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Gates seeks big cuts in military spending

The Defense secretary invokes Dwight Eisenhower as he calls for spending reductions in military healthcare and the command structure. He wants to cut $10 billion to $15 billion from a $547-billion Pentagon base budget.

May 09, 2010|By Julian E. Barnes, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Abilene, Kan. —

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Saturday that he wanted to sharply cut the military bureaucracy and rein in expenditures on armed forces healthcare and departmental overhead as part of an effort to tame runaway Pentagon spending.

Speaking at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library here, Gates presented a roadmap for what might be his last months in office and his final major Pentagon reform push. Gates said his priority was to flatten a hierarchical military command structure and eliminate military offices and agencies that have little direct role in fighting the nation's wars.

Outlining the case for sharp cuts in the number of admirals and generals, Gates repeatedly invoked President Eisenhower's admonishment to spend what it takes to defend America's interests "and not one penny more."

"The private sector has flattened and streamlined the middle and upper echelons of its organization charts, yet the Defense Department continues to maintain a top-heavy hierarchy that more reflects 20th century headquarters superstructure than 21st century realities," Gates said.

Gates is seeking $10 billion to $15 billion in savings from the $547-billion Pentagon base budget. Such a cut, Gates said, would allow the Pentagon to fund military modernization but still keep spending levels under control.

In a roundtable with reporters before the speech, Gates also said pressure on the Pentagon budget from the economic downturn and a desire to trim deficits would lead the government to be more selective in future overseas military operations.

"I think the Congress and the president will look hard at another military operation that would cost us $100 billion a year," Gates said.

Gates said that if a real threat emerged, the government would "spend what it takes" to protect America. But he hedged about whether Iran posed such a danger.

"I don't know," he said. "I think it depends on developments over the next year or two."

Gates said he was ordering the military services and other major commands to take "a hard, unsparing look" at how they operate and to come up with proposals for sharp cuts.

"It is not a great mystery what needs to change," Gates said. "What it takes is the political will and willingness, as Eisenhower possessed, to make hard choices — choices that will displease powerful people both inside the Pentagon and out."

The choice of the Eisenhower library for his remarks was not accidental. Saturday was the 65th anniversary of V-E Day. And as president, Eisenhower oversaw extensive shifts in military spending, pushing for cuts to offset new spending. As he was leaving office, Eisenhower issued his now-famous warning about the national clout of the "military-industrial complex."

"When it came to defense matters, under Eisenhower, real choices were made, priorities set and limits enforced," Gates said in his speech.

Gates said he was hardly the first Defense secretary to try to trim the bureaucracy or curb runaway health costs. He even admiringly cited the efforts of his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, a Pentagon leader Gates has never sought to emulate.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Gates noted, a "gusher" of defense spending nearly doubled the budget — not counting spending on Iraq and Afghanistan. But that era is over.

"The gusher has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time," Gates said.

Gates said he hoped to find savings in the 2010-11 budget being debated by Congress. But the bulk of his proposed cuts probably would come in the next budget, for 2011-12, which will be written beginning this summer and unveiled publicly in February.

Gates may not be around when Congress begins debating that spending plan. Originally appointed by former President George W. Bush, Gates was kept on by President Obama. Last year, he committed to remain in office through the end of 2010. Some Defense officials have said they expect him to leave at the end of the year.

But some aides say they do not know how long Gates will stay. And in Saturday's roundtable, Gates sounded like he was in no hurry to leave, instead appearing invigorated by the prospect of finding a way to cut wasteful spending and reshape the Pentagon into a more efficient organization.

And despite the failures of many of his predecessors to tame military spending, Gates said he was confident he would push through his reforms.

"When I devote a lot of my time to it, these things tend to get done," Gates said.

Gates has a track record of following through on his policy speeches. Over 31/2 years, Gates has revamped military planning and eliminated weapons programs. By his own count, Gates has cut 30 weapons programs that were expected to cost taxpayers $330 billion.

Although individual services could resist a push to downgrade some positions to lower ranks, many of the trims under consideration by Gates and his advisors would not likely face strong opposition in either the Pentagon or Congress.

Gates did not offer details on military agencies he would seek to combine or billets he favors downgrading, but said military services and combat commands are beginning to look for savings.

Perhaps the toughest cuts will be those made to the military healthcare system. Gates said care for soldiers and veterans wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan would not be cut.

Past Pentagon attempts to curb healthcare costs, by raising premiums or co-payments, have been rejected by Congress.

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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