Levin: Gates 'gutsy' for trying to curb Pentagon spending, bureaucracy

The Senate’s leading Democrat on military affairs called Secretary of Defense Robert Gates “gutsy” for taking aim at the Pentagon’s spending practices and bureaucratic bloat.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that Gates deserves “high grades for courage” and that Congress would “like to be helpful” with his efforts to curb wasteful Pentagon spending, but it won’t just go along with the secretary’s recommendations.

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“He is a gutsy guy,” Levin said in an interview Tuesday. “I think he is on the right track, but the specifics are important. I think Congress would like to be helpful, but it is not going to be a rubber stamp.”

Gates warned Congress and the Pentagon brass that military spending must receive harsh scrutiny in the face of the nation’s tough economic times and large deficit. Gates also criticized the Pentagon’s bureaucracy and spending in a landmark speech at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan., this weekend.

But an example of how the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is not going to go along with some aspects of Gates’s plan is the funding for the second F-35 Joint Strike Fighter engine, produced by General Electric and Rolls-Royce. Pratt & Whitney builds the primary engine for the fighter jet and has fought on Capitol Hill for years to remain the sole engine-maker.

Levin has been a long-term supporter of a secondary engine for the military’s newest fighter jet and, again this year, he won’t back down from authorizing funds for that engine despite Gates threatening to personally recommend that President Barack Obama veto any defense bills that support the second engine. 

“I always thought it was the right thing to have competition … that it was worth the investment,” Levin said. “Most of the investment has now been made, so we have a lot of sunk costs.”

A February Pentagon analysis conducted by the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office found that developing the alternate engine wouldn’t cost more than only buying the Pratt & Whitney primary engine. But the Pentagon analysis strongly advised against funding the GE-Rolls-Royce engine.

But Levin argued that the Pentagon’s own assessment said “it is [a] 50-50 chance of savings.”

“There are a lot of different ways to slice it,” Levin said. “I do not understand veto threats when, by their own assessment, using their own numbers, they came up with a 50-50 wash.” 

Levin indicated that he did not know whether he would be successful in authorizing funding for the second engine this year. Last year the Senate stripped the funding when the 2010 defense authorization bill was considered on the floor. But authorization for the funding was restored when the Senate negotiated the bill with the House, where lawmakers have given the second engine strong support.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the new chairman of the Armed Services Air and Land Forces subcommittee, indicated that he backed the development of the second engine.

Gates on Saturday said it is “highly unlikely” the defense budget will grow in the coming years and challenged lawmakers to stop funding programs that the Pentagon does not want, such as the GE-Rolls-Royce engine for the F-35.

Gates also said he is directing both the military and civilian employees to slash overhead and take a “hard, unsparing look” at how they operate. Overall, Gates is looking for $10 billion to $15 billion in savings within the Pentagon’s budget and to be able to transfer those savings to the fighting force.

Gates raised the alarm over Congress’s resistance to increasing the premiums and co-pays on the military’s health insurance. The Pentagon has attempted in the last several years to make modest increases to the co-pays and premiums in order to bring the healthcare costs under control, Gates said. 

The premiums for the health insurance program have not risen since the program was founded more than a decade ago, Gates added.

Gates also called on Congress to stop increasing the military’s pay raises by a half-percent, as it routinely does.

Levin said he has not yet decided how his committee will approach the military health insurance and pay issues raised by Gates on Saturday.

Levin said his committee has “resisted” raising co-pays and premiums for the health insurance, known as Tricare.

“We obviously do not want to do it, and I want to look at that issue along with the pay-raise issue,” Levin said Tuesday.

Another member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who serves on the Personnel subcommittee, said that he would consider Gates’s input on the pay-raise and healthcare issues, but that he wants to “take a good look at what is being proposed for the military.”

“This is a year that we ought to really be paying close attention to not increasing spending any more than absolutely necessary,” Nelson said. “On the other hand … we have to keep it competitive, fair.”