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Gates set to leave deeper imprint on Pentagon?

Though the Pentagon budget is slated to rise, he confronts an urgent need to force greater discipline on military spending.

Robert Gates: The Defense secretary is expected to try to bring to heel undisciplined spending at the Pentagon.

Larry Downing/Reuters/File

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Robert Gates has been a popular figure in Washington since he took over the Defense Department in 2006 from a discredited Donald Rumsfeld, essentially to salvage a stumbling war in Iraq. But the free pass may be about to come to an abrupt end.

It will soon fall to Secretary Gates to make some unpopular choices – and probably step on some important toes – as his desire to reform a bloated Defense Department steeped in tradition, inertia, and bureaucracy collides with vested interests.

The Obama administration's new budget, unveiled Thursday, actually raises the Pentagon's baseline budget by 4 percent over the current fiscal year. But that money must support a bigger rank-and-file force, better help for disabled veterans, and some spending that previously had been lumped in with separate war costs. In the end, it means Gates must force greater fiscal discipline on the military – and probably redirect spending from some weapons programs toward other priorities.

"I suspect he'll become much more unpopular in the near future," says Frank Hoffman, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Philadelphia.

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