Defense Secretary Robert Gates today gave what was billed as one of the longest speeches in his current job, defining the battlefield for what is likely to be his final fight. That would be over the reforms he says will eliminate $150 billion in wasteful spending from the military budget over the next five years. But in this case, “eliminate” does not mean budget-cutting: It means moving money around to things the Defense Department wants in the future but isn’t sure it can get now that the national piggy bank is bust.
Gates asked the military services last summer to come up with $100 billion in savings between them, with the promise that the money would go back into their pockets to spend on their top priorities. The list of cuts and additions released today demonstrates the military’s willingness to consolidate commands, offices and operations centers in exchange for high-tech reconnaissance equipment, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and even some big-ticket weapons. For example, the Air Force plans to cut $35 billion by consolidating air operations centers and commands in US and Europe, improving supply chain processes and reducing fuel and energy consumption in its Air Mobility Command. The savings would purchase more Reaper UAVs, fortify a program that launches satellites into space, and develop a nuclear-capable, long-range-strike bomber aircraft—a contentious project that has already generated concern about its technology parameters.
The list of savings also included some newsworthy, if expected, weapons cuts. These include the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a lemon we have long criticized; the Marines’ version of the Joint Strike Fighter, which Gates said he would cut if it didn’t improve during a two-year probationary period; and the Non-Line of Sight Launch System, a component of the Army’s defunct Future Combat Systems program.
Gates also says the efficiency reforms he unveiled at the same time last year will yield $54 billion in savings. No word yet on the stats behind that figure, but some of the proposals—cutting contractors, raising the TRICARE premiums for working-age retirees—are significant. Finally, Gates revealed $78 billion in savings he claims will lower the continuing upward trajectory of DOD’s five-year budget projections down to a more level grade, with the aim of flatlining the budget by FY2015. Some of justifications for these savings are fuzzy, such as the $14 billion from “shifts in economic assumptions,” but the reduction of up to 50,000 Army and Marine troops starting in 2015 is a little more tangible.
Gates again admitted that the flood of money pumped into the Pentagon after 2001 has obscured military priorities: “We must come to realize that not every defense program is necessary, not every defense dollar is sacred and well spent, and that more of nearly everything is simply not sustainable.” But remember: Not only is DOD’s budget topline not being cut, Gates stated that it’s heading for a three percent jump over FY2010 funding. In fact, his reforms are much milder than those offered by deficit reduction commissions such as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Nor will the savings will not be directed toward deficit reduction, as the Commission (and TCS) would like. In short, Gates could have gone much further.
Still, you can count on the proposals to meet stiff resistance in Congress: One need only look to the battle two years ago to end the F-22 fighter jet as proof. Lawmakers must keep in mind both their pledge to defang the deficit and the warning by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen that the nation's fiscal fix is "our greatest national security threat."