Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Took Defense Secretary Gates to the Hoop. What's Next?

Congress recently held the first of what promises to be many hearings on the situation in Libya, with the House and Senate Armed Services Committees hearing testimony from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Defense Secretary Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen have said repeatedly that they do not foresee any need for additional funds for the Libyan operation -- assuming the FY11 defense budget is passed soon and the Pentagon is moved out of the current Continuing Resolution (CR) FY10 spending limits.

The hearings broke little new ground, but several interesting exchanges did take place. One involved the rather expansive view that Secretary Gates apparently now has of his own authority. As my friends at DC Tripwire point out, Gates was adamantly opposed to any U.S. engagement in Libya. This was a rare instance where he was outmaneuvered -- as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice convinced the President to act over Gates' objections.

Quite frankly they took Gates to the hoop. What is rare about this is not that Gates lost an internal debate -- although he doesn't lose many. What was rare is that he lost after taking a very strong public position early in the debate. Normally Gates prefers to wait until he sees a consensus emerging, and then embrace the consensus position as his own.

On Libya, however, Gates was routed, and he is apparently now determined that this not happen again in the waning few months of his long tenure. At one point in the hearing, he offered unvarnished opinions on the Libyan opposition, on who should train and equip them -- when none of those issues have been decided by the President or the NATO high command that is running the operation. But one answer stood out among the rest. According to DC Tripwire, in response to a question from the House Armed Services Committee about whether the U.S. will have "boots on the ground" in Libya, Gates said tersely "Not as long as I'm in this job."

Gates and Mullen said repeatedly that they did not foresee any need for additional funds for the Libyan operation -- assuming the FY11 defense budget is passed soon and the Pentagon is moved out of the current Continuing Resolution (CR) FY10 spending limits.

According to DC Tripwire, the FY11 defense spending bill that is pending includes approximately $157 billion for "overseas contingency operations" (OCO). These funds are to be used for Iraq and Afghanistan, but knowledgeable Hill staffers assume that there is some extra funding built into that number to account for possibly unforeseen global events. Libya certainly falls into the category -- as does the U.S. Navy's significant participation in the Japanese relief efforts. (There are approximately 18,000 uniformed Navy personnel and 19 ships involved in Japan relief.)

While the U.S. costs of the Libyan operation total approximately $550 million to date, the Pentagon now estimates that the Libya campaign will cost the U.S. approximately $40 million per month going forward? Sure NATO will be taking operational control from the U.S. but do you really believe this $40 million a month number? The U.S. will still be heavily involved with air assets going forward as one of several participating NATO members.

Much of the U.S. costs to date involve the numbers of Tomahawk cruise missiles that have been launched against Libyan military targets. It is believed that the U.S. and its coalition partners have launched approximately 130 Tomahawk missiles, which normally carry a 1,000-pound conventional warhead. The missiles can also carry 166 combined-effects bomblets, or mini bombs that spread out over a larger area. Tomahawks cost approximately $1 million apiece, and are made by Raytheon.

The need for Congress to pass a full FY11 defense budget grows more pronounced by the day, as the Pentagon increasingly is forced to make compromises to live within the FY10 budget limits mandated by the Continuing Resolution. Ship deployments are being reduced or canceled outright, and Air Force training is being curtailed due to budget considerations, among other activities. We have men and woman in our armed forces whose lives are on the line every day. Congress must look out for their needs even with this budget battle looming this week up on Capitol Hill.

Congress appears to be listening to these concerns, as more and more House and Senate leaders have talked about passing the FY11 defense budget separately even if an overall deal to fund the rest of the government is not reached by April 8 -- the date the current Continuing Resolution runs out. Lives are on the line, I'm hoping they to the right thing.