Robert Gates renews his assault on wasteful defense spending

Thursday, August 12, 2010

DEFENSE SECRETARY Robert M. Gates says his "greatest fear is that in economic tough times . . . people will see the defense budget as the place to solve the nation's deficit problems." He has good reason to worry. Congress has already begun hacking at next year's Pentagon budget, and not in a wise way. Instead of targeting the most wasteful areas, such as health-care costs, it is slashing vital operations, such as funding for Iraqi security forces.

Mr. Gates is doing his best to get ahead of what will be the inevitable, and necessary, rationalization of defense spending that has doubled since 2001. On Monday he announced a series of initial cuts in overhead costs, including the closure of the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk; a reduction of 10 percent in funding for support contractors in each of the next three years; and a slimming of the number of generals, admirals and senior Defense Department civilians. Some of these cuts will inflict pain, especially in Virginia and in the Washington region. But they are necessary and worthy of support.

Mr. Gates says his aim is to reduce the military's "tail" of bureaucracy and overhead by $100 billion over the next five years, including perhaps $15 billion in the 2012 budget. The reductions he rolled out Monday were among the easiest ones. The Joint Forces command, which has about 6,100 military, civilian and contractor positions, was created to help integrate the operations of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. Since then, "jointness" has largely been embraced by the services, and the command has become an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.

The reduction in contract spending will extend to the military intelligence community, which, as the recent Post series "Top Secret America" detailed, has mushroomed out of control in the past decade. To his credit, Mr. Gates said he had ordered "a zero-based review" of all the department's intelligence missions and contracts, to be completed by Nov. 1. He said the new director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, would pursue a parallel effort with nondefense intelligence organizations, and that "there are almost certainly some savings to be found." We hope Mr. Clapper, who brushed off questions about waste and duplication during his confirmation hearing, will fully embrace Mr. Gates's approach.

In trying to cut Pentagon waste, Mr. Gates has taken on one of the most necessary jobs in Washington -- but also one of the hardest. Predictably, his announcement Monday instantly produced a chorus of opposition from the Virginia congressional delegation, which will fight to prevent the loss of jobs in Hampton Roads. While congressional scrutiny is appropriate, such knee-jerk reactions are shortsighted; as Mr. Gates pointed out, savings from cuts in the bureaucracy may well be recycled into the construction of more Navy ships at Virginia shipyards. If Congress is serious about deficit reduction -- and about preserving U.S. military strength -- it should support Mr. Gates's efforts.

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