Gates open to DoD budget reform

SECDEF Robert Gates reveals his plans for budget reform and targets numerous programs for the axe.

In a highly unorthodox move, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates released his 2010 DoD budget proposal geared for President Obama before the President himself sent his proposal to Congress. This was done with Obama’s full blessing as a means to establish full disclosure to the American public – and to send a signal to Congress and the long-standing “defense establishment” that we’re not going to see business as usual in the good old boys’ network. Of course, calling for change in the long-standing military procurement game and actually implementing change are fiscal years apart, if they’re even possible.

In a highly unorthodox move, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates released his 2010 DoD budget proposal geared for President Obama before the President himself sent his proposal to Congress. This was done with Obama's full blessing as a means to establish full disclosure to the American public – and to send a signal to Congress and the long-standing "defense establishment" that we're not going to see business as usual in the good old boys' network. Of course, calling for change in the long-standing military procurement game and actually implementing change are fiscal years apart, if they're even possible.

Seeking to "reshape the priorities of America's defense establishment," the SECDEF is relying on his "cumulative outcome of a lifetime spent in the national security arena" as well as the country's experience and lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States is still following the recommendations of the last Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) that set 20-year doctrine as being able to fight two simultaneous wars – two conventional simultaneous wars. But that's not the reality in today's world with nation states, well-backed terrorist groups, humanitarian aid, and asymmetric threats1. The majority of our big-dollar DoD programs have roots in the Cold War era, including the F-22, heavy armor such as the M1A2 or FCS, and ballistic missile defense.

Certainly no one could argue about the need for a strong military. After all, our fighting forces are used primarily to enforce U.S. policy around the world, no matter how unpopular it might be. And it's a more dangerous world than ever before. As we were proofing this column prior to going to press, North Korea launched a long-range missile that Pyongyang said boosted a satellite into orbit. Though experts doubt they succeeded, the buzz is that NK attempted this effort with technology partly supplied by Iran. And with ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – though President Obama has promised to beef up our forces in the latter and withdraw from the former – our need for a strong military has never been greater. According to the Center for American Progress, Obama's projected FY2010 request of $534 billion, the largest of any U.S. department, is a roughly 4 percent increase over Bush's FY2009 budget. However, President Obama has issued a moratorium on supplementals and plus-ups, signaling a new way of doing DoD budgets with transparency. Like the man himself, he's saying, "It's a new deal, folks."

Program decisions

And that's what Gates is aiming for: a "holistic assessment of capabilities, requirements, risks, and needs … [to shift] this department in a different strategic direction." Here's what the SECDEF has recommended:

  • Taking care of the all-volunteer force and their families. This includes beefing up the Army and Marines, while "halting reductions in the Air Force and Navy." So far, so good.
  • Balancing the department's programs to fight the wars we are actually fighting and ones we're likely to face. Here he's putting a stop to the last QDR, once and for all scrubbing the Cold War mentality.
  • Calling for a "fundamental overhaul of … procurement." He, more than most of us, reviews the routine Nunn-McCurdy breaches identifying the most egregious program cost overruns that waste money and reward established norms.

In tracking defense spending, my recommendation is to always follow the money: That starts with the programs called out in the Green Book. So here's the beef:

  • Increase ISR by $2 billion, including 50 more Predator-class UAVs and more manned turbo-prop aircraft such as the Army's Guardrail.
  • Spend $500 million on more helo crews, not necessarily airframes.
  • $500 million goes to training allies and foreign militaries. In tech, this means simulation, embedded training, and computers with battlefield networks and comms gear. And, that hardware needs to be "reasonably rugged" and the software secure.
  • Purchase 55 more Littoral Combat Ships, convert 6 Aegis ships with missile capabilities, and delay the Navy's MLP and LPD ships, while completing the buy of 3 DDG-1000s. My bet is the latter will get scrubbed when push comes to shove and Congress responds to their constituent primes.
  • Increase the purchase of F-35s to 10 in FY2010, which is good news to vendors like Green Hills and Objective Interface Systems whose secure software "hardens" this COTS platform. In contrast, the totally "not COTS" F-22 will end at 187 – a stick in the eye to Air Force leadership with whom Gates has been fighting since Bush was in office.
  • For materiel transport and heavy lift, Gates likes the Army/Navy JHSV hydrofoils, the KC-X tanker (whomever wins), and thinks we have enough C-17s at SERNO 205.

Finally, the program that's most often identified with public VME VPX design wins is the Army's FCS. While putting a stop to what he calls "requirements creep" while demanding stricter contract terms and conditions, Gates says, "There are significant unanswered questions concerning the FCS vehicle design strategy," and he is "troubled by the terms of the current contract." I have long predicted changes in FCS (see www.mil-embedded.com/articles/id/?3739), which seemed to me too much of a blank check. Gates likes MRAP that costs only $25 billion with "good effect in today's conflicts." Add some Blue Force Tracking and C4ISR networking, and call it done.

No doubt about it, President Obama and Secretary Gates plan to overhaul the very fabric of how we all do business. The news is bad for some legacy-mentality programs, but exceedingly good for COTS-based platforms. My advice: Follow the money and keep your technology relevant to the (likely) new acquisition reform methodology. Don't let the Gates hit you on the way in or out.

Chris A. Ciufo, cciufo@opensystemsmedia.com

Editor's note: I encourage you to read the long, full text of Gates' speech here for many other programs I didn't reference: www.defenselink.mil/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1341

1 The 2009 QDR is due out later this year, and the DoD must follow its recommendations by law. Some excellent analysis of what it might hold can be found at The Heritage Foundation: www.heritage.org/research/nationalsecurity/bg2234.cfm