The Cable

What's really behind the Gates cuts

Defense Secretary Robert Gates's bombshell announcement that he will close Joint Forces Command as part of sweeping reforms of the defense bureaucracy is being seen around the defense community as a preemptive move against congressional efforts to cut the defense budget.

The moves, which also include shutting down DOD's Business Transformation Agency, closing the office of networks and information integration, cutting contractors, general officers, and the size of the Pentagon's administrative staff, all come only weeks after Congress proposed $8 billion of cuts in the defense budget for next year, manifested in the Senate Appropriations Committee's markup of the fiscal 2011 spending allocations.

Gates was clear that his goal is protect at least 1 percent growth in the defense budget in perpetuity, by showing Congress and the greater defense community that his department is managing its money well and therefore deserves to receive increasing budgets even though defense funding has more than doubled since 2001.

Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright referred directly to the Senate committee's recent action in his follow-up briefing with reporters Monday.

"We have to do something to accommodate those [proposed cuts]. We oppose that. But it looks as though in '11 it will happen," said Cartwright.

Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale described Gates's proposals as needed to head off this and other attempts to reduce defense spending.

"My sense is that if we don't do these things, then the consequence is pretty significant," he said. "We need to make a strong case to the American people and to the Congress that we are tightening our belts. I think without that case, they won't support the 1 percent."

Some former officials noted that Gates's initiatives attempt to preempt the ongoing national discussion over whether the defense budget should actually go down after years of huge increases. The president's debt commission is said to be looking at defense as part of its effort to find savings.

"You don't get a deal on the deficit unless you deal with defense," said Gordon Adams, who headed national-security budgeting in the Clinton White House. "What he's asking to do is freeze the defense budget at the absolute peak of the curve."

With the rising deficits, the growing debt, and the increased pressures on all parts of the federal budget, members of both parties are looking at the defense budget for savings. Even inside the Republican Party, the debate over whether to cut defense budgets is raging now.

But Gates's cost-cutting initiatives all are focused on spending money more wisely, not spending less money. He is trying to incentivize the military services to find $100 billion of savings over 5 years by promising them they can "keep what they catch."

"Nothing incentivizes people like losing money," said Adams. "As long as you are still arguing for growing budgets, you are still moving deck chairs on the Titanic."

Many of Gates's decisions stem from the recommendations of the Defense Business Board, an internal panel of outside experts appointed by the secretary, but even its members warn that the devil is in the details.

"It's a giant step in the right direction," said former Pentagon comptroller and DBB member Dov Zakheim. "Whether this really means a lot is a function of time, whether this gets implemented, and whether or not [Gates] stays on."

Maneuver warfare

Gates's strategy for getting his reforms underway shows skill in navigating the bureaucracy but also calls into question whether his proposed moves will really have the desired impact.

Similar to the way Gates has rolled out other controversial decisions, such as his announcement last year that he would end several big-ticket weapons projects, Gates made his move when Congress was out of town, ensuring a muted congressional reaction. Gates also held a number of background meetings and briefings with experts and other interested parties to answer questions and get some buy-in.

But the real indication of Gates's savvy was in the fact that he left the recommendations vague enough as to not give any specific interest groups a good reason to oppose them in the near term. A 10 percent reduction in contractors sounds great, but without knowing which contractors, it's hard to find a lawmaker or corporation that is willing to raise a protest.

"Who can argue for maintaining redundancy or paying for contractors, which has become synonymous for all things bad?," said Maren Leed, director of the New Defense Approaches Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Industry is likely to take a wait-and- see approach because we don't know what any of this means."

For Congress, most lawmakers can't know yet which districts will be affected so they can't yet protest. Gates has been successful in portraying congressional objections as just more pork-barrel politics, whether that's the case or not, said Leed. Gates also avoided dealing with military entitlements, such as health care, which lawmakers always strongly defend.

Gates also didn't mention any move to transfer missions and money from the Defense Department to the State Department -- an idea he has promoted in the past but made little progress in implementing.

The National Security Strategy, which talks about a whole of government approach, didn't seem to factor into Gates's decisions either. "All that NSS rhetoric doesn't seem to be a part of this. I don't blame him for it based on the political realities, but it is a disconnect," Reed said. "The assumption that the DOD is the most efficient and appropriate tool in our national-security kit for doing a lot of these things is a very arguable position."

Moreover, many of Gates's announcements on Monday seem to have more psychological appeal than prospects for real cost savings. For example, cutting 50 general officers sounds like a bold move, but they will likely be replaced by lower-ranking officers and the difference in salaries is not significant.

"Everybody likes to see cuts in general officers. It's a crowd pleaser but it doesn't result in any cost savings at all," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, "Ask yourself, what congressional district produces generals? There isn't one."

Even the most controversial decision, shutting down Joint Forces Command in southern Virginia, isn't likely to produce savings on the scale that is really needed, said Pike. The command costs only about $240 million per year.

"It's certainly a headline grabber, but the more I study it, the less I understand it," he said. "There seems to be a difference between the diagnosis and the prescription."

The Cable

Gates launches latest battle against waste... and against Congress

In Washington, you know a decision is controversial when the pushback comes before the announcement. Such is the case with Defense Secretary Robert Gates's Monday bombshell that he wants to close Joint Forces Command.

The AP broke the news this morning that Gates would announce at a press conference his idea to shutter JFCOM's gigantic base in southern Virginia as part of his drive to cut $100 billion from the Pentagon budget. He also announced a 10 percent cutback in the Defense Department's use of contractors each year for the next three years and pledged to cut the size of his own staff and that of the larger Pentagon bureaucracy.

Today, Gates also directed the elimination of DOD's Business Transformation Agency and the office of the assistant secretary of defense for networks and information integration (NII). He said the moves were part of his two-year effort to reform the Defense Department and pledged more announcements in the coming months.

"The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of savings and restraint," Gates said. "This agenda is not about butting the department's budget. It's about reforming and reshaping priorities to ensure that in tough budgetary and economic times, we can focus defense resources where they belong."

But even before Gates spoke, a team of Virginia lawmakers sent out an advisory that they will hold "an urgent press conference" on the announcement Monday at 4 p.m. at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, near where the base is located. Reps. Glenn Nye, J. Randy Forces, Bobby Scott, and Rob Wittman were all scheduled to speak.

"The proposal by the Defense Department to close JFCOM is short-sighted and without merit," Nye said following Gates's announcement. "I appreciate the department's attempt to rein in spending, but I have yet to see any substantive analysis to support the assertion that closing JFCOM will yield large savings."

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner released a statement Monday protesting the announcement before it was made.

"I can see no rational basis for dismantling JFCOM since its sole mission is to look for efficiencies and greater cost-savings by forcing more cooperation among sometimes competing military services," Warner said. "In the business world, you sometimes have to spend money in order to save money."

Gates said he would work with JFCOM employees to ease their transition as the base closes and speculated that Virginia could benefit if the savings are reinvested in other local military efforts, such as shipbuilding.

The command currently has about 2,800 military civilian positions and 3,000 contractors, at a cost of about $240 million per year.

JFCOM  has many missions, including the training of units from various military services and managing the complex scheme of deployments and rotations of various units in and out of the warzones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The research centers there work on everything from missile defense to modeling and simulation of counterterrorism operations.

JFCOM was last led by Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who was recently chosen to succeed Gen. David Petraeus as the head of Central Command. Gen. Ray Odierno, most recently the head of U.S. forces in Iraq, was chosen to replace Mattis and may become the last-ever JFCOM commander. It will take about a year to close the base and Odierno's mission is to "work himself out of a job," Gates said.

Some of the other announcement Gates made included a freeze on full-time positions at regional commands for three years, a freeze on replacing departing senior-level full-time contractors, and a reduction of the level of senior military and civilian positions pending a review, which Gates predicted would result in cuts of 50 general-level military positions and 150 senior executive service jobs.

Gates will also cut 25 percent of all outside advisory boards and commissions and, in a subtle dig at Congress, place a cap on the number of oversight reports written at the Pentagon. There are 600 people working on such reports, many of which may not be necessary, he said.

He also promised to conduct a "zero-base review" of all defense intelligence programs, meaning an examination of each and every program and its budget. James Clapper, who is moving over to ODNI from the Pentagon, will conduct a similar review of all federal intelligence programs in order to find waste and redundancy, Gates said.