Gates’ Last Hurrah: Pentagon Has Too Much 'Tail,' Not Enough 'Tooth'
As a result, the Defense Department is headed for a period of fiscal belt tightening with a fleet of aging weapons that will soon become obsolete and jeopardize U.S. military dominance, Gates warned in hislast major policy speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He isscheduled to depart June 30.
Gates called for the Pentagon to reset its budget priorities — cut unneeded layers of bureaucracy, support and administrative staff, and instead, invest in new weapon systems that will boost U.S. military capabilities. The weapons acquired during the Reagan buildup of the 1980s are still the “mainstay of the force today,” Gates said. After the Cold War ended, the Pentagon slashed budgets and entered a “procurement holiday” that lasted through the 1990s. But after 9/11, when spending shot up and budgets began growing at double-digit rates, there was still “relatively new recapitalization,” Gates said.
U.S. weapon systems are still the “best in class,” he said. But now that the United States enters a period of fiscal austerity, the Pentagon needs to take action to protect equipment modernization accounts, even as the overall top-line begins to decline. This will require major shakeups within the Defense Department, such as eliminating excessive overhead spending and terminating wasteful programs. The military services will have to rethink how they plan to replace aging weapon systems, Gates said. Costly “leap ahead” technology may not be the answer, although areas such as air superiority, should not be shortchanged, Gates said. “We need relevant [systems], not just more expensive and exotic versions of what we had in the past,” he said.
During the past two years, Gates has canceled or downsized more than 30 programs, which he claims saved the Pentagon $300 billion. The most questionable “low hanging fruit has been plucked, stomped on and crushed” already, he said.
Further savings must come from the massive administrative and support bureaucracies that operate like independent “fiefdoms” and seem to be unaccountable for their lavish spending, Gates said. The $154 billion in “efficiencies” that the military services and the Defense Department already achieved are not nearly enough to meet president Obama’s goals to cut $400 billion over the next 12 years. Such reductions are not unreasonable, and are necessary to help the nation fix its woeful finances, Gates said.
The next wave of efficiencies must occur in what is known in the Pentagon as the “fourth estate” — agencies, “field activities,” combatant commands around the world, and other organizations whose spending has gone unchallenged, said Gates. Every time he has assigned aides to find out where the money goes in the fourth estate, it was like an "Easter egg hunt," Gates said. “It became impossible to find out how much they spent.” Some fourth-estate savings were identified — less than a billion dollars — but that is highly disappointing considering that these organizations consume $64 billion a year. They have too many layers of bureaucracy, too many high-level officers, too many contractors, lamented Gates, without any “central mechanisms to track expenses and measure results.”
The Pentagon’s ability to preserve its “tooth” is being made more difficult by the massive growth in its “tail,” said Gates. He characterized as “tooth” areas such as air superiority, nuclear deterrence, maritime access, space and cyber warfare, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, ground vehicles and ships. “We must build more ships,” he said. The Army and Marine Corps need to replace worn out vehicles and helicopters. The Air Force must replace its aerial refueling tankers and fighter jets.
Securing funds for modernization will require, in addition to overhead cutbacks, scaling down healthcare cost and revisiting compensation and benefits programs, he said. “We will need real cuts, real choices.”
Further, the Pentagon may need to give up responsibilities and functions that it will not be able to afford in the future.
Gates recentlylaunched 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. Gates acknowledged that past Quadrennial Defense Reviews have failed to set priorities and to match military strategy with force structure.
As he has repeatedly in recent months, Gates again warned against defense cutbacks that shave a percentage off everything. This exercise, known in Pentagonese as “salami slicing,” preserves the overhead and bureaucracy but hollows out the force by reducing funds for training and equipment. He contends that cuts that are not based on well thought-out policy choices will lead to the hollow military that the nation saw after the Vietnam War.
One of the strategic options that may be on the table is the notion that the U.S. military must be organized to train and prepare to fight two major regional wars simultaneously. That concept may have to be revisited so that instead of having forces prepare for two concurrent wars, they would organize to fight conflicts sequentially, Gates said. The White House and Congress, he insisted, must clearly understand the implications of any force reductions and the risks that they may entail.