Defense Secretary Robert Gates planned to spend much of Thursday on Capitol Hill, explaining the outcome of a budget savings program he first detailed this summer. At that time, Gates said he intended to find more than $100 billion worth of savings in the Defense Department over the next five years.
Today, Gates is holding meetings with leaders of the new, deficit-conscious Congress on how that effort is going. He will then detail the plan in a Pentagon news briefing.
Defense industry consultant Jim McAleese said the fact that the meetings are happening within 24 hours of new members being sworn in shows how eager the Secretary is to demonstrate that DoD does not consider itself immune from the demands of austerity — and that he’s already taken steps to make every dollar in the department count.
McAleese said he expected Gates to “address the American people’s pain, explain to a brand-new Congress literally their first week in office exactly what contributions DoD is making to the compromise, and why it is so critical that DoD receive the maximum amount of the 2011 request and why the new congress, which is particularly concerned about deficit reduction and debt reduction should fund the president’s request that’s eventually sent over.”
As first reported earlier this week by Reuters, Gates was expected to announce the end, the scaling back, or the delay of several weapons systems. Included in the cutbacks would be a $13 billion plan to buy the Marines amphibious assault vehicles from General Dynamics Corp. called the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.
Other cost-cutting measures were planned as well, including cuts to the Army’s SLAMRAAM surface launched missile system and the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the delay of the Marine version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to defense analysts familiar with the plan.
But McAleese said none of programs on the chopping block should shock anyone who’s been paying close attention to recent cost overruns or missed delivery dates.
“I would be very surprised if any of the programs are discussed are programs that have outperformed their technical expectations in terms of their lethality, combat capability and survivability, or have been delivered faster or cheaper than promised to the department,” he said.
But the bulk of Gates’ comments are likely to surround what DoD is doing to economize the department’s internal workings. It was unclear whether he would propose the end of more headquarters installations such as the Joint Forces Command, as he did in August. But in that speech, the secretary made clear his feeling that the department was suffering from what former Senator John Glenn called “brass creep.”
“In a post 9/11 era, when more and more responsibility including decisions with strategic consequences are being exercised by more junior officers in theater, the defense department continues to maintain a top heavy hierarchy that more reflects 20th century protocols than 21st century realities,” Gates said in the August 9 speech.
Gates said then that he wanted to eliminate the jobs of at least 50 generals and flag officers, and another 150 senior executive service positions.
Also unclear so far was how much of Gates’ savings total he would be allowed to reinvest into future warfighting — a key theme of his August announcement. Various deficit reduction commissions and the White House have pressured Gates to contribute some of the savings back to the strained federal budget.
But outside Pentagon observers worry that even if DoD is allowed to reinvest the savings, it would be difficult to impossible for auditors five years from now to determine whether those funds were been spent more wisely than they are today.
“Particularly if they’re successful in shifting that money into other accounts, which is his objective, to maintain the savings inside the budget and reallocate them,” said Maren Lead, a former advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Whether those savings actually hit the intended targets and whether the money in fact goes to other places will be impossible to untangle.”
Leed was also skeptical about the value of any of the inefficiencies that Gates might be able to wring out of DoD.
“We’ve got hundreds of blackbelts in Lean Six Sigma and all of the rest,” she said. “They’ve been pursuing sort of traditional business efficiencies for at least the last decade. It wasn’t as if they were all sitting around being 1950s industrial organizations that hadn’t thought about any of this stuff and already harvested a significant amount of savings. You’re hard pressed to find low hanging fruit. At this point where we are is our strategic appetite is bigger than our wallet, and we haven’t fixed that mismatch. This efficiencies initiative doesn’t fix that mismatch.”
Mackenzie Eaglen, a Heritage Foundation research fellow and former congressional advisor who served on the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review panel, said even shuttering entire commands and eliminating contracts don’t guarantee long term savings.
“All of these things cost money up front to do,” she said. “So really, the savings, if at all realized is usually not for three of four more years. 100 billion is a little unrealistic, but he’s playing a Washington parlor game. This is how he’s going to have to present defense cuts in order to safe defense from lots of members of Congress who actually want to cut it much further.”
McAleese said there was a palpable frustration in the defense department surrounding around the idea that the sentiment for budgetary support for national security is decreasing while threats to national security were not.
He said Gates’ challenge is to convince lawmakers that he has already cut his own budget, and that they should not.
“Part of the message to the new Congress is fundamentally that this is not a peace dividend, the threats are still there, but that the department is maximizing the value of each one of the dollars that it’s being given as part of the compromise that ultimately will have to occur with the American people on both the federal deficit and national debt reduction,” he said.
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