"What Secretary Gates has been doing over the past couple of years has been prepping the battlefield for larger fights that are coming in the DoD budget," said Todd Harrison, senior fellow for Defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
"He's made a lot of progress so far and put the department in a better position to weather these fights," Harrison said. But Gates' stated intention to step down sometime next year, well before the 2012 elections, calls into question how effective his latest round of efficiency initiatives will actually be, Harrison added.
"The services might just try to wait him out and refuse to make the hard decisions he's pushing them to make," Harrison said. "Or, once he's gone, they might just revert back to the way things have always been done."
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell seemed to try to ward off any such inclination on Monday, when he reminded reporters that Gates has a history of postponing planned retirements: "I would remind you all that every time Secretary Gates has seriously considered hanging it up for good, he ultimately has decided to keep serving. So my personal advice would be to wait for a real announcement, or better yet wait to see what happens next year."
The latest reform initiative includes eliminating redundant organizations, reducing funding for support contractors, freezing personnel levels, and cutting at least 150 Senior Executive Service positions and 50 general and flag officer positions during the next two years. Gates orchestrated the cuts not to reduce defense spending, but to redirect funds to military personnel and weapons.
The initiative met with swift opposition from some lawmakers, especially in Virginia, where the cuts are expected to be felt most deeply.
"When it comes to making big changes like that, Gates is probably better suited than just about anyone else I can think of," Harrison said. "He has so much credibility with the White House, with Congress and with the military leadership itself. It leads me to wonder, if Gates can't do it, could anyone?"
Tim Sullivan, program manager at the American Enterprise Institute Center for Defense Studies, said he doesn't think the efficiency initiatives will necessarily falter after Gates departs, but Sullivan does believe the Pentagon's budget will come under greater pressure than it has under Gates.
"I don't see any reason why Gates' plan to seek efficiencies and reduce overhead costs won't continue -- perhaps even be expanded or accelerated -- under his successor," Sullivan said. "The difference will be in whether his successor can successfully stave off the growing bipartisan desire in Congress to slash defense budgets, which is, of course, what Gates' efficiency reform effort is designed to preclude. The success of that strategy, however, depends in large part upon Gates himself -- and the respect he commands among members of Congress from both sides of the aisle."
Gates' departure would put the defense budget at even greater risk than it is today, Sullivan said.
While budget analysts have noted for years that the Defense Department can't possibly pay for all of the programs in its planning documents as well as fund military retirements and health care benefits, the Pentagon has largely managed to escape making hard choices because its budget has continued to grow.
Health care and retirement costs are "eating the Defense budget alive," Harrison said. "Those are some of the painful, structural changes that DoD is going to have to face in the coming years. If they don't make those changes then there will be a reduction in force structure and modernization."
The Pentagon weathered the last downturn in military spending in the late 1980s and early 1990s by cutting personnel and curbing new weapons purchases. But those moves were possible because the strategic landscape had changed so dramatically with the end of the Cold War, and the department had a huge inventory of weapons. Many of those weapons are reaching the end of their life span and military personnel are stretched thin by current operations.
"We haven't recapitalized a lot of these systems that date back to the Cold War so we have this huge bill coming down the road for huge replacement weapon systems and eventually, you can't keep pushing it down the road," Harrison said.
"We're going to have to make these hard decisions we've put off for a decade or longer," he said.