Among US defense secretaries, Bob Gates, who held the job from 2006 to 2011, stands out for both his impact and longevity. A longtime member of the intelligence community, Gates served as director of central intelligence under President George H. W. Bush and was chosen by President George W. Bush to take over the Pentagon from Donald Rumsfeld, whose handling of the Iraq war was considered a factor in the November 2006 elections that saw Democrats take control of both the House and Senate. Two years later, then President-elect Barack Obama asked Gates to stay on in the position.
Gates oversaw the drawdowns from Afghanistan and Iraq, but he is perhaps best known for his impact inside the building. Following an incident where a nuclear weapon was flown over the continental United States, Gates famously sacked the Air Force chief of staff and secretary. He also promoted generals with special operations backgrounds into key roles, an approach that is still reflected in the makeup of Pentagon leadership today.
Even in retirement, Gates maintains an influence on the Pentagon. His 2014 memoir "Duty," in which he cast a number of Obama administration and Pentagon officials in negative lights, was a best seller.
Gates also had a reputation as someone willing to cancel long-running programs if they were not delivering. Among the programs trimmed or terminated by Gates: the Army's Future Combat Systems project, the Navy's DDG-1000 Destroyer program and the Air Force's Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) program. He also made the decision to shutter the Air Force's C-17 and F-22 lines.
Bob Hale, who served as Pentagon comptroller from 2009 to 2014, notes that Gates was actively involved in the decisions to cut production on several major systems.
"He was also a tough manager, as I learned firsthand while working for him from 2009 to 2011," Hale said. "Indeed, I believe that Bob Gates terminated and ended production of more weapon systems than any recent secretary of defense."
This article is part of a larger Defense News 30-year anniversary project, showcasing the people, programs and innovations from the last three decades that most shaped the global security arena. Go to defensenews.com/30th to see all of our coverage.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.