Gates Breaks Out The Scissors

Frank James at NPR:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made reducing and redirecting the Pentagon’s huge budget a priority.

On Monday, he pushed forward his initiative on that front. Included among the ideas he laid out is a recommendation to eliminate one of the military’s nine commands, the Joint Forces Command which is called Jiffycom by some. That command employs employs about 5,000 people, both uniformed military and private sector.

As NPR’s Tom Bowman reported for the network’s radio newscast.

TOM: What Gates wants to cut is called the Joint Forces Command, based in Norfolk, Va., that employs 3,000 private contractors.

The command was created a decade ago to get the military services to work more closely together, but Gates says that’s now largely been achieved.

Gates also wants to reduce the Pentagon’s dependency on those outside contractors.

GATES: To accelerate this process and achieve additional savings, I have directed that we  reduce funding for service supported contractors by 10 percent per year for each of the next three years.

Gates told reporters that 200 Pentagon contractors work full-time just writing reports ordered by Congress.

Any money saved in these cutbacks, says Gates, will be used to help modernize the military.

The American Forces Press Service has a fairly comprehensive report on the briefing Gates gave reporters Monday. It contained this background on why the cuts are needed:

Money saved with these efficiencies will go back into funding needed military capabilities. “To be clear, the task before us is not to reduce the department’s top-line budget,” Gates said. “Rather, it is to significantly reduce its excess overhead costs and apply the savings to force structure and modernization.”

President Barack Obama has programmed in real growth of between 1 and 2 percent into future years’ defense budgets, but that is not enough to maintain today’s warfighting capabilities and modernize, which requires roughly 2 to 3 percent real growth. The savings in overhead are crucial to making up that difference, Gates said.

Gates continues to target political sacred cows for extinction, both weapons programs and bases that are so spread out across the county as to impact many congressional districts. He realizes he doesn’t have the political wind at his back on this one, just the opposite.

Sandra Erwin at National Defense Magazine:

Winners: Troops in uniform, ship programs, weapons systems that are needed to fight current and future wars.
Losers: Bloated defense and intelligence agencies, redundant bureaucracies, four-star generals and admirals guilty of “brass creep,” report writers, white-collar contractors.

That pretty much sums up the casualty report from the efficiency-campaign bombshells dropped today by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He is looking for $100 billion in savings from cuts in overhead costs over the next five years.

The Pentagon needs the savings to “sustain a military at war and prepare for future threats,” Gates said. There are no plans yet to cut the defense budget top line, but these measures are necessary for the Defense Department to preserve its current force structure and fund modernization programs within the flat budgets projected for the foreseeable future, he said.

“I concluded that our headquarters and support bureaucracies — military and civilian alike — have swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportions, grown over reliant on contractors, and grown accustomed to operating with little consideration to cost,” Gates said at a news conference. His office alone has added 1,000 employees during the past decade, with little evidence that the expansion has added any real value, Gates said.

The bureaucratic ballooning and the excessive hiring of white-collar contractors must end, said Gates.

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:

In Washington, you know a decision is controversial when the pushback comes before the announcement. Such is the case with Defense Secretary Robert Gates‘s Monday bombshell that he wants to close Joint Forces Command.

The AP broke the news this morning that Gates would announce at a press conference his idea to shutter JFCOM’s gigantic base in southern Virginia as part of his drive to cut $100 billion from the Pentagon budget. He also announced a 10 percent cutback in the Defense Department’s use of contractors each year for the next three years and pledged to cut the size of his own staff and that of the larger Pentagon bureaucracy.

Today, Gates also directed the elimination of DOD’s Business Transformation Agency and the office of the assistant secretary of defense for networks and information integration (NII). He said the moves were part of his two-year effort to reform the Defense Department and pledged more announcements in the coming months.

“The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of savings and restraint,” Gates said. “This agenda is not about butting the department’s budget. It’s about reforming and reshaping priorities to ensure that in tough budgetary and economic times, we can focus defense resources where they belong.”

But even before Gates spoke, a team of Virginia lawmakers sent out an advisory that they will hold “an urgent press conference” on the announcement Monday at 4 p.m. at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, near where the base is located. Reps. Glenn Nye, J. Randy Forces, Bobby Scott, and Rob Wittman were all scheduled to speak.

“The proposal by the Defense Department to close JFCOM is short-sighted and without merit,” Nye said following Gates’s announcement. “I appreciate the department’s attempt to rein in spending, but I have yet to see any substantive analysis to support the assertion that closing JFCOM will yield large savings.”

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner released a statement Monday protesting the announcement before it was made.

“I can see no rational basis for dismantling JFCOM since its sole mission is to look for efficiencies and greater cost-savings by forcing more cooperation among sometimes competing military services,” Warner said. “In the business world, you sometimes have to spend money in order to save money.”

Gates said he would work with JFCOM employees to ease their transition as the base closes and speculated that Virginia could benefit if the savings are reinvested in other local military efforts, such as shipbuilding.

Rachel Slajda at Talking Points Memo

Karaka Pend at Spencer Ackerman’s place:

I have to say, I admire Gates for taking the hardline on this budget, whether it’s pulling back on Navy war machines or getting the President to back a veto on an extra jet engine. Today’s announcement shows he’s serious about backing off the hose of spending attributed to the Department of Defense, an act that is doubly hard as we’re finishing up one conflict and continuing on with another. Besides which, the first place you’d look at to offset the deficit would be the defense budget, and this is the administration taking a proactive stance towards that budget.

Still, this will make some people pretty unhappy. JFCOM is tasked with co-ordinating the various branches of the military in training, future mission development, and organizational structure, and while those roles can be folded into other entities, it will take some time to transition. Furthermore, reducing contractor support by 10% annually for the next four years is no small potato either. But if anyone can push this through, it’s Gates.

Lewis MD at Spencer Ackerman’s place:

Defense and security take up approximately a fifth of the federal budget. Twenty cents out of every dollar that you send to the government goes towards that slice of the pie. The nominal cost is somewhere north of $700bn per year. With the large budget deficits in our future, defense deserves a large amount of scrutiny.

Gates and the White House seem to realize this. Congress, however, doesn’t seem to share the appetite for budget cuts. This has led to some fierce battles over specific programs. The problem is that there are defense industries in every state and congressional district in the country. No congressman wants to give up the jobs that come with, for example, a second engine for the F-35, even if the Pentagon doesn’t even want it.

Congress will likely fight these budget cuts tooth-and-nail, but if we’re going to get deficits under control, the DoD can NOT be exempted from the pain. Off the top of my head, other programs that probably should fear the budget axe include the Marines’ V-22 Osprey and F-35B (with STOVL capability), the navy in general, and contractors.

Paul Krugman’s column today focused on the pain being felt in communities as essential services are cut back. His column talked mostly about the tax cuts that are set to expire this year. But don’t we need more and better teachers more than a special version of the F-35 that the Marine Corps admits it doesn’t really need? Wouldn’t we rather invest in our crumbling infrastructure than build another aircraft carrier when we already have an order of magnitude more carrier battle groups than any other nation? We spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. We can still have a conventional military that dwarfs any other nation, while making tough choices to weed out bad or only marginally useful programs. Our communities could really use the money.

John Guardiano at FrumForum:

I honestly don’t know whether the Pentagon’s decision yesterday to eliminate Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) is wise or ill-advised. That’s a programmatic and bureaucratic decision that, candidly, I lack the expertise right now to make.

But what I do know is this: In the absence of budgetary pressure from the White House, the Pentagon most likely would not be seeking now to close down JFCOM while reducing its spending by some $100 billion over the next five years.

I also know that since Obama was elected president, the only government agency asked to make significant budget cuts has been the Department of Defense; and this is wrong. It is wrong because it is unfair, unreasonable and dangerous.

It is unfair because the U.S. military is really the only governmental entity that is being forced to scale back. Domestic social-welfare spending, by contrast, has skyrocketed. Yet where’s the hue and cry? It doesn’t exist.

But you can be sure that if it were the Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency that were being forced to make cuts, the bureaucracies there would be vociferously protesting — and ditto their allied outside liberal lobby groups.

The U.S. military, of course, can’t protest and it doesn’t protest. This because of the principle of civilian control of the military. Military officials instead simply salute and say, “Yes, Sir.”

Meanwhile, the defense contractors and parochial elected officials make ill-conceived and unpersuasive appeals based on “jobs” and pork-barrel spending.

I say ill-conceived because defense spending should be explained and justified as a matter of military necessity, not as a “jobs program” for congressional constituents. And I say unpersuasive because everyone knows that these pork-barrel spending appeals are politically self-serving and economically dubious.

To be sure, there is an economic case to be made for defense spending. I’ve made that case myself here at FrumForum, and it is this: Just as defense spending helped to lift America out of a prolonged depression in the 1930s, so too, can defense spending help to lift America out of its current economic malaise.

But defense spending can be economically beneficial only if it plays to the central strength of America’s economy in the 21st Century. And that strength involves our ability to harness computer processing power and other information technologies to create new and unprecedented opportunities for individuals, even individual soldiers.

The politicians, however, don’t get this. Their defense spending schemes aren’t aimed at creating new 21st Century economic opportunities. They’re aimed instead at preserving old and ossified 20th Century “jobs programs.” Their efforts aren’t part and parcel of any overarching national defense strategy; they’re the economically wasteful byproduct of domestic political indulgence. And that is why they ultimately fail, both politically and economically.

In any case, it is extremely unfair to force the Department of Defense alone to bear the burden of Washington’s phony newfound fiscal rectitude.

Fred Kaplan at Slate:

Gates is canny to play off one set of interests against another (drop the Joint Forces Command, pick up another ship; give up a dozen generals, win a few more of those armored vehicles you’ve been eyeing). Maybe it will work. But by notching up his victories in this manner, he forgoes a path that would have yielded much greater savings.

The big money and the real savings lie precisely in the “force structure” and “force modernization” that Gates is aiming—and genuinely wants—to protect. In the question-and-answer period, he said that about half of the weapons-procurement budget goes for modernization—that is, for building new weapons, most of which have little or nothing to do with the wars we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the current budget ($549 billion, not counting the costs of our two wars) contains $137.5 billion for procurement, that amounts to roughly $70 billion.

Gates wants the Pentagon and the military branches to conduct a “clean-sheet review” and to “start setting priorities, making real tradeoffs, and separating appetites from real requirements” when it comes to things like contractors, headquarters, overhead, and so forth. And that’s all to the good. But he’s not launching any similar campaign when it comes to deployments and weapons systems. (In fairness, last year, he did cut about 20 weapons programs, including the F-22—more than any defense secretary in 40 years. But budget officials estimate that the bag of goodies is still bursting way beyond our ability to pay for them.)

The steps Gates took today have far-reaching implications; I don’t mean to minimize them. But there are other issues and questions that tap more deeply into the foundations of what he himself calls our “cumbersome and top-heavy” military, which has “grown accustomed to operating with little consideration to cost.”

For instance: How many submarines and aircraft carriers does the Navy really need? And do all those carriers need the same number of aircraft and escort ships? How many fighter planes does the Air Force really need? How many brigades does the Army really need?

Gates’ new reforms are based on two premises: First, that the nation can’t afford unceasing growth in the defense budget; second, that the nation can afford moderate growth in the defense budget, as long as the Pentagon shows good faith by slashing what any objective observer would label “waste.”

The first premise is unassailable, the second probably too optimistic. The fact is, we can’t afford growth in the defense budget, period. To get the cuts he’s after, Gates—as a matter of political realism—has to leave the rest of the budget alone. But at some point, some secretary of defense is going to have to open it all up to scrutiny.

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