SecDef’s defense cut priorities

Robert Gates works alone in his Pentagon office on August 10, 2010.

From John Barry and Evan Thomas, Newsweek:  If Gates has his way, the top brass will have to shed old habits and adjust to leaner times. Some of them will become civilians. The number of generals and admirals has increased by more than a hundred since 9/11, to 969 (and counting Reserves, roughly 1,300). Gates plans a first cut of at least 50. He intends to disband an entire headquarters, the Joint Forces Command, created after the Cold War with the noble aim of making the different armed forces work better together, but which has grown into a $250 million-a-year, 6,000-strong operation of questionable usefulness. …

Since 9/11, “what little discipline existed in the Defense Department when it came to spending has gone completely out the window,” he says. He is measured but scathing in his judgment: “I concluded that our headquarters and support bureaucracies, military and civilian alike, have swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportions, grown overreliant on contractors, and grown accustomed to operating with little consideration to cost. …”

In his quest for savings, Gates faces reflexive pushback from the political right, which condemns any cut in a weapons system as a gain for a prospective adversary like China. Gates inquires, sardonically, “Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?” He takes issue with the left, too. Although he finds it “bizarre” that the Pentagon has as many musicians in military bands as the State Department has diplomats, he parts company with those who want to cut military spending and pull back from U.S. commitments abroad. …

Part of what Gates is doing is preemptive. His deepest fear is that budget politics will gut the military. “I’ve been very sensitive for a long time to the repeated pattern, during economic hard times or after a war, of the United States’ essentially unilaterally disarming,” he says. To fund armed forces that, for the most part, he doesn’t want to shrink, and to pay for future weapons platforms—versatile ones like the Littoral Combat Ship, revolutionary ones like drones—Gates needs to slash $100 billion or more from the Pentagon’s overhead in the next five years. (“Overhead” means all the infrastructure—people, bases, programs—that isn’t directly involved in combat.) Recently, he was in San Diego aboard a destroyer, the USS Higgins, when a sailor asked him where these savings would go. “If it works the way I want it to, you get the money,” Gates responded. He has done a deal with the White House. Whatever the forces save in cuts from their “tail,” they can keep to spend on their “teeth”—the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who are on the front lines, in the air wings, and in the fleet.

He thinks he can persuade Congress to go along. But he concedes that he faces some very tricky political issues.  (photo: Charles Ommanney/Getty)

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