Pentagon sees budget uncertainties ahead
By promising to drastically slash spending, the Pentagon hopes to convince the US Congress not to reduce its colossal budget. But experts say that may not be enough in a tough fiscal climate.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday announced measures to save 100 billion dollars over five years, including pared budgets for contractors, a cut in senior military and civilian posts, and closure of a major military command.
The aim is not to reduce the defense budget but to put its funds to better use, Gates said, stressing “the services will be able to keep the savings they generate to reinvest in higher priority warfighting needs and modernization programs.
“It is important that we not repeat the mistakes of the past, where tough economic times or the winding down of a military campaign leads to steep and unwise reductions in defense,” he said.
Spared from a freeze on spending imposed by President Barack Obama’s administration, the Pentagon has been allocated slightly more than 700 billion dollars in fiscal 2011.
But it is positioning itself for an anticipated decline in the budget from the highs of recent years, when the George W. Bush administration poured huge amounts of money into defense coffers.
At a time of flagging economic growth, the efforts may not be enough to keep intact a titanic defense budget that has more than doubled since 2001 and now accounts for more than 40 percent of the world’s military budgets combined.
“I think that this was a necessary but not necessarily sufficient step to preserve small growth of the defense budget,” said Maren Leed, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“There is massive pressure that is now growing in Congress on the defense budget as a whole, and so the danger is that they offer up a bunch of cost reductions or shifts and people sort of accept the cuts but don’t accept all of the reinvestments,” she said.
Winslow Wheeler, an expert at the Center for Defense Information, said he suspected Gates knew he would lose a fight to maintain the defense budget as is, and was taking steps to prepare the Pentagon for cuts that are on the way.
Even so, he said, “these efficiencies are inadequate.”
“They will not transform the Pentagon into something that can survive significant budget reductions and be anything but the same institution at a lower level of spending,” he said.
On the other hand, he gave Gates credit for “starting a process to attempt to deal with the fringes of the defense problem.”
“He is the first secretary of defense to attempt to do so in decades, and he is earnest in his efforts, I believe. There is a long, long way to go, however.”
In the meantime, Gates must manage a classic paradox of political Washington: withstand congressional pressure to cut costs while at the same time enduring the anger of members of Congress whose districts stand feel the pain of losing funds and jobs.
His plan to close the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia, which employs 5,000 people, has already drawn the ire of Virginia lawmakers.