Shadow Government

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Defense cuts should be reinvested in the department, not used elsewhere

In some respects, there was little that was new in Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s Jan. 6 press conference on the Fiscal Year 2012 budget. This past summer he had spoken of efficiencies, reductions to the contractor force, and reductions in the number of flag and general officers and savings in the department’s expenditures on ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In some respects, there was little that was new in Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's Jan. 6 press conference on the Fiscal Year 2012 budget. This past summer he had spoken of efficiencies, reductions to the contractor force, and reductions in the number of flag and general officers and savings in the department's expenditures on information technology. In addition, he promised that he would address the need to curb the runaway growth of the defense health program in the FY 12 budget. It was clear that to do so, he would have to increase fees and co-pays, which had not been touched for over a decade.

Moreover, everyone expected the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program to be seriously cut back, if not terminated. Similarly, given its greater complexity than the Air Force's conventional F-35, whose initial operational capability had been pushed back about two years, it was expected that the same fate would befall the Marines' short take-off/vertical landing version of that aircraft. Indeed, Secretary Gates has made it clear that the system is on two-year "probation"; its fate is very much in doubt.

What, then, was the real news emerging from the secretary's press conference? To begin with, the secretary's announcement that he was terminating the Army's SLAMRAAM surface-to -air missile programs and its non-line-of-sight launch system, demonstrated yet again that the Army has a serious problem managing high technology programs. These terminations follow in the wake of Donald Rumsfeld's termination of the Comanche helicopter and the Crusader artillery system, which themselves followed the cancellation of other helicopter systems, as well as another surface to air missile system, the vintage 1980s Sergeant York. The Army acquisition system clearly needs a major overhaul; something is fundamentally wrong with the way the Service plans for, budgets, and develops its new weapons systems.

In some respects, there was little that was new in Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s Jan. 6 press conference on the Fiscal Year 2012 budget. This past summer he had spoken of efficiencies, reductions to the contractor force, and reductions in the number of flag and general officers and savings in the department’s expenditures on information technology. In addition, he promised that he would address the need to curb the runaway growth of the defense health program in the FY 12 budget. It was clear that to do so, he would have to increase fees and co-pays, which had not been touched for over a decade.

Moreover, everyone expected the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program to be seriously cut back, if not terminated. Similarly, given its greater complexity than the Air Force’s conventional F-35, whose initial operational capability had been pushed back about two years, it was expected that the same fate would befall the Marines’ short take-off/vertical landing version of that aircraft. Indeed, Secretary Gates has made it clear that the system is on two-year "probation"; its fate is very much in doubt.

What, then, was the real news emerging from the secretary’s press conference? To begin with, the secretary’s announcement that he was terminating the Army’s SLAMRAAM surface-to -air missile programs and its non-line-of-sight launch system, demonstrated yet again that the Army has a serious problem managing high technology programs. These terminations follow in the wake of Donald Rumsfeld’s termination of the Comanche helicopter and the Crusader artillery system, which themselves followed the cancellation of other helicopter systems, as well as another surface to air missile system, the vintage 1980s Sergeant York. The Army acquisition system clearly needs a major overhaul; something is fundamentally wrong with the way the Service plans for, budgets, and develops its new weapons systems.

Yet overshadowing the Army’s failures is a more fundamental issue that could have serious ramifications for service morale. It is that a significant part of the efficiencies that the services had identified during their summer and fall budget exercises are not to be retained by those who identified them. This, in fact, had been the services’ expectation. Indeed, Gates had made it very clear that he hoped to forestall cuts by the Office of Management and Budget by having the services identify efficiency-driven savings that could then be retained, thereby reducing downward pressures on the DoD budget top-line.

The services took the secretary at his word, and produced those efficiencies at an unprecedented scale: $150 billion for fiscal years 2012-2016. Yet the Office of Management and Budget, which had remained silent when Gates outlined his budget strategy in August 2010, forced him to offer up $78 billion in budget cuts. Of this sum, reductions in information technology expenditures, the closing of the Joint Forces Command, the changes in the European command, cuts in the contractor force, the downsizing of intelligence organizations, and the $4 billion in savings from the JSF program all will come, in whole or in part, from the services’ budgets. By forcing the secretary’s hand to approve these reductions, OMB broke faith with the military and it did so at a time when troops are still heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Worse still some of the future savings in the FY 2012 multi-year budget plan are predicated on troop reductions in those two theaters. What if circumstances dictate that such reductions cannot take place? Will the cuts still be implemented? And if they are, as might be expected, will weapons programs be slashed and or delayed even more?

The defense secretary clearly made a valiant effort to protect the Pentagon’s budget; the services did their share as well. It is truly unfortunate that the White House chose to pocket the billions of dollars of those savings rather than return them to DoD. Its behavior bodes ill for Gates’s successor who, in addition to having to fill the current secretary’s giant shoes, will have the onerous task of assuring the military that the White House can be trusted on budget matters.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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