On his way out the door at the Pentagon, Robert Gates leveled with the military. A staggering $700 billion in defense R&D and gear since 9/11 led to only "relatively modest gains in actual military capability," Gates said on June 2. No giant robots, jet packs or sharks with lasers. But in a way, that made Gates' job easier, since the arch-realist was never about military fantasies, anyway.
As Defense Secretary, Gates protected the military's huge budgets for four and a half years. But while he did, he took a firm aim at popping the military's fantasy bubbles that inhibited durable technological and martial innovation. He tried to reboot what the military buys around a simple principle: reality. That is, buy what's immediately relevant for troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what will be relevant to those facing the most likely threats of the future. That's meant blast-proof trucks, intelligence gear and radio frequency jammers, not giant planes that shoot laser beams. He'd be the first to say he's had mixed results.
Thursday is Gates' final day as secretary of defense. His technological legacy is a dual one: not just an explosion of robots and whole new commands for online warfare, but a junkyard full of military futurism that was archaic when he first stepped into the building. Gates can't know if history will vindicate his perception of the threats the military is most likely to confront. But while the self-styled realist cut a lot of cherished military programs, a reflection on the military tech he favored -- and disfavored -- shows that he was mostly out to cut back on cherished military fantasies.Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles