By Erik Wasson - 01/06/11 08:56 PM EST
Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the Pentagon will seek $78 billion in cuts to the defense budget over the next five years in a surprise move that will reduce the size of the Army and Marine Corps.
If carried out by the administration, the plan will institute the first freeze on military spending since before the terrorist attacks of 2001.
The $78 billion cut is separate from the Pentagon's $100 billion efficiency drive, which is identifying savings that will be reinvested in the military budget.
In a press conference Thursday announcing the budget proposal, Gates said the cuts are needed to help bring the deficit under control.
“Ever since taking this post four years ago, I have called for protecting force structure and maintaining modest but real growth in the defense top line over the long term," Gates said. "I would prefer that this continue to be the case, but this country’s dire fiscal situation and the threat that this poses to America’s influence and credibility around the world will only get worse unless the U.S. government gets its finances in order."
He singled out the Pentagon's role in the country's fiscal situation, adding that he hopes "what had been a culture of endless money" at the department "will become a culture of savings and restraint.”
Gates was careful to note that the cuts will not affect the strength of the armed forces. He said that after the reductions, the Army would still be 40,000 troops larger than when he took office, while the Marines would still be at least 7,000 troops larger.
The cuts to the budget, while deep, do not match the recommendations from the president’s debt commission. That panel called for $843 billion in discretionary spending cuts from 2012 to 2016, with $425 billion of that coming from defense spending.
“There are people in both parties on the Hill who are calling for more cuts to the budget,” Gates noted.
The rest of the $78 billion in cuts proposed by the Pentagon will come from $54 billion knocked out of Pentagon overhead, including a freeze on civilian pay. Delays and re-pricing of the Joint Strike Fighter will save $4 billion, while $14 billion would come from changes to economic assumptions.
Savings across the Defense Department come from a big cut in the budget for contractors, which would be reduced 10 percent per year. Also on the table is streamlining what Gates characterized as a disorganized, redundant and growing intelligence infrastructure, as well as trimming internal reports by 60 percent.
Under the budget plan, the defense budget would continue to rise over the next two years but stop growing after that. The president’s budget request for 2012 will be $553 billion, $13 billion less than President Obama had projected.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the service branches are completely behind Gates’s plan, which Gates said avoids “drastic and ill-conceived cuts” while recognizing that the U.S. is in a state of “extreme fiscal duress.”
Mullen said that any additional cuts that Congress might seek could only be made by slashing the number of troops.
The office of Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who also chairs the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, said Inouye is reserving judgment on the merits of the cuts until the fiscal 2012 budget comes out.
Inouye "was generally in agreement with the secretary's proposal recognizing that we need to find ways to increase efficiency in all areas of government spending. However, the devil is in the details," spokesman Rob Blumenthal said.
Earlier Thursday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) had said he was deeply concerned and surprised by the proposals.
As expected, Gates announced he wants to cancel the $14 billion Marine Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), built by General Dynamics. He also said he is putting the F-35B version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) being developed for the Marines on “probation,” and said the problematic Lockheed Martin fighter should be canceled if it cannot be fixed by the end of that time period.
Armed Services Committee member Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), whose district houses the factory where the EFV is made, made his displeasure with the Gates announcement known and said there is a groundswell of resistance to it on his committee.
“Secretary Gates is going to face some tough questioning from our committee on this,” he told The Hill.
Turner said he would like to pursue a plan backed by defense industry sources to reduce the number of EFVs purchased, rather than canceling the procurement. He noted that Gates announced an alternative amphibious assault vehicle would be pursued instead, but that Gates did not have any estimates of what that would cost.
Taxpayers for Common Sense hailed the Gates announcement but said it did not go far enough.
"TCS is pleased to see the Defense Department finally acknowledge what we have said for years. Underperforming, overpriced weapons systems such as the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle are a drain on taxpayers' wallets and must be stopped," spokesman Ryan Alexander said.
Gates also blasted Congress for failing to pass a defense appropriations bill for fiscal 2011, forcing the Pentagon to operate on $18 billion less than it had asked for.
He said passing a full-year continuing resolution based on the current stopgap measure “would cause this department severe problems” and “curtail critical activities.”
Gates, who has been widely expected to step down this year, was asked by a reporter at the press briefing whether he can guarantee he will stay on through the budget process this year or until the end of Obama's first term in office. He said, simply, "No."