Gates: Cuts in Pentagon bureaucracy needed to help maintain military force

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates speaks with U.S. Army officers at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on Friday.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates speaks with U.S. Army officers at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on Friday. (Cherie Cullen/defense Department Via Associated Press)
By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010

ABILENE, KAN. -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates vowed Saturday to lead an effort to cut as much as $15 billion in overhead costs from the Pentagon's $550 billion budget and warned that without the savings, the military will not be able to afford its current force.

Under Gates's plan, the billions taken from the Pentagon's vast administrative bureaucracy would be used to pay for weapons modernization programs and the overall fighting force in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates also hinted that additional cuts to major weapons programs would probably be necessary in the coming years.

The Pentagon's budget has almost doubled over the past decade, but the faltering national economy and surging U.S. debt will impose new austerity on the military, Gates warned.

"The gusher has been turned off," he told an audience of about 300 people at the Eisenhower Presidential Library here. "And it will stay off for a good period of time."

Gates is far from the first defense secretary to promise major cuts in the Pentagon bureaucracy. Throughout his tenure, Donald H. Rumsfeld railed against the inefficiencies plaguing the Defense Department but was unable to realize significant savings. The Clinton administration similarly promised savings by turning to private contractors, an effort that only produced greater costs.

But Gates said that the ballooning national debt lends his efforts a new urgency. "The national economic situation is different than it has ever been in modern times," he told reporters Friday. "If we want to sustain the current force, we have no alternative."

He also suggested that his personal involvement would make this effort different. "When I devote a lot of my time . . . things tend to get done," he said.

Gates told President Obama in January that he planned to stay in office through December 2010, but the defense secretary hinted Friday that he would be willing to stay on longer to ensure that the savings he is seeking are realized. "The truth of the matter is that I have just come to this in the last couple of weeks," he said of his cost-cutting crusade. He also emphasized that his proposed savings of $10 billion to $15 billion a year were rough estimates.

Among Gates's apparent targets for major cuts are the private contractors the Pentagon has hired in large numbers over the past decade to take on administrative tasks that the military used to handle. The defense secretary estimated that this portion of the Pentagon budget has grown by as much as $23 billion, a figure that does not include the tens of billions of dollars spent on private firms supporting U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The defense contractors, who populate new office towers throughout Washington's suburbs and have been a major driver of the local economy, are a significant source of budgetary bloat, Gates said. "We ended up with contractors supervising other contractors -- with predictable results," he said in the speech Saturday.

Gates rattled off examples of costly bureaucracy inside the military, as well. A simple request for a dog-handling team in Afghanistan must be reviewed and assessed at multiple high-level headquarters before it can be deployed to the war zone. "Can you believe it takes five four-star headquarters to get a decision on a guy and a dog up to me?" Gates said to reporters Friday.

More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the military still has more than 40 generals, admirals or senior civilian equivalents working in Europe. "Yet we scold our allies over the bloat in NATO headquarters," he said.

Gates's new focus on slashing Pentagon bureaucracy is driven by the realization that politics is severely constraining his ability to make cuts elsewhere.

The Pentagon chief has complained in recent weeks that spending on major weapons is often disconnected from real-world threats. He has noted, for example, that United States maintains 11 aircraft-carrier strike groups at a time when no other country has more than one and questioned whether that huge advantage amounts to overkill.

The Pentagon, however, has no plans to scrap a $10 billion to $15 billion aircraft carrier, despite the vessels' increasing vulnerability to precision weapons. "I may want to change things, but I am not crazy," Gates told reporters. "I am not going to cut a carrier. Okay. But people ought to start thinking about how they are going to use carriers in a time when you have highly accurate cruise and ballistic missiles that can take out a carrier."

The defense secretary's ability to cut personnel costs has also been constrained by Congress, which is loath to trim benefits for troops or veterans. "Leaving aside the sacred obligation we have to America's wounded warriors, health-care costs are eating the Defense Department alive, rising from $19 billion a decade ago to roughly $50 billion -- about the entire foreign affairs and assistance budget of the State Department," Gates said Saturday.

Gates spoke outside the Eisenhower library beneath an American flag and two large banners bearing Ike's likeness, and often Gates seemed to be channeling the former president's concerns that massive military spending could, over time, weaken the country. "Eisenhower was wary of seeing his beloved republic turn into a muscle-bound, garrison state -- militarily strong, but economically stagnant and strategically insolvent," he said.

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