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Gates Orders U.S. Defense Cuts, Setting Up Battles

Defense Secretary Robert Gates orders cuts
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaking in Washington. Photographer: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon needs to save money by further reducing a “cumbersome” U.S. military hierarchy, setting up potential battles with members of Congress who support targeted programs.

Gates announced plans yesterday to lop spending on support contractors by more than one-quarter over three years and close a military command in Norfolk, Virginia, that coordinates planning and training across military branches. He said the savings would be used to sustain the U.S. force and improve weapons for future threats.

“We must be mindful of the difficult economic and fiscal situation facing our nation,” Gates told reporters at the Pentagon. The department can’t expect Congress “to approve budget increases each year unless we are doing a good job -- indeed, everything possible to make every dollar count.”

While the ability of Congress to stop the cuts is limited, lawmakers may opt to use their budget authority to block funding for closures or restore programs.

The Norfolk-based Joint Forces Command, with an operating budget of almost $704 million, employs 6,324 personnel, including about 3,300 contractors. Gates said the changes, yet to be worked out, will mean “hardships” for displaced workers.

Lawmakers Respond

Virginia Democrat Jim Webb, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee that oversees the Pentagon, said cutting Joint Forces “would be a step backward.” He vowed to “carefully examine the justifications for this decision as well as its implications for the greater Norfolk community.”

Virginia’s Republican Governor Bob McDonnell yesterday established a commission to fight for the “unparalleled array of military and non-military national security facilities” in his state, including the Pentagon in Arlington, the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley and the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk.

The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, said Gates will have to ensure the moves “will not weaken our nation’s defense.”

Gates has won some campaigns to cut costs, including curtailing or canceling almost 20 programs this fiscal year that the department said would have cost more than $300 billion.

He’s still pressing lawmakers to abandon proposals to buy more Boeing Co. C-17 cargo planes and an alternate engine General Electric Co. would make for Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. United Technologies Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney supplies the primary engine.

‘Responsible and Accountable’

The defense chief yesterday said he remains “confident” that President Barack Obama will veto legislation containing those items.

Obama, in a statement, said Gates’s latest proposed savings “advanced our effort to invest in the defense capabilities that we need in the 21st century, while being responsible and accountable in spending taxpayer dollars.” The defense chief is scheduled to meet with Obama today.

Gates presented his latest steps as a way to prevent more severe reductions by a Congress that’s looking for ways to cut the federal deficit even as the military faces “a more unstable world.” Neither he nor officials who briefed reporters in more detail gave figures for how much money would be saved by the measures or the number of jobs that might be cut.

$100 Billion

The cuts are aimed at generating enough savings to supplement the planned annual budget increases of 1 percent above inflation and generate 2 percent to 3 percent annual real growth that Gates says will be needed in force structure and weapons purchases.

Gates in June ordered the military services to find more than $100 billion in overhead savings that they could reroute to higher priorities. That process is still under way, and Gates said the services are “thinking about some pretty dramatic things.”

“They are all planning to eliminate headquarters that are no longer needed and reduce the size of the staffs they retain,” Gates said. He also authorized military departments to consider closing “excess bases and other facilities where appropriate,” a process that may run into congressional restrictions on closing installations.

“This is obviously a politically fraught topic,” Gates said. “I hope Congress will work with us.”

The secretary said he discussed beforehand the cuts announced yesterday in broad terms with the Democratic and Republican leaders of the armed services and appropriations committees in the House and Senate and they were “supportive.”

Freezing Staff Sizes

Gates, who told Obama in December that he’d stay in his job at least through this year, also froze the size of the staffs in his office, the combatant commands and some other agencies for the next three years and ordered a review of which positions should be retained.

Intelligence operations established by various arms of the Defense Department will be consolidated and funding for their contractors will drop 10 percent, he said.

The defense bureaucracy has “swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportions,” Gates said. Added spending since the Sept. 11 terror attacks has doubled the Pentagon’s base budget over the past decade, Gates has said.

Next, Gates aims to control the department’s burgeoning health-care costs, to revise personnel policies and to implement more restructuring and acquisition reform.

‘No Sacred Cows’

“There are no sacred cows, and health care cannot be excepted from that,” Gates said. “Everybody knows that we’re being eaten alive by health care. I believe there is a growing understanding” in Congress.

The Joint Forces Command has struggled to meet the goals set when it was established, said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. The command is one of 10 in the military hierarchy.

“One of the reasons it was formed was to worry about the future and to get ahead of problems, to think ahead to the next conflict and prepare for it,” Harrison said. “But they’ve never really lived up to the expectations.”

Yesterday’s announcement won’t be the last, Gates said.

“I am determined to change the way this department has done business for a long time,” he said.

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