Adm. Mullen: Budget Cuts Must Begin Before 2014
“We have to put initiatives in place in the mid-term that will generate cash in the out-years,” Mullen told reporters June 2. Because it takes years for savings to materialize, tough decisions cannot be postponed beyond 2014, he said.
Mullen, who is scheduled to retire in August, has been outspoken in the past about the detrimental effects of the nation’s financial woes on the U.S. military, and even characterized the soaring federal debt as a worrisome “national security threat.” He also has criticized the Pentagon’s bureaucracy and the military services for having lost their ability to prioritize after a decade of rampant budget growth.
But he has struck a more cautious note as of late, warning that any defense budget cuts have to be debated in a thoughtful manner, and that the United States, even after the death of Osama Bin Laden, faces unprecedented security challenges that will require a trained-and-ready military force.
The budget cuts that the Defense Department now must make in order to help reduce the federal deficit come a most inopportune time, Mullen said at a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C. “This isn’t like coming out of Vietnam, it’s not like the ‘90s … The level of national security challenges is, from my perspective, near an all-time high if not an all-time high,” he said. “That argues for very careful consideration of how we move ahead with the budget.”
But Mullen recognized that the Pentagon’s budget should not be treated as a sacred cow. “We can’t be a department that doesn’t participate in this [debt reduction effort] … but it has to be done very carefully.”
Every item in the defense budget should be “on the table,” including health care, pay and benefits, said Mullen.
Excess overhead, bureaucratic bloat and unneeded infrastructure should be slashed in order to preserve “war fighting” capabilities, he said.
Mullen praised Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ persistent — and often unsuccessful — attempts to cut waste out of the Pentagon’s “fourth estate.” These are agencies, field activities, joint headquarters, and support staff functions that, according to Gates, operate as a “semi-feudal system — an amalgam of fiefdoms without centralized mechanisms to allocate resources, track expenditures, and measure results relative to the department’s overall priorities.” The fourth estate consumes $64 billion a year, and yet Gates, despite significant efforts, was only was able to squeeze one billion in savings.
“It’s not an easy fix,” said Mullen. The fourth estate has “grown so much over the course of the last decade,” he added. “Everyone in those positions — staffs, contractors, military billets — feel they have an important job to carry out.”
This costly administrative overhead apparatus eventually has to be downsized so the Pentagon can preserve military force structure, Mullen said. At some point in this discussion, the Defense Department will have to trade off some share of the fourth estate to protect personnel and weapon systems, he said. But it will be “difficult,” Mullen said. “I’ve never seen anyone pour as much time and effort into getting at this as I have seen on the part of Bob Gates.” Even with that level of leadership focus, he noted, “there is still plenty of resistance.”
Weapon acquisition programs, too, will be under greater scrutiny, Mullen said. “Programs have to come in on cost and schedule,” he said. “Performance needs to be a lot better than it has been.” This is not just a contractors’ problem. “We’re all in this. … We [government officials] need to be more judicious about our requirements generation than we’ve been in the past,” he said. “If we don’t do this right, we are not going to have capability.”
Reality is setting in that the days of easy money at the Pentagon are over, Mullen said. While discussing budget concerns with other officers, he said, “there hasn’t been any push-back. … That can sometimes be a measure” of whether the Pentagon is coming to grips with the fiscal pressures that lie ahead.