Gates’ Tries Hard, Won’t Stop Cuts

Robert Gates strode forth Monday into bureaucratic battle yet again, this time pledging to scrap Joint Forces Command,trim the ranks of senior officers and civilians and slash the ranks of contractors. His goal was simple: to forestall congressional or administration attempts to cut the overall Pentagon budget, as Rep. Barney Frank and others have called for. Analyst Winslow Wheeler argues Gates deserves a pat on the back for trying, but he doesn't think this latest effort goes far enough. And he predicts Congress will still ladle out the pork.

Monday, August 9, I was invited [along with other analysts] to a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates immediately after his press conference announcing some spending modifications.  I also attended his press conference before the on the record meeting.

Overall assessment:  Gates has made it clear that he seeks to defend the defense budget from real cuts that he expects from Congress (eg. Barney Frank alternative budget, which he mentioned in passing) and the deficit commission (which he said he wants to talk to).  None of the money he seeks to save with these efforts would leave the defense budget; he simply wants to transfer overhead spending to other parts of DOD.

While he explicitly did not, repeat not, say so, I suspect Gates knows he will lose his fight against cuts and that he seeks with these actions to help DOD survive the cuts that are coming.  In doing so, these efficiencies are inadequate.  They will not transform the Pentagon into something that can survive significant budget reductions and be anything but the same institution at a lower level of spending.  That, of course, will be a real disaster because even with dramatically growing DOD budgets our forces have become smaller, older, and less ready to fight.

On the other hand, I believe, Gates deserves credit for starting a process to attempt to deal with the fringes of the defense problem.  He is the first secretary of defense to attempt to do so in decades, and he is earnest in his efforts, I believe.  There is a long, long way to go, however.  I and others have written at some length about what needs to be done; those proposals are readily available upon request.

Strangely, the Pentagon says these new proposals are part of the $102 billion, five year “savings” announced last May.  While, again, nothing was said to indicate it, I believe there is something strange about this $102 billion “savings.”  It’s not just that it amounts to very, very little over five years of DOD spending (and that it’s not a savings but an internal transfer), but I have come to suspect that it’s a rather meaningless number.  Instead, it is a device being used to try to extract some efficiencies from the DOD bureaucracy and DOD contractors, and when the real cuts start occurring, these same ideas (and more importantly expansions of them) will be employed to adjust to real cuts.

Those real cuts are not coming from Capitol Hill. Although there has been some hyperventilated talk about bigger than usual cuts in the 2011 DOD appropriations bills coming out of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees (up to $8 billion), much of those cuts may be quite phony.  Although the reports and bills are not yet available from the HAC or SAC, a summary from the HAC (at makes me suspicious that they are up to their usual tricks.  Rather than programmatic cuts, it may be that much of the reductions will be gimmicks (such as “revised economic assumptions”) and deferments of spending to future years (such as “unobligated expenditure” and “civilian underexecution” actions) that over the long run save nothing.  Watch this space when the details become available.

Also, the political porkers are cuing up to make sure that their own pigs stay fat and someone else pays for budget restraint.  In this regard, check out the incredibly selfish statements of the governor and congressional delegation of Virginia that queued up in a hyper-flash to announce that someone else needs to save money in the defense budget and that the Norfolk-based Joint Forces Command (now fingered by internal studies, a former commander, and the secretary of defense as useless) is just the kind of defense spending they like.  Shame on them.  Also, the usual political hacks are trying to savage the Obama Administration for being anti-defense for daring to take a penny of bloat from the Pentagon.  In that regard, see the public comments of the top ranking Republican on House Armed Services, Cong. Howard “Buck” McKeon of CA.

Clearly, the change agents for the coming adjustments in the defense budget will not be the congressional porkers and hacks on committees like the appropriations and Armed Services committees.

Winslow T. Wheeler, a former GOP congressional budget expert, is director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington