If history is any guide, the cost-cutting campaign launched by Defense Secretary Robert Gates is going to hit the wrong targets, says a U.S. Army colonel with an extensive career managing technology and weapon programs.
There is enough wasteful spending in defense that the Pentagon could afford to make substantial cuts without jeopardizing essential programs, says Col. John “Buck” Surdu, military deputy at the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command Communications-Electronics Center, or CERDEC.
In all likelihood, however, when the budget ax comes down, it will hit valuable programs instead of questionable overhead costs such as administration and bureaucracy, Surdu tell reporters Nov. 29 during a bloggers’ roundtable.
“Having been through this a couple of times in my career, typically the cuts are made in the wrong places,” Surdu says. “We tend to take cuts at the working end of the stick instead of at the oversight and bureaucratic end of the stick.”
Gates announced earlier this year a sweeping “efficiencies” drive to cut $100 billion in overhead expenses throughout the Defense Department, over the next five years. His goal is to trim unnecessary layers of management and administrative processes, and shift the savings to more pressing war-related efforts and to military personnel accounts.
These are worthy ambitious, but they are also unrealistic, Surdu says. “I think you’ll see very few of Secretary Gates’ cuts occur where Secretary Gates wants them to take place.” His reported intentions to leave the Defense Department next year will make it even less likely that any of these efficiencies will even materialize, he adds. “He won’t be around long enough to make it happen in the right places.”
Gates has said he would like to see reductions in senior executive service position and four-star billets. Surdu does not believe this will happen. “I’ll tell you those cuts have already begun to roll down to the working end of the stick … instead of being cut in the Pentagon,” he says. “I worry a little bit about the fact that there are places in the budget where you can legitimately take some risk with respect to oversight — by cutting many task forces, panels and processes, process owners and rice bowl protectors from the system,” he says. “But I will tell you that’s probably not where the cuts will take place.”
Surdu’s organization, CERDEC, already is seeing some of the fallout from cutbacks that already are taking place in many technology programs as war-emergency funding begin to tighten, he says. Basic research-and-development accounts are stable and probably will remain so. Long-term R&D funding has been steady for many years, and didn’t soar after 9/11 as other accounts did. But CERDEC did see a significant surge in business this past decade as a result of war-emergency “supplemental” money that was appropriated for programs such as counter-IED (improvised explosive device) technologies and hundreds of other equipment requests from deployed units. Organizations such as the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force and the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization for years have had “bags of cash” to pay for new technology, Surdu says. That easy money is going away, he adds. “I think what will happen is we’ll see that customer money dry up. There will be fewer opportunities for rapid enhancements of systems already in use,” he says. “Fewer customers will come to us with bags of cash to fund good ideas. You’ll see an impact on our ability to spin technologies quickly. We’ll have to be more selective on which technologies need to be spun out first,” says Surdu. “Our long-term portfolio will be OK, but our ability to support the current fight will be impacted.”