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Gates Shifts Military Spending: 'Not Every Defense Dollar is Sacred'

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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
A draining war and record-high defense spending financed by borrowing are driving yet another effort to control the military budget.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, citing a "grim financial outlook'' but also the "growing peril of the future,'' Thursday announced minor shifts within the defense budget of about $178 billion over five years.
"Not every defense dollar is sacred,'' he told reporters at the Pentagon.
But, he warned, "We shrink from our global responsibilities at our peril,'' and he said under the current Obama administration plan, the defense budget will continue to rise modestly over the next five years.
The plan that Gates outlined at the Pentagon Thursday doesn't actually cut defense spending. Instead, he said it shifts money from wasteful and inefficient uses to more effective ones. Earlier this year, Gates had demanded that the military services find $100 billion of programs and personnel that could be cut -- and allowed them to plow the savings back into higher-priority programs.
The budget plan thus falls far short of the drastic cuts called for by the deficit commission, which last month recommended an immediate freeze in spending and future increases limited to half the rate of inflation.
In reaction to such ideas, Gates said simply: "As far as I'm concerned, that's math – not strategy.''
The cost savings and efficiencies Gates announced, which include halting development of a new amphibious tractor for the Marine Corps, trimming the number of contractors, and troop reductions in the Marine Corps and Army, came after months of argument and arm-twisting inside the Pentagon, and the modest results suggest why so many attempts to rein in defense spending often have no long-term impact.
Standing in the way of major reform: an immense and unchecked bureaucracy (the office of the defense secretary alone employs more than 5,000 people, including 2,000 contractors, at a cost of $5.5 billion a year), and a Congress that when it faces the military just can't say no.
Collectively, they have engendered an annual defense budget of more than $700 billion -- twice as high as the 2001 budget and the highest since World War II in inflation-adjusted dollars. Previous efforts to streamline Pentagon operations -- including a directive by President Reagan in 1981 to make government smaller -- have failed to stem spending.
Nor are the changes announced by Gates final: the most significant ones, including the proposed cancellation of the Marine Corps' expeditionary fighting vehicle -- must pass congressional muster when the defense budget goes to Capitol Hill later this winter.
Congress is expected to push back against Gates' proposed reforms, and some early reaction to the proposals was not encouraging.
"We are fighting two wars, you have China, you have Iran: Is this the time to be making these types of cuts?" demanded Rep. Buck McKeon, the California Republican, who heads the House Armed Services Committee.
On the Army side, Gen. George Casey, the service's top officer, told reporters Thursday he intends to protect his top priorities: the size of the force, the new weapons it intends to buy, and the benefits enjoyed by Army families.
Underlying these minor squabbles, though, are the major drivers of the booming defense budget: one is skyrocketing personnel costs and a growing reliance on contractors. The other is that the Obama administration, like the Bush administration that preceded it, has set no strategic priorities for what it wants the armed services to do. The Pentagon's most recent strategic review, completed last spring, said the military ought to prepare for wars big and small, for major conventional war and counterinsurgency operations, for cyberwarfare and high-tech conflicts.
The actions announced by Gates appear to have little, if any, impact on these two budget drivers. A major factor in exploding personnel costs, for instance, is health care and pensions. Thanks to the generosity of Congress, military personnel can retire with 20 years of service at age 38 or 40 and transition to another full-time career while receiving a full pension and lifetime health care at a cost of $460 a year.
In his announcement, Gates warned against making "drastic and ill-conceived cuts'' in defense capabilities, but he did not provide any further strategic context for the reductions he proposed.
For instance, he recommended halting the Marine Corps' $14 billion trouble-plagued effort to develop a high-tech amphibious tractor, the expeditionary fighting vehicle. But Gates, acknowledging that this would be controversial, said his decision "does not call into question'' the Pentagon's commitment to maintaining a Marine Corps amphibious war-fighting capability, and he directed that the savings be used to spruce up the current inventory of amphibious tractors..
The Marine commandant, Gen. James Amos, said last fall that the expeditionary fighting vehicle, designed to carry 17 Marines from ship to shore under fire, is vital to the Marines' ability to fight their way across a hostile coastline. Amos termed it an amphibious warfare capability that "the United States cannot live without.''
But there is mounting concern that the growing ability of potential foes like Iran and China to fire salvos of sophisticated missiles at an approaching naval force makes amphibious warfare a risky bet. Some strategists have questioned whether amphibious operations make sense at all.
Gates also said he will propose that health care premiums for retirees working full time be subject to "modest'' increases, a move certain to be opposed by the veterans lobby.
Gates vowed to cut the size of the Defense Department's contractor work force, which by a Pentagon account numbers some 766,000 at a cost of $155 billion a year. Gates said he will reduce that force by 10 percent a year for three years.
Maintaining the current troop levels is becoming more expensive because of generous and increasing pay and benefits. The cost of one active-duty soldier per year has gone in a decade from about $60,000 to about $206,000 today, according to the Defense Business Board.
Gates said he would recommend that by 2015 the size of U.S. ground forces could be reduced, cutting the Army by 27,000 and the Marines by 15,000 to 20,000. Those two services have grown by about 92,000 troops since 9/11, and some critics say deeper manpower cuts could be made.
"By and large the world today is a pretty safe place,'' said Gordon Adams, professor of foreign relations at American University.
In an essay in "Foreign Affairs," Adams and co-author Matthew Leatherman observe that after the Cold War ended, the Pentagon trimmed its budget 28 percent and cut back active-duty troops from 2.2 million to 1.4 million – and that was the very capable force that toppled the Taliban in 2001 and overran the Iraqi military in 2003.
Filed Under: Budget, Military

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41 Comments

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h4x354x0r

When I read stuff like this, I'm almost apoplectic. Everywhere else we hear screaming about all the horrible, untenable, break-the-bank public pension obligations. But not a peep about these publicly funded pension plans that are literally twice what the next best public pension gives. Ditto for the publicly funded healthcare. Then you look at the rest of the numbers... and you realize that most other federal spending is measures in millions or tens of billions, while the Pentagon figures are 10 to 100 times as more for each line item.

But OMG there are all these threats! We've got to FEAR spend more UNCERTAINTY or DOUBT... or, what? Exactly?

I wish I could drive home the point eloquently without invoking Godwin's Law.

January 07 2011 at 9:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to h4x354x0r's comment
aethon007

Good old Goodwin's Law. Either way, you're right. This nation is SUNK if we don't cut deep enough into defense. Gates warns of weakening the US to threats. Well the current path leads us to a threat of a crashed economy, and with that will go our defense industry - ANYWAY! But cutting benefits is not so effective, nor critical as cutting programs. But since the pentagon is the country's largest employer (socialism?), cutting too deep would just increase unemployment. Timing is everything. Plans need to be made for the coming necessity of a much smaller defense budget. We can't afford this one!!!

January 20 2011 at 3:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
truthforfreedom

What they need to do is reduce adminstrative costs and reduce the number of people at the Pentagon not our military personnel. I'm beginning to question Mr. Gate's compentency.

January 07 2011 at 4:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ziploc62

Ok I will try again, I tried to post this yesterday. I personally feel that Our soldiers past, present and future , should recieve the same pay and same health care our senators and and congress recieve. FOr those who have served, are serving and will serve deserve NO less than our elected officials for they are the ones who put their lives on the line literally.. I am a PROUD MILITARY BRAT.

January 07 2011 at 3:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Alyssa

I can not believe some of the things this article says! 206,000 PER ACTIVE DUTY SOLDIER? My husband is an active duty soldier. He makes about 35,000 a year including all his allowances (housing, b.a.s) Yes we get our health care for virtually free, but even with 2 young children we only go to the drs a few times a year. Saying that 1.4 million military members is enough is crazy too.. The coast guard and the navy do almost nothing in the war on terror. If we have too many military personel then why do we have soldiers deploying 4,5 and even 6 times while some havent ever went? How about we cut congress' pay and our stupid presidents? Or maybe stop letting people live off of welfare,food stamps etc. Make them get off their lazy butts and get jobs! Just that alone would save billions of dollars! The military deserves every thing they get. The military members and their families sacrifice everything for this government and this country and this is how people want to repay them?

January 07 2011 at 2:42 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Melissa

The whole idea of reducing troop sizes in the military is a complete joke! Our military is already extremely over-extended. My ex-husband has been on four year-long deployments since 2001, and he's getting ready to deploy again this summer. He's spent half of our son's life overseas, working to protect our country, with only one year at home to recover from the strain and stress of deployment. Taking money away from hard-working soldiers, or reducing the amount of soldiers available for deployment, is NOT the answer.

January 07 2011 at 9:04 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
tcollinsmarshall

Just wondering how many of these decisions makers have
a personal interest in 2000 contractors?
Could there thoughts be clouded with the idea of
direct or indirect personal gain?

We need to support our military, not the lifestyle of
Bureaucrats and lobbyist.

January 07 2011 at 8:07 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
strayleo

Okay , we haven't done anything with military personel since 1991, they were the first downsizing, Switched to part time military, and that worked out just great right??????Not enough troops to fight two small wars, Iraq and afganistan, keep sending the same ones back again and again. What happened with that savings?????? Did it go to the private army of black water to keep coporartions like Haliburton safe in a war zone or just lost in the military industrial conplex(corporations) ?????? Didn't we just have a reality check with north korea, they were backed by china, we were fighting the chinese there in the early 1950s. Remember how communism was the boogie man, now they are our best buds right????????????Remember the axis powers, and the japanese and the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the japanese were our buds too back then, Has the world realy changed that much????????????Our world has, we are a poorer nation and a weaker one now that our manufacturing has been shipped to china. Yeah only a fool would go after the rich corporations who charge 1600.00 for a hammer, 5000.00 for a toilet seat, let cut back on personel, the most important part of any military, the infantry and the marines. Let just sit here and have them read the constitution to us, , as they dismanle america and sell out the people. .

January 07 2011 at 7:20 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
chc1940

Bring the troops back home; bomb hell out of Iran and N.Korea and put the troops on the Mexican border With orders "shoot to kill"
Then ship all illegals back to their own country. That way we save about 500 million dollars a year.
Pelosi won't like this idea because she woukd have to send all her servants to their respective countries

January 07 2011 at 6:56 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
pcakepal

U.S. congressional concentration on self-centered reelection activities, rather than on performing duties essential to keeping the nation solvent and acceptably operational on a pay-as-you-go basis, has squeezed us into a black hole filled with red ink and serious "near unmanageable" penalties of all kinds. Bankruptcy of the nation is inevitable unless drastic steps are taken to stop the spending of borrowed dollars that enriches adversaries and impoverishes the taxpayer. If there is to be hope of a future, then we must regain the ability to manufacture product at competitive cost within our shores. This means training workers, not training military personnel. The industrial revolution made America great. Industrial revolution has made China great. What's the mystery of it all, for our best and brightest to see clearly, having escaping attention?

January 07 2011 at 6:54 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
mevans1537

Budget cuts always fail because congress has no balls to do what it right. They are to afraid of upsetting the voters and not getting reelected to their posh jobs. We should withdraw from the UN. We don't need them and this would save billions. In these troubled time, we can not afford to cut military spending.
The one budget cut that would save the most money would be to cut the entitlement programs. Put these lazy asses to work doing the jobs the illegals do now. This will not happen, because congress would loose votes. Until congress is willing to grow and set of cajones, nothing of significance will occur.

January 07 2011 at 6:45 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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