Gates Calls Automatic Pentagon Cuts ‘Mindless, Stupid’

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he probably would have quit if he held the job when the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration took effect last year.

“I think I would have resigned” because “it is such a mindless, stupid way to approach the nation’s defense budget,” Gates said in an interview this week at the beginning of a tour to promote his memoir, “Duty.”

Gates left office in June 2011, two months before passage of the Budget Control Act that mandated sequestration. As early as 2009, he had warned the military to prepare for leaner budgets because “the spigot of defense spending that opened on 9/11 is closing.”

Gates tried to convince Congress that the Pentagon should be spared from deeper cuts on the rationale that he had imposed billions of dollars in savings from efficiency as well as offering $78 billion in reductions in January 2011.

Instead, under the budget act the Pentagon faced $500 billion in reductions over 10 years starting in January 2013. The cuts eventually took effect last March, reducing the fiscal 2013 budget by $37 billion -- $32 billion for basic defense and $5 billion in war spending.

“It is so irrational, so damaging I’m not sure I could have tolerated it,” Gates said. “When it happened” that “might have been the moment” when he decided “I’m not going to be a part of this.”

Exempting Personnel

“When you exempt personnel costs, which are a third of the budget, and the fact that it takes a period of time to renegotiate contracts -- big contracts -- that means the burden of the cuts disproportionately falls on maintenance, training and operations,” Gates said in the interview on Jan. 13.

For two consecutive years, President Barack Obama has exempted military personnel costs, including $137.1 billion of the Pentagon’s $526.6 base budget request for this year.

Sequestration has been eased through a congressional budget deal last month that restored $22.3 billion for this fiscal year and $9 billion in fiscal 2015 from about $52 billion in annual reductions over that period.

Gates recounted in his memoir several budget fights with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget and Obama. He said they backtracked on previous agreements to moderate the reduction in defense spending.

‘I Was Furious’

In April 2011, Gates said he was given only a day’s notice before Obama announced $400 billion in new defense savings.

“I was furious” and “pointed my finger” at then-White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and said, “This White House’s word means nothing!”

In his book, Gates recalled his efforts to resolve troubles with the Pentagon’s costliest weapons program, the F-35 fighter made by Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) In February 2010 he fired the program manager and removed $614 million from an award fee pool that Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed was eligible to receive.

Asked this week if he would reduce the number of F-35s in the face of rising costs for the plane and declining budgets, Gates said, “The minute you start cutting quantity you start driving the individual price” of a new aircraft “through the roof.”

“So I might have stretched out the F-35” production, “but the truth is, the services made an all-in bet on the F-35 for the future, so you’ve got to have the F-35,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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