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Secretary Gates Interview with Peter Cook, Bloomberg News

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
August 31, 2009

PETER COOK, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Mr. Secretary thank you for joining us to talk about defense spending, other issues as well, we appreciate very much.

 

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY, U.S. GOVERNMENT: My pleasure, happy  to be here.

 

COOK: I want to get to Afghanistan, Iraq, some of those areas, but I do want to start with the defense budget and the future for the defense budget. You have made a very public push to overhaul how the defense department does business going forward. You spent about $6 billion last year in the United States on defense spending, by some estimates, more than all the other nations of the word [world] combined. Are American taxpayers getting  their money's worth?

 

GATES: I think for the most part they are. They certainly are getting more than their money's worth in terms of their men and women in uniform and the performance that they turn in. And I think the key, as we look ahead, beginning with this kind of effort, is how do we deliver weapons  systems and equipment to those men and women in uniform to be able to deal  with today's threats as well as future threats, and do so in a way that the  nation can afford and where we can afford to buy as many of these things as  we need. We need to get passed an ear where the platforms become so expensive that we can only buy a small number of them. For example, the B-2  Bomber is almost $2 billion apiece. And so we have - we built 19 of them.  We were going to buy 32 DDG-1000 destroyers. We're now going to build three. That's no way to spend the public's money. And it also doesn't help our military capabilities. So the key is getting control of this acquisition process. Making sure that programs are being executed according to the budgets that have been established for them, and on the timelines established.

 

COOK: Other secretaries of defense have tried to make these changes like this in the past. You've talked about perhaps who's to blame for the current situation and there's plenty of blame to go around, Congress, the Pentagon itself, defense contractors.

 

GATES: Absolutely. Everybody has had a piece of this action. And I think that what matters now is that in a time of economic stringency there is a, I think, a consensus on the part of the people in the Department of  Defense, people in Congress and in the Executive Branch with the  President's leadership, to try to address some of these acquisition issues  that have built up cumulatively over a large number of years.

 

COOK: Some of your high-profile programs within the Defense  Department. Your latest budget does call for some significant cuts and curtailments. You also are boosting for commitments to other programs, one of them is the plane behind you, the F-35, close to $300 billion projected of the life of this contract going forward. Tell me why this plan roughly -  this plane at roughly $85 million a piece makes sense for American  taxpayers going forward and makes sense for the military?

 

GATES: Well, I think one of the basic things that makes sense is its capabilities. It has extraordinary capabilities as a weapons platform.  Another thing that makes sense is that we are developing a fundamental airplane that will be shared by all three services. There will obviously be variants but significant elements of the aircraft, the different variants  will have a lot in common. This will help keep the cost down. The cost per airplane, once under production is less than half than that of an F-22. So I think we have created a system here - i think Lockheed Martin and all of  their industry partners and the Defense Department, and one of the things I  have talked with their leadership today is the importance of staying on  schedule, having that initial training squadron at Eglin in 2011, having  the Marine Corps get their first aircraft in 2012 and also just executing  the program within the budget.

 

COOK: How confident are due at this moment in time that this program  will be on budget and on time?

 

GATES: Based on what I've been briefed on before I came here, and  here, I think that a lot of the highest risk elements of the program are  behind us at this point. I think there are still management and execution  issues that have to be dealt with. I think they are dealing with those. And  I think it's fair to say that are confident that they will meet the  timetable set I just described.

 

COOK: All right, let me talk about some of the other programs that  perhaps weren't as successful in the Robert Gates defense budget that were  sent up to Congress set to be voted on again shortly in the Senate. The F- 22, you mentioned that, another Lockheed Martin plane. Why doesn't it make  sense for the U.S. Military to continue producing more F-22s as some  members of Congress have pushed for?

 

GATES: Well, I think basically, for the last two administrations  beginning in 2005, the judgment of two different presidents, two different  secretaries of defense, two different chairman of the joint chiefs of  staffs has been that 183 F-22s are enough for the missions that the F-22 is  being given or is likely to encounter in the future. The question is how  many as enough? That's the judgment that has been made. The F-22 is a great  airplane. Pilots love it, they think it has tremendous capabilities. It  does have tremendous capabilities. The question is, though, in a time of  finite defense resources, how many do you need, and is that money better  applied to other programs? The judgment, first under President Bush, now  under Present [President] Obama is 183, now 187 thanks to the supplemental, is enough.  And I think that Congress I think ultimately will agree.

 

COOK: Well, I was going to say, you have essentially - have you won  that fight already? It looks like both spending bills in the House and  Senate will not have F-22 funding. Is this fight over?

 

GATES: I never count my eggs before they hatch. We'll see. Right now  it is looking promising.

 

COOK: All right. Let me ask you about a couple other controversial  programs, again, programs that members of Congress keep pushing for, you're  pushing against. An alternative engine for this plane, does it make sense  to build a second engine for this plane? You say no.

 

GATES: Well, we've done the business case, we've looked at it a number  of times. It would be an additional cost of several billion dollars. It  would start three to four years behind in terms of where we are with the F- 135 engine and there's no reason to believe that that prototype engine, or  that that new engine would not encounter the same kinds of challenges and  issues that other developmental engines on this aircraft as well as others  have encountered in the past. At this point, based on the business case, we  don't think it's necessary.

 

COOK: Will the President veto a spending bill that comes to his desk  that includes a second engine?

 

GATES: Well, the Congress has been told that the president's advisers  will take a dim view of the second engine.

 

COOK: What about more funding for the Presidential helicopter fleet  that's gotten so much attention.

 

GATES: Very much against that.

 

COOK: Veto that?

 

GATES: Yes, yes. Even to finish the first five helicopters would mean  that you would require first of all another $2 billion for an aircraft this  President and no future President will ever ride in. It will be about $1  billion per helicopter. It has les [less] range than the helicopters the President  flies today. We are already on track in terms of beginning to work with the  White House, the Navy, acquisition folks, to begin talking about how to  restart this program and build a helicopter that the nation can afford and  that will protect the President and give him the communications he needs.  Vh-71 is the poster child for an acquisition program gone seriously wrong.  And there's no reason to throw good money after bad bad.

 

COOK: Let me get you to give me your perspective on defense spending  beyond this fiscal year. You've made some tough choices here. But the  reality is  this is a bigger defense budget than the year before. What  about the out years? We see a deficit right now $1.5 trillion next year,  expected to grow as well. Do you expect this President to come to you and  say Robert Gates, I need you to cut defense spending in the future?

 

GATES: Well, you know, we've done this before. We've been down this  road. We did in the early 1990s. We did it probably four or five times in  the 20th century. And the result with significant cuts in defense, is that  you always end up having to go back up because the world hasn't changed,  the threats out there haven't changed. If anything, it's gotten more  complex and more dangerous. And my view is what we need is a steady defense  budget that we can plan for and that provides modest, real growth each year  that allows us to sustain the programs that we have. It's the stability  that we need. And I don't think that the rates of growth need to be  significantly significant or very high but they need to be predictable and  they need to be sustained. I think that's the key and that's the argument  that I will make to the President and to the Congress going forward is that  to sustain the programs we have, the Defense Department needs real growth,  but I believe it can be modest, but it needs to be sustained over the long  term.

 

COOK: Let me switch to Afghanistan if I could. News today General  McChrystal, top U.S. NATO commander in Afghanistan, that he has submitted  his latest assessment of the situation both to his higher ups, General  Patraeus, ultimately it's going to land on your desk. Have you seen it yet?

 

GATES: I saw an early draft weeks ago. My impression is that it's  changed quite a bit. I asked a number of questions when I met general  McChrystal in Belgium, some additional issues that I asked him to look at.  So I have not seen the finished assessment. I am in Fort Worth today but I  expect to in the next day or two.

 

 COOK: There are reports out there that General McChrystal, even though it's  not in this report, that he's going to come back to you and to the  President ultimately and say we need more troops beyond the 68,000 that  will be in place as of December. How are you going to consider that request  if indeed it comes?

 

GATES: Well, I think first we all need to look at the assessment and  see how he thinks things are going, what things are need and then we will  turn our attention to whatever resource requirements he's put forward.

 

COOK: You've been skeptical about the notion of committing more U.S.  troops?

 

GATES: I - one of the questions I asked him to address in the  assessment when I was in Belgium with him was the implications of  significant additional forces in terms of the foreign footprint in  Afghanistan, whether the Afghans will see this as us becoming more of an  occupier or their partner and how do you differentiate those and how do you  make sure you don't lose their confidence in us as their partner. And also,  what are the implications with respect to Americanization of the war. I am  confident he's going to address both of those in the assessment and we'll  take a look at it.

 

COOK: Are we winning in Afghanistan?

 

GATES: I think it's a mixed picture in Afghanistan. I think that there  aren't too many people with too rosy a view of what's going on in  Afghanistan. I think there are many challenges. But I think some of the  gloom and doom is somewhat overdrawn as well. We have a significant Afghan  army that is being grown, about 95,000. We're going to grow it to 134,000 and maybe larger than that depending on General McChrystal's  recommendations. Our allies have 37,000 troops in Afghanistan now in  addition to the troops we have. I think we've got our strategy is moving  into the right place. The Afghans have had an election, however difficult  that was in conditions of war. So I think there that are some positive  developments but there is no question our casualties are up and there's no  question we have a very tough fight in front of us, a lot of challenges.

 

COOK: How much longer are you going to be in this job, sir?

 

GATES: That would be a mystery.

 

COOK: That would be a mystery. We'll end on that note. Mr. Secretary,  thank you very much for joining us here in Bloomberg, we appreciate it.

 

GATES: Thanks a lot.

 

***END OF TRANSCRIPT***

 

(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)

 

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