago that it had more than enough. Gates wanted to shift some $863 million in previously approved funds for Humvees for equipment for Afghanistan. "We should not put American lives at risk to protect specific programs or contractors," he said flatly.
Young responded, "We support what General Petraeus is asking for . . .But we would like to analyze with you another source for that funding."
Young later told reporters, "The only thing made in my district for the Humvee is the release button for the seatbelt."
Left unsaid was that Doug Gregory, his onetime chief of staff and former employee of the House Defense subcommittee, has been lobbying the Humvee case the last three years for a firm that reported it was paid $150,000 in 2010 by AM General LLC, manufacturer of the vehicle. AM General's political action committee and individual employees contributed $81,850 to Young's last three reelection campaigns, according to Open Secrets, a public interest group.
No reprogramming approval had come from the House committee as of yesterday.