Panetta will deal with a Pentagon bureaucracy that Gates mastered

Defense Secretary Robert Gates's successor will face many challenges from day one, including a Pentagon bureaucracy that largely has been stymied for five years, defense analysts say.

Since taking office in late 2006, Gates has proven a master bureaucrat. He has made moves like firing program managers and slapping non-disclosure pacts on those involved in building budget plans.

Unlike his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, Gates has shown the ability to give a direction and keep an eye on internal progress until his instructions or wishes are implemented. Rumsfeld, by contrast, was said to lack follow-though.

Gates was even largely successful at minimizing the military services’ efforts to lobby key members of Congress and aides unbeknownst to the secretary and his senior aides.

Leon Panetta, the current CIA director, has been tapped to take over for Gates.

“The building” -- as Defense wonks refer to the Pentagon -- will challenge Panetta the moment Gates walks out the large double doors and descends the steps of the River Entrance, several defense analysts said Tuesday.

“The building is going to try and go back to business as usual,” said Winslow Wheeler, a longtime congressional defense aide now with the Center for Defense Information, during a luncheon forum on Capitol Hill.

The military services will inevitably “try to go behind his back … to get their goodies funded,” Wheeler said.

Panetta will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday for his confirmation hearing.

Will Panetta bring Gates’s reform mindset and willingness to keep the vast Pentagon acquisition and budgeting bureaucratic ranks in line? Wheeler and other analysts were mixed.

“I doubt Panetta will bring much change,” Wheeler said, noting he expects more troubled weapon programs receiving the equivalent of “birthday parties” at key reviews.

Laura Peterson, who runs the national security program at Taxpayers for Common Sense, said she is “cautiously optimistic” because there are “positive signs” that Gates’s reform agenda will continue.

One is the election of so many budget-minded Tea Party conservatives to the House, Peterson said.

Matthew Leatherman, an analyst at the Stimson Center, sees a scenario where Panetta could be even “more bold” than Gates.