Secretary urges careful thought in spending reductions

  • Published
  • By John D. Banusiewicz
  • American Forces Press Service
Finding $400 billion in additional defense spending reductions over the next 12 years will require careful thought that considers the risks the reductions create, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here May 19.

In a question-and-answer session with students at the U.S. Army Engineer School here, Secretary Gates warned against what he called the "managerial cowardice" of across-the-board cuts, advocating instead an approach that retains excellence in the missions the military keeps while cutting missions and programs that have value but would pose an acceptable level of risk if eliminated.

"Our approach in the Department of Defense to dealing with the reductions that people think we need to make needs to be very carefully thought through," the secretary said. "My concern is that almost everybody in Washington sees this as a math problem, as opposed to a strategic problem. So I'm trying to frame the process in the Department of Defense so that we'll continue the efficiencies that we began last year, and we'll look at marginal missions and capabilities for some of those that have value, but are not core missions for us."

Secretary Gates said "politically hard" issues such as military compensation, retirement and health care costs, as well as base closures, also need to be part of the discussion.

"But I think the real issue," he added, "is that if we're going to take a big hit in the budget, I want policy makers (and) the political leadership of the country to think of it in terms of 'What additional risk are you prepared to take?'"

Previous large-scale defense spending reductions, in the 1970s after the Vietnam War and in the 1990s after the Cold War, were taken across the board, Secretary Gates said, calling that approach "absolutely the worst way to deal with this."

"That is the way you hollow out the military," he said. "That is the way you end up with a force structure that hasn't changed, but you don't have nearly enough money for training, for exercises, for tank miles, for steaming days or flying hours, or enough bullets to shoot in basic (training) to learn how."

The secretary noted that national policy for more than 20 years has been for the military to be able to fight two major regional wars simultaneously.

"One approach (to spending reductions)," Secretary Gates said, "would be to say the likelihood of that happening is fairly low, and therefore, what are the implications if I think of it sequentially instead of simultaneously, where we won't have to fight two at the same time? What are the implications of that for force structure? How many (brigade combat teams) can you take out of the force, how many fighters can you take out of the force, and so on, if you're only going to fight one war at a time?"

But that approach, he said, also requires considering the risk.

"If you make that decision and cut that force," he said, "the enemy always has a vote."

The secretary presented a hypothetical example in which the U.S. is involved in a future conflict in Korea.

"Who's to say that the Iranians don't say, 'What a great opportunity -- the Americans are busy over here, let's take advantage of the situation?'" he asked the students rhetorically.

"That's the risk that's involved," he said. "So when people make these decisions, I don't want them to treat it as a math problem. I want them to understand that there are strategic and military consequences to these budgetary decisions, and they need to make conscious choices about what capabilities and what risks they're willing to deal with."

Secretary Gates said he wants to make the process hard, because it's always politically expedient to impose across-the-board percentage cuts when faced with the need for spending reductions.

"If we're going to cut the budget," he said, "we need to make some very hard, conscious decisions."