Skelton takes Gates 'seriously' on defense spending reforms

Pentagon leaders want to cut from within the Pentagon’s $548.9 billion budget to pour more money into maintaining current fighting forces and modernizing weapons systems. The Pentagon does not intend for the overall budget to be cut.

Skelton stressed that ultimately, Congress, which holds the purse strings, would have a “major hand” in the sweeping effort to save money within the Pentagon’s budget. But he indicated he would seek to work with Gates on the proposal.

“I take what the secretary said seriously,” Skelton, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday at a breakfast with defense reporters. “I have been contemplating how to approach it.”

Skelton, a strong supporter of a robust military budget, also drew a couple lines in the sand. He said he would not accept cuts from the ranks of active-duty military personnel, nor a smaller Navy.

Skelton said he is preparing to task his committee with finding savings in the Pentagon’s budget to complement Gates’s effort. The chairman is considering tasking an existing acquisition reform panel with tackling the issue; forming a new panel with this specific goal; or asking each subcommittee on his panel to come up with ways to save.

“I am taking it very seriously. I am going to do one of those very, very soon,” Skelton said.  Overall, Skelton expressed strong support for Gates, a holdover from the George W. Bush administration, giving him a grade of “A-plus.”

Echoing Pentagon leaders, Skelton said he is not targeting the top line of the base defense budget.

“It is not just a matter of dollars. It’s how you spend them,” Skelton said. “There are ways to save money. How much, I don’t know.”

Skelton also made the case for a new reform acquisition bill approved by his committee that Skelton argues would save $30 billion a year.

The Senate Armed Services Committee did not approve any such legislation, and Skelton acknowledged that the House panel members have to get their Senate counterparts to back their efforts.

Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn on Friday said the Pentagon leadership’s goal is to find more savings within the defense budget without cutting the top-line number.

Lynn on Friday fleshed out Gates’s major initiative to reduce Pentagon bloat and scrutinize the defense budget. Gates unveiled his initiative in a major speech last month at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan.

Pentagon leaders are eyeing 2 to 3 percent real growth in the Pentagon’s budget for the areas that need it most: force structure and modernization, Lynn indicated.

The White House has told the Pentagon to expect growth of about 1 percent in the budget over the next several years.

But Lynn said that based on past experience, about 2 to 3 percent real growth would be necessary to “give the troops what they need to do their very best.”

Two-thirds of the $100 billion cost savings spread out over the next five years will come from trimming overhead on a department-wide basis. That money will be directly transferred into the force structure and modernization accounts, Lynn explained.

The rest of the cost savings would come from “developing efficiencies within those force structure and modernization accounts,” he added.

Lynn also warned that in order to redistribute $100 billion, the Pentagon leadership and the military services will have to identify “lower-priority programs” that are not going to be part of future budgets.

The departments of the Army, Air Force and Navy, which also includes the Marine Corps, as well as the combatant commands are expected to report their proposals by July 31 as the Pentagon prepares its budget request for Congress.

For example, the military departments are each expected to find $2 billion in non-essential costs for fiscal 2012. In turn, the services would be able to transfer those savings to their modernization efforts and their forces.