By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; A01
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday that the Pentagon will cut thousands of jobs, including a substantial chunk of its private contractors and a major military command based in Norfolk, as part of an ongoing effort to streamline its operations and to stave off political pressure to slash defense spending in the years ahead.
Gates said he will recommend that President Obama dismantle the U.S. Joint Forces Command, which employs about 2,800 military and civilian personnel as well as 3,300 contractors, most of them in southeastern Virginia. He also said he will terminate two other Pentagon agencies, impose a 10 percent cut in intelligence advisory contracts and slim down what he called a "top-heavy hierarchy" by thinning the ranks of admirals and generals by at least 50 positions.
The reduction in funding for contract employees -- by 10 percent annually over three years -- excludes those in war zones.
Although the moves will save an unspecified amount of money, defense officials characterized them as a political preemptive strike to fend off growing sentiment elsewhere in Washington to tackle the federal government's soaring deficits by making deep cuts in military spending. The Obama administration has exempted national security from its budget reductions, but Gates said he fears that Congress might not be able to resist for long.
"It is important that we not repeat the mistakes of the past, where tough economic times or the winding down of a military campaign leads to steep and unwise reductions in defense," Gates said. He cited threats from Iran, North Korea and other countries -- in an implicit reference to China -- as justification for continued overall growth in the Pentagon's budget.
After a decade in which its budget has nearly doubled, the Defense Department confronts its most significant fiscal constraints since the end of the Cold War. These constraints are pressing the military to accept major changes in the way it operates, especially as it tries to end long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The initiatives Gates detailed are part of his previously announced effort to save $100 billion over five years by trimming overhead and shrinking bureaucracy so that more money can be spent on troops and weapons.
That bureaucracy includes the U.S. Joint Forces Command, which was established in 1999 to coordinate training and military doctrine among the branches of the armed services. The command is also involved in organizing the deployment of armed forces around the world.
On Monday, the defense secretary emphasized that he is not seeking to cut the Pentagon's overall budget. Rather, he said, officials need to demonstrate a newfound thriftiness to keep deficit hawks elsewhere in the government at bay. "The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of savings and restraint," he said.
In a statement, Obama said he supports Gates's plans, saying they would "help us sustain the current force structure and make needed investments in modernization in a fiscally responsible way."
Despite soaring federal budget deficits, the Obama administration has asked Congress to increase defense spending next year from $535 billion to $549 billion, not counting the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lawmakers from both parties have questioned how long the Pentagon's budget can avoid the ax as Washington confronts its mounting debts. Analysts said Gates's preemptive strategy has played well on Capitol Hill, but might go only so far.
"It's a very smart and anticipatory set of actions Gates is taking, and it will definitely help," said Maren Leed, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Will it be enough? Probably not."
Some stalwarts of the defense establishment have urged Gates to make deeper cuts.
The Defense Business Board, an advisory group at the Pentagon, recommended to Gates last month that he shutter the Joint Forces Command. It also urged the Defense Department to shed more than 100,000 civilian jobs overall, returning its workforce to the size it was in 2003, when it numbered about 650,000.
Gates noted that the number of people working directly for him -- in the Office of the Secretary of Defense -- has swelled by 1,000 employees over the past decade, an increase of about 50 percent. He said he would freeze the number of personnel in his office, as well as those working for defense agencies and the military's 10 combatant commands, for the next three years.
The reduction in money for contractors alone would mark a major shift in the way the Defense Department has conducted business over the past decade, as it sought to limit the size of the federal workforce by hiring private firms instead.
The Pentagon did not specify how much it hopes to save by closing the Joint Forces Command or by reducing the number of contractors. Nor did it say how many of those positions would be transferred to the rest of the Defense Department's civilian workforce.
"It's premature to give you a number," Comptroller Robert F. Hale told reporters. "I don't think it's ready for prime time."
Indeed, the military isn't even sure how many contractors are on its payroll. One Pentagon report recently estimated that it relies on about 766,000 contractors, at a cost of about $155 billion. "This does not include the intelligence organizations and we are told it is not a 'high-confidence' figure," the Defense Business Board noted. In comparison, the Defense Department's civil-service workforce consists of 745,000 people.
A Washington Post analysis conducted as part of the "Top Secret America" investigation, however, found a significantly higher number: an estimated 1.2 million contractors overall being paid by the Defense Department, including the armed services and military intelligence agencies.
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman in Richmond and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.