TOPICS > Nation

Secretary of Defense Gates Defends New Budget Priorities

April 7, 2009 at 6:15 PM EDT
Loading the player...
Defense Secretary Robert Gates sits down with Judy Woodruff to discuss the insurgency in Iraq, the need for assistance in Afghanistan and shifts in long-term spending priorities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Robert Gates, thank you very much for talking with us.


JUDY WOODRUFF: As we sit here at the Pentagon in Washington, President Obama is right now in Iraq talking to the troops, meeting with Iraqi leaders. What is his message to the Iraqis?

ROBERT GATES: I think, first of all, his message to our troops is one of appreciation and gratitude for their dedication and their service. I think his message to the Iraqis is, almost certainly, keep on doing what you’re doing; keep on resolving problems politically; keep on working at reconciliation; get ready for your elections. We are going to keep our side of the bargain in terms of the agreement, in terms of draw-downs of troops and you have to step up to your responsibilities now, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’ve obviously been in Iraq many a time. What would you hope the president would take away from this visit?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I hope that he will be successful in encouraging the Iraqi leadership to continue working together. And I hope that he will – in fact, I am confident that he will come home impressed by the caliber of our men and women in uniform out there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The violence has been escalating recently. In fact, there was a car bomb today, I guess, in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. The U.S.’s pledge to get most of the troops out – 19 months, most of them will be out by next year. But if this violence were to step up considerably, is there a contingency plan?

ROBERT GATES: I think the president always has the authority to, as commander-in-chief, to change his plans. But I think the view of our commanders is that, while there are some of these spectacular attacks, overall, the level of violence continues to be quite low compared with, particularly, 2007 and the first part of 2008, in fact, at levels not seen since 2003.

I think what we’re seeing is al Qaeda trying sort of as a last gasp to try and reverse the progress that’s been made through these attacks. But these car-bomb attacks generally are the signature kind of thing that al Qaeda in Iraq does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are they reversing the progress?

ROBERT GATES: I don’t think so, no. And, in fact, I think it’s been quite impressive how people, how resilient people have been in Baghdad, in Iraq in general.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama has used part of this overseas trip not only to emphasize he’s different from his predecessor, but to reach out to the Muslim world, especially with that speech in Turkey. As somebody who’s observed U.S. national security up close for three decades, do you think this is something that’s going to pay dividends?

ROBERT GATES: I think it will. I think that – I gave a speech last year in which I made the comment that, how can it be that the nation that discovered public relations is being out-communicated by a guy in a cave? The reality is, I think we probably have not done as well as we should have in terms of reaching out to Muslims and making clear that what we’re concerned about are violent extremists. This isn’t the war against Islam. And I think the president is communicating that message.

I think the challenge for the rest of the government is to figure out how we do that on a more comprehensive and continuing basis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that process underway?

ROBERT GATES: Yes, it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anything you want to flesh out about it?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I mean, it’s basically under the auspices of the State Department. We do a fair amount in theater in Iraq and Afghanistan and our commanders have the capability to do some of the strategic communications, but, fundamentally, it’s a State Department responsibility.

Defense budget priorities

Robert Gates
Defense Secretary
I know that there's a lot of focus on cuts because of four or five major programs. But it's really a rebalancing: How do we sustain the capability not only to fight the wars we are in, but also, how we preserve the hedge to fight any future conflict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about the Robert Gates defense budget that you unveiled yesterday. Now, the United States is in the middle of two wars and a serious recession. Is this the right time to haul out a major, dramatic overhaul of not only defense spending, but military strategy?

ROBERT GATES: Well, the reality is, this is nothing new. I've been talking about this for 18 months; it is the heart of the national defense strategy that was issued last fall in the Bush administration that I issued and it's really more about simply recognizing the enduring requirement for the capabilities to fight these irregular or hybrid conflicts than it is a major strategic shift. It's really, as I put it yesterday, fundamentally, the modernization programs of our traditional strategic and conventional weapons still account for about half of our budget. Dual-purpose capabilities that work in any war scenario count for about 40 percent.

And what I'm trying to put at the table are representatives of those who spend about 10 percent of the budget. Their work has been funded principally through supplementals over the last six or seven years. I want to get that capability into the base budgets so that it will continue and we don't forget, as we did after Vietnam, how to do what we're doing right now so successfully in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

And it's really not as much about cuts; I know that there's a lot of focus on cuts because of four or five major programs. But it's really a rebalancing: How do we sustain the capability not only to fight the wars we are in, but also, how we preserve the hedge to fight any future conflict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, practically, when it comes to Afghanistan, how does this change what the U.S. is able to do over the next two to five years in Afghanistan?  

ROBERT GATES: Well, the wars themselves are still being funded principally in 2009 by a supplemental and in 2010 with an overseas contingency fund. But what we are putting into the budget, for example, $2 billion worth of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities that are at the heart of our success in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

We're increasing our capacity for helicopters, which are in huge demand in Afghanistan. We are doing a lot to build up the special operations forces, more people, more special operations-oriented lift and mobility. So there are a number of aspects of this that are going into the base budget as long-term capabilities for the United States that obviously will pay dividends in Afghanistan as well.

Assistance in Afghanistan

Robert Gates
Defense Secretary
The truth is the Europeans have fulfilled all the commitments they have made; it's just that the requirement goes beyond the commitments they've made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the same time, the president clearly made an effort on this trip overseas to talk to our allies in Europe about giving the U.S. more help in Afghanistan. There's a lot of words of support but not much support in terms of people and materiel. How can the U.S. achieve the goals that your administration has set out for Afghanistan without that additional help?

ROBERT GATES: Well, first of all, I think it's important and probably no one has been more outspoken than I have in terms of asking the Europeans to do more. The truth is the Europeans have fulfilled all the commitments they have made; it's just that the requirement goes beyond the commitments they've made. And, frankly, I was surprised, pleasantly, by the outcome in France of the NATO summit because I had not anticipated that they would provide additional combat troops, perhaps some small numbers for election security.

But not only did they commit several thousand more troops, but hundreds of police trainers; they committed to a lot of civilian experts. They committed resources to the Afghan trust fund, the NATO trust fund to sustain the Afghan military forces. So I think that they actually came through with a quite a lot compared, I guess, to my expectations based on the defense ministers' meeting in Krakow last month.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that enough?

ROBERT GATES: Well, it's never enough, but it is a significant contribution, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You are calling, as you said, for more money to fight the terrorists, the irregular warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq and less for so-called conventional warfare preparation, theoretically places like China and Russia. But some experts we're already hearing expressing concern about the conventional military buildup in China, considered the one nation that could eventually seriously challenge the United States. Is this a prudent time to reduce emphasis on conventional warfare?

ROBERT GATES: I think what we're trying to do is not reduce emphasis on conventional warfare, but be more selective about the weapons systems that we fund to fight that kind of a fight. I'm not cutting the F-22; I'm not recommending the F-22; I'm simply recommending that the program set in 2005 was to build 183 of these aircrafts. I'm simply saying, let's finish that program and then let's focus on buying large numbers of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35, which has 10- to 15-year newer technology, has some capabilities that the F-22 doesn't have.

The F-22 is a great airplane, all you have to do is ask the pilots who fly it, but - and it will remain in the inventory, but there is no military requirement for more than 183 of them, 187 with those that are in the supplemental. So we're doing that, we're building additional ships, we're doing more in the way of theater and tactical ballistic-missile defense. We're converting more ships to have ballistic-missile defense that would help against China. So I think there's kind of a misunderstanding of exactly what it is we're trying to do here. We're trying to be more selective about systems that actually work and that can be delivered in a reasonable period of time than some of these exotic systems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But by ending production in - down the road, of the F-22 Raptor, I'm already reading that shutting it down is going to mean the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. Was that something that weighed on you as you made that decision?

ROBERT GATES: Well, we can't be oblivious to the impact that these decisions have on people, but the information that's available to us shows that the direct employment of the F-22 will go from about 32,000 in - I'm sorry, from about 24,000 this year to about 11,000 in 2011. But Joint Strike Fighter will go from 38,000 people working this year to 82,000 people that work on that plane in direct support in 2011. So there are puts and takes. I think we've done a good job of taking care of the industrial base in the shipyards and the workers there in the decisions on the shipbuilding.

So we're not oblivious to the employment aspects, but to be perfectly honest, there isn't a single defense program anywhere, procurement program, that doesn't have an impact in somebody's hometown and somebody's state. And so if you're going to bring any discipline to the Defense Department budget, if you're going to try and make any selectivity, have any selectivity in terms of what you fund and don't fund, it will have an impact somewhere.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of that, so many defense secretaries before you have tried to cut this or that or change this or that weapon system. Congress has essentially patted them on the head and said, fine, and then gone off and done exactly what they wanted to do. We were already hearing resistance from the Congress; what makes you think it's going to be different this time?

ROBERT GATES: Well, for one thing, there's a big push in Congress for acquisition and procurement reform in the Department of Defense, and so I think we'll keep that upfront and say, you know, it's all well and good to talk about acquisition reform, but that means tough decisions have to be made. Like when programs are out of control, when they're six years late, when they're twice the cost that they were originally forecast, something has to be done. Something has to give. My hope is that because of the economic circumstances at home, because of the magnitude of the decisions that we're making and recommending, that in fact, the Congress will put aside parochial interest and do what's in the best interest of the country as a whole.

Missile defense

Robert Gates
Defense Secretary
We are significantly increasing the missile defense capabilities to deal with the theater and tactical threat, from Iran or Hezbollah or others like that, in a number of different ways.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Quick question on missile defense. You are not cutting the entire thing, but there are significant cuts. Already, though, we're hearing senators both sides of the aisle, members of Congress saying this is going to hurt national security, hurt homeland security. What do you say to them?

ROBERT GATES: We have two threats: theater and tactical ballistic missiles and ballistic missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles from rogue states like North Korea. We are significantly increasing the missile defense capabilities to deal with the theater and tactical threat, from Iran or Hezbollah or others like that, in a number of different ways - a lot of money being added to the budget.

We are not cutting the number of interceptors in Alaska, we are going to fund - robustly fund research and development to keep enhancing their capabilities, we are keeping alive the airborne-laser program, we are just not buying a second research platform. We're going to make do with one 747 to do this research. The procurement program was completely out of control, with 20 747s and so on and so forth. So I think we are doing a lot, we do very well with terminal defense, with THAD and the theater missile. We do very well at midcourse with the ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California.

Now, we're continuing to do research work on the boost phase, where they're just coming off the pad, and we have several programs, some of them classified, that are aimed at taking care of that. So I think we have really strongly supported missile defense, and I think that what we have taken out of the budget, frankly, were some experimental capabilities that were really not intended for the rogue-state missile threat but rather, a much larger threat. So I'm trying to conform our program to our policy. Our policy is to have a missile defense and it was - as it was in the Bush administration, our policy is to have a missile defense against rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea. That's what our program does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two other quick things: So when it comes to Bob Gates versus the Congress on this, how do you stack each one up?

ROBERT GATES: Well, first of all, I don't think it's me versus the Congress. I think there's going to be a lot of debate in Congress on these issues, and I think that there are a lot of people up there who are going to look very seriously and analytically at this, and my hope is that - and I will work with them. These things are always have to be worked out jointly, between the administration and the Congress, at the end of the day, and I'll work with them. But I think that we clearly need to move in a new direction. My guess is there's more support for doing that and for the kind of discipline I'm talking about than would appear from some of the press statements.

Working for President Obama

Robert Gates
Defense Secretary
I've been very impressed at how well the national-security team has come together. He's very thoughtful, he's very analytical and I find him willing to listen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally, we started out talking about President Obama. You are the only holdover in the cabinet from the Bush administration. You've worked - is this now your eighth president?


JUDY WOODRUFF: You've worked for - I think people are really curious to know, what is working for this president like compared to the - all of his predecessors you've gotten to know?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I try to not compare the ones that I'm working for currently with ones I've worked for in the past. Someday I'll -

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well then just, what's it like -

ROBERT GATES: Someday maybe I'll do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well then, as a standalone, what's it like working for President Obama?

ROBERT GATES: I've been very impressed at how well the national-security team has come together. He's very thoughtful, he's very analytical and I find him willing to listen. And he said he would listen to the commanders, with respect to both Iraq and Afghanistan, he has. So it's a pleasure working for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And as a Republican working for a Democratic president?

ROBERT GATES: Well, you know, I've tried always to do this job and the jobs that I've had in government, at CIA and elsewhere, in a completely nonpartisan way. I continue to do that and I don't find it awkward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Robert Gates, we thank you very much for talking with us.

ROBERT GATES: My pleasure.