This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been kicking around the federal government long enough to know that budget cuts can happen to you or by you – but you’re better off taking the lead.
Gates this week announced that the Pentagon will trim thousands of jobs and close a major military command in Virginia as part of a plan to rein in huge post-9/11 increases in defense spending.
“The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of savings and restraint,” he said Monday.
The savings Gates proposes are significant, if only symbolically.
Shuttering the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk could cost 6,100 people – a mix of military and civilian personnel and contractors – their jobs. Gates is also looking to downsize the ranks of defense intelligence contractors by 10 percent and to thin the military’s top brass by at least 50 admirals and generals.
The belt tightening is intended to fend off attempts to slash military spending to help balance the federal budget. To date, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as national security concerns, have spared the Pentagon from budget scrutiny.
But it’s only a matter of time before Congress will have to address the defense budget if it is to get handle on deficits. Defense spending now amounts to approximately $700 billion a year. The military spends 13 times more than all civilian foreign policy agencies combined.
Gates’ attempt to get ahead of political pressure is smart, but his plan may fall short of what’s truly needed to staunch the federal budget’s bleeding. He proposes to limit the department’s budget increase to 1 percent next year – a marked decline from recent years’ runups but an approach that would do little to rightsize a budget that is a third bigger (in constant dollars) than it was during the peak of the Vietnam war.
The Defense Business Board recommended last month that Gates go further, shedding more than 100,000 civilian jobs and returning the Defense Department’s workforce to its 2003 size.
Aggressive enough or not, Gates’ plan attempts to get a handle on military spending the right way – from within. Defense leaders, not Congress, are the best arbiters of what’s essential to military readiness – and what’s not.
Gates faces the same political obstacles he has in past fights to kill weapon programs that did more for politicians’ allies and home districts than for troops. Already, he’s caught the ire of Virginia’s congressional delegation for his plan to eliminate the U.S. Joint Forces Command.
But Congress will have a tough time making the case for unabated defense spending when the guy in charge is convinced the military can get by with less.