Warring against waste, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday he is ordering a top-to-bottom paring of the military bureaucracy in search of at least $10 billion in annual savings needed to prevent an erosion of U.S. combat power.
He took aim at what he called a bloated bureaucracy, wasteful business practices and too many generals and admirals, and outlined an ambitious plan for reform that's almost certain to stir opposition in the corridors of Congress and Pentagon.
"The Defense Department must take a hard look at every aspect of how it is organized, staffed and operated — indeed, every aspect of how it does business," he said in a speech at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in the former command in chief's home town. Gates was the keynote speaker at a ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of Nazi Germany's surrender in World War II.
The library was a fitting setting for Gates to caution against unrestrained military spending. In his farewell address to the nation from the Oval Office in January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned of the "grave implications" of having built during that war an enormous military establishment and a huge arms industry that could wield undue influence in American society.
"Eisenhower was wary of seeing his beloved republic turn into a muscle-bound, garrison state — militarily strong but economically stagnant and strategically insolvent," Gates said. He recalled Eisenhower's impatience with a mindset within the military that often sought to add new weaponry without regard for cost or efficiency — "pile program on program," as he once put it.
Gates said he had recently come to the conclusion about the urgent need for big cuts in light of the recession and the likelihood that Congress no longer will give the Pentagon the sizable budget increases it has enjoyed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"The gusher has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time," he said.
In earlier remarks to reporters, Gates said it was clear that defense budgets will be tight "for as far into the future as anyone can see."
The current defense budget, not counting the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, is $535 billion; the administration is asking for $549 billion for 2011.
Gates used tough talk to stress that he will personally oversee the effort to reshape the Pentagon bureaucracy, and that he won't be denied.
"We're not going to just roll over to preserve programs that we think we don't need — regardless of where the pressure is coming from," he told reporters Friday.
Pressed to say whether he would remain as defense secretary next year to wage the budget battle with Congress, he replied, "We'll get this done." Gates has told Obama he will remain at the Pentagon through 2010, but his future beyond that is unclear.
Gates said it highly unlikely that the Pentagon will get Congress to approve budgets in the coming years that grow enough to sustain the current size of the military. That's why he is looking for roughly $10 billion in savings from trimming the bureaucracy and applying that money to sustaining the combat force and investing in its modernization. He said the savings must be repeated in additional years.
"Simply taking a few percent off the top of everything on a one-time basis will not do," he said. "These savings must stem from root-and-branch changes that can be sustained and added to over time."
Gates noted that for the past two years he has focused his budget cuts on major weapons programs that he believed were unnecessary or unaffordable. He managed to get Congress to agree last year, for example, to stop production of the Air Force's F-22 stealth fighter earlier than previously planned, and he halted an Army ground combat vehicle project that had been a top Army priority.
"More is needed — much more," he said.
That means cutting what he called "overhead" — the bureaucratic machinery that he said chews up about 40 percent of the Pentagon's budget.
In this category he included the hierarchy of flag officers — the generals and admirals who run the military services.
To illustrate his point that there are too many of these top officers, Gates said that while the overall troop strength of the Army was sliced by nearly 40 percent during the 1990s, the reduction in generals and admirals across the military was about half that. He suggested that this was a top-heavy structure that is making it harder to get proper resources to the war fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Consider that a request for a dog-handling team in Afghanistan — or for any other unit — has to go through no fewer than five four-star headquarters in order to be processed, validated and eventually dealt with," he said.
It is widely known, but also widely accepted, in the military that the bureaucracy is bloated.
In his Abilene speech, Gates also took on the Pentagon's approach to setting what it calls "requirements," or the numbers, types and capabilities of weapons it says it needs to accomplish its mission. He suggested that the military has overstated its requirements in a post-Cold War world.
"Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?" he asked.
Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, the commanding general of the Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., said Friday that it is obvious there are going to be more intense pressure to save money and that the bureaucracy is going to be a prime target.
"There's tons of bureaucracy," Caslen said in an interview with reporters traveling with Gates, who visited Leavenworth Friday.
Gates later stopped at Fort Riley, Kan., for an hour-long visit with about 100 soldiers' spouses. One woman, referring to the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asked him plaintively, "Is this ever going to end?"
Gates said the US military will remain involved in Afghanistan for several more years. And he said that beginning in early 2011, soldiers will start spending more time at home between combat tours.
On the Net:
Defense Department: http://www.defense.gov/
Eisenhower Library: http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/
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