WASHINGTON - As the Bush administration was drawing to a close, Robert M. Gates, whose two years as defense secretary had been devoted to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, felt compelled to warn his successor of a crisis closer to home.
The United States "cannot expect to eliminate national security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything," Gates said. The next defense secretary, he warned, would have to eliminate some costly hardware and invest in new tools for fighting insurgents.
What Gates didn't know was that he would be that successor.
Now, as the only Bush Cabinet member to remain under President Obama, Gates is preparing the most far-reaching changes in the Pentagon's weapons portfolio since the end of the Cold War, according to aides.
Two defense officials who were not authorized to speak publicly said Gates will announce up to a half-dozen major weapons cancellations later this month. Candidates include a new Navy destroyer, the Air Force's F-22 fighter jet, and Army ground-combat vehicles, the offi cials said.
More cuts are planned for later this year after a review that could lead to reductions in programs such as aircraft carriers and nuclear arms, the officials said.
As a former CIA director with strong Republican credentials, Gates is prepared to use his credibility to help Obama overcome the expected outcry from conservatives. And after a lifetime in the national security arena, working in eight administrations, the 65-year-old Gates is also ready to counter the defense companies and throngs of retired generals and other lobbyists who are gearing up to protect their pet projects.
"He has earned a great deal of credibility over the past two years, both inside and outside the Pentagon, and now he is prepared to use it to lead the department in a new direction and bring about the changes he believes are necessary to protect the nation's security," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary.
Gates is not the first secretary to try to change military priorities. His predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, sought to retool the military but succeeded in cancelling only one major project, an Army artillery system.
Former vice president Dick Cheney's efforts as defense chief under the first President Bush, meanwhile, are cited as a case study in the resistance of the military, defense industry, and Capitol Hill. Cheney canceled the Marine Corps' troubled V-22 Osprey aircraft not once, but four times, only to see Congress reverse the decision.
"There are so many people employed in the industry and they are spread across the country," William S. Cohen, former Republican senator from Maine who was Defense secretary in the Clinton administration, said in an interview. "Even though members of Congress may say, 'It's great that you are recommending the termination of X, Y, and Z,' they will also say 'that means 4,000 jobs in my state. Frankly, I can't go along with that.' "
Major weapons cuts could be an even tougher sell now, he added. "When you start talking about an economy that is in a state of considerable turmoil it becomes even more difficult," Cohen said.
Yet even some of the Pentagon's fiercest critics, such as Winslow Wheeler of the liberal Center for Defense Information, believe the Obama administration may have a unique opportunity with Gates at the helm.
Wheeler, a former Capitol Hill defense aide, noted that Gates has shown a unique toughness, including removing the Army secretary and the civilian and military heads of the Air Force for lapses on their watch.
"That demonstrates there is a spine there," said Wheeler.
SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT
The media landscape is changing fast
Our news team is changing too as we work hard to bring you the news that matters most.
Change is coming. And we've got it covered.
Please donate to our 2019 Mid-Year Campaign today.
Please donate to our 2019 Mid-Year Campaign today.
Such dramatic moves were easier for Gates because he spent much of his career as an intelligence analyst warning about the threats of Soviet Communism. Now, as a Cold War veteran in an administration perceived to be lacking in defense experience, he is perhaps the only person capable of pushing through big cutbacks.
"He obviously has huge credibility as something of a hawk," said James Shinn, who worked for Gates as assistant Defense secretary in the Bush administration. "No one can even remotely challenge Gates in terms of his well-informed and conservative approach toward threats and the weapon systems associated with threats."
In between briefing books and intelligence assessments, Gates recently read "Agincourt," a novel about the medieval battle in which the British Army routed a much larger French force with a new weapon, the longbow, that was able to penetrate French armor. A turning point in the Hundred Years War, in 1415, the battle could serve as an analogy for the changes Gates believes are necessary to pursue terrorists.
Today's security threats, Gates believes, are far different from when, during his first week on the job as a CIA analyst in 1968, the Soviet Army invaded Czechoslovakia.
"Let's be honest with ourselves," Gates told the National Defense University last September. "The most likely catastrophic threats to our homeland - for example, an American city poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack - are more likely to emanate from failed states than from aggressor states."
Gates has said it would be "irresponsible" not to plan for the possibility that another nation could threaten US military dominance, but he pointed out that the US Navy is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which are American allies.
"US air and sea forces have ample untapped striking power should the need arise to deter or punish aggression - whether on the Korean Peninsula, in the Persian Gulf, or across the Taiwan Strait," he wrote in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
As for fears of a resurgent Russia, Gates said, "As someone who used to prepare estimates of Soviet military strength for several presidents, I can say that Russia's conventional military, although vastly improved since its nadir in the late 1990s, remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor."
Gates's budget plans remain closely guarded, but aides say his decisions will be guided by the time he has spent with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One aide who has traveled with Gates more than a dozen times said the secretary "is particularly keen and aware of the urgent operational needs on the ground."
That likely means greater investments in intelligence-gathering systems such as pilotless drone aircraft, special-operations forces and equipment, and advanced cultural training for military personnel, aides said.
Girding for a showdown with Congress, Gates took the unusual step of making the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other participants in budget deliberations sign nondisclosure agreements to prevent leaks.
But already lawmakers and defense contractors are preparing to fight back. Lockheed, maker of the F-22 jet, recently launched an ad campaign to protect its fighter. Northrop Grumman, which could face cutbacks to its ship-building programs, has hired consultants to write op-eds. Unions are raising alarms about job losses.
Even his closest friends acknowledge Gates is in the bureacratic fight of his life.