Gates: Nothing Is 'Off the Table' in Strategic Defense Review
President Obama has asked for$400 billion in defense spending reductions over the next 12 years as part of a larger effort to shrink the federal deficit. Gates has agreed to launch a comprehensive review of military missions that is intended to provide the White House and Congress with a menu of options so decision makers understand the risks associated with spending cuts.
At a May 18 Pentagon news conference, Gates outlined a "framework" for the review. His guidelines acknowledge that his "efficiencies" campaign that began two years ago to reduce overhead spending does not go far enough, and that more substantive cuts will be needed. In announcing the guidelines, Gates also recognized that past Quadrennial Defense Reviews have failed to set priorities and to match military strategy with force structure.
Echoing warnings that he has repeatedly stressed over the past several months, Gates said defense budget cutbacks should carefully assess strategy vis-à-vis risks to national security, and they should not be a simple accounting exercise of shaving x percent from every account. "We must reject politically expedient across-the-board cuts," Gates told reporters. Cuts that are not based on well thought-out policy choices will "hollow out" the military, he said.
The review will follow four basic guiding principles:
• Every agency will be directed to more aggressively pursue efficiencies, beyond current efforts.
• Personnel accounts, including heath care, retirement benefits, as well as infrastructure and procurement programs will be examined in order to identify potential reductions.
• Civilian and military leaders will seek to determine what "marginal missions" that are not essential to national security could be eliminated.
• Officials from the office of the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will identify "strategic alternatives" to the Quadrennial Defense Review. Gates called this item the "hardest" to accomplish because it could result in recommendations to considerably reduce the size of U.S. forces.
"This is about giving the president options," said Gates.
The U.S. military, for instance, has been organized to train and prepare to fight two major regional wars simultaneously. That strategy may be revisited so that instead of having forces prepare for two concurrent wars, they would organize to fight conflicts sequentially, Gates said. "But there is a risk" if you do that, he said. The White House and Congress must clearly understand the implications of any force reductions, he said. "People have to make conscious choices and be aware of the risks."
Gates did not mention any weapon programs that could be targeted. But he voiced support for a "significant investment" in systems that he considers vital to the future of the U.S. military, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force's aerial refueling tanker, the Navy's next-generation ballistic missile submarine, and ground vehicles to modernize the Army's and Marine Corps' fleets.
Experts have expressedcautious optimism that the upcoming Pentagon review will set clear priorities for the future. The absence of “strategic choice” is the reason why decisions about where to cut defense spending have been nearly impossible to make, said Gordon Adams, American University professor and former director of the Office of Management and Budget. Cutting the defense budget should not be about doing the same with less, Adams said.
A strategic review would have to determine what missions to scale back, so the military could be downsized accordingly. Only then can major cost savings be achieved, Adams contended. “At the end of the day, it’s about policy makers restraining their impulse to use the military in the reckless way it’s been used in the past 20 years.”
Insiders predictthat cuts to the defense budget will be tough political sell, even in today's anti-spending climate. The reason is that any serious effort to cut defense has to be supported by Republicans and, so far, GOP'ers remain sharply divided over military spending.
It’s been about two years since Gates warned that the post 9/11 spending gusher was over, but the defense budget has remained at its highest level since the end of World War II.
Gates' successor who will be taking over the Pentagon later this summer, CIA Director Leon Panetta, is expected to begin the process of scaling back the military while ensuring that it does not end up like the post-Vietnam hollow force. Panetta will have to grapple with the gaping mismatch between the nation’s military strategy — which calls for being prepared for any form of conflict and to be forward deployed around the world — and the resources available to sustain it. Even if all U.S. troops left Iraq and Afghanistan today, the over-commitment problem would not be solved, as the U.S. military strategy still requires forces to be available and ready to deploy anywhere in the world.
Congress is expected to make any defense cutbacks difficult for the administration. The Pentagon has been Congress’ go-to piggy bank for many decades. It is the largest spender and the biggest employer, with 2.3 million people on its payroll. Defense contractors hedge their programs from cuts by spreading facilities and jobs in as many states as possible, which adds huge overhead costs to military projects. In addition to saddling the Pentagon with pork-barrel projects, Congress also has stuffed all sorts of benefits and entitlement programs into the defense budget that the Pentagon has to keep funding ad infinitum. Military health care costs, Gates has said, are “eating the Defense Department alive.”