ABILENE, Kan. – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Saturday that he wanted to sharply cut the military bureaucracy and rein in expenditures on armed forces health care and departmental overhead as part of an effort to tame runaway Pentagon spending.
Speaking at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library here, Gates presented a road map for what might be his last months in office and his final major Pentagon reform push. Gates said his priority was to flatten a hierarchical military command structure and eliminate military offices and agencies that have little direct role in fighting the nation’s wars.
Outlining the case for sharp cuts in the number of admirals and generals, Gates repeatedly invoked Eisenhower’s admonishment to spend what it takes to defend America’s interests “and not one penny more.”
“The private sector has flattened and streamlined the middle and upper echelons of its organization charts, yet the Defense Department continues to maintain a top-heavy hierarchy that more reflects 20th century headquarters superstructure than 21st century realities,” Gates said.
Gates is seeking $10 billion to $15 billion in savings from the $547 billion Pentagon base budget. Such a cut, Gates said, would allow the Pentagon to fund military modernization but still keep spending levels under control.
In a roundtable with reporters before the speech, Gates also said pressure on the Pentagon budget from the economic downturn and a desire to trim deficits would lead the government to be more selective in future overseas military operations.
“I think the Congress and the president will look hard at another military operation that would cost us $100 billion a year,” Gates said.
Gates said that if a real threat emerged, the government would “spend what it takes” to protect America. But he hedged about whether Iran posed such a danger.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think it depends on developments over the next year or two.”
Gates said he was ordering the military services and other major commands to take “a hard, unsparing look” at how they operate and to come up with proposals for sharp cuts.
The choice of the Eisenhower library for his remarks was not accidental. Saturday was the 65th anniversary of V-E Day. And as president, Eisenhower oversaw extensive shifts in military spending, pushing for cuts to offset new spending.
“When it came to defense matters, under Eisenhower, real choices were made, priorities set and limits enforced,” Gates said in his speech.
Gates said he was hardly the first defense secretary to try to trim the bureaucracy or curb runaway health costs. He even admiringly cited the efforts of his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, a Pentagon leader Gates has never sought to emulate.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Gates noted, a “gusher” of defense spending nearly doubled the budget – not counting spending on Iraq and Afghanistan. But that era is over.
“The gusher has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time,” Gates said.
Gates said he hoped to find savings in the 2010-’11 budget being debated by Congress. But the bulk of his proposed cuts probably would come in the next budget, for 2011-’12, which will be written beginning this summer and unveiled publicly in February.