This week Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced a series of decisions intended to begin the process of reining in the explosion of overhead costs in the Department of Defense. Among other decisions, Gates said that he was taking the unprecedented step of actually eliminating one of ten unified combatant commands — Joint Forces Command. In addition, he said he intended to reduce the number of senior military and civilian officials in the department, reduce expenditures on outside contractors and eliminate unnecessary report generation. This is part of an initiative announced some months ago intended to find $100 billion in savings over the next five years that could be reinvested in combat capabilities. If only the secretaries of the other fourteen cabinet departments (not to mention the myriad number of agencies and boards) were as committed to reducing costs as Secretary Gates.
Robert Gates has done more in his time as secretary to reshape and redirect the Department of Defense (DoD) than any of its leaders, certainly since Robert McNamara fifty years ago. Almost singlehandedly he defined this country’s national defense strategy and military posture and investment strategy. In April, 2009 he announced a series of weapons program decisions that is expected to result in some $300 billion of savings. Currently, Secretary Gates is working not only to restructure the department’s finances, in itself a herculean task, but also to alter the relationship between DoD and other departments with respect to the pursuit of national security and to radically reform U.S. export control policies and procedures.
Unhappily for the Secretary, but more significantly for national security, his efforts to protect the U.S. military from suffering drastic cuts in force structure and weapons systems through reducing overhead is likely to be unsuccessful. As he pointed out in his news conference, personnel costs, particularly health care and pensions, are rising at an unsustainable rate. Yet, there is no real support in Congress for reining in these expenditures. Congressional resistance to cost cutting measures is the stuff of legends. The Secretary again promised a presidential veto of a defense bill that contained funding for the F-35 alternative engine. Also, the costs of maintaining an aging inventory of platforms and weapons systems inevitably go up over time. Of course, when the department makes the bad decision to insource work being successfully performed by private contractors in the erroneous belief that the organic industrial base is cheaper, it only makes the situation worse. But overall, the Secretary’s initiatives are not radical enough to save $100 billion.
More significantly, this administration has failed to make the case for a relatively large, powerful and, therefore, expensive military. In fact, given the President’s focus on change, reset and outreach, the American people can be forgiven for questioning the simultaneous requirement for the military for which it is being asked to pay. So at a time of domestic fiscal stress and in the absence of a defining foreign threat it is difficult to see how deep cuts in defense can be avoided. Of course, if the Secretary’s view of the international security environment is correct, all we will be doing is entering another bust and boom cycle in defense spending. Either that or we will lose the next war.
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