Adm. Mullen: Avoid weapon, troop cuts because ‘that’s why we’re here’

Big-ticket weapons programs and troop levels should be the last things considered as Obama administration and Pentagon officials mull defense cuts, Adm. Michael Mullen said Thursday.

“We need to avoid just making the relatively easy decision of, ‘Let’s just cut force structure,’ ” said the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We have to go through everything else before we get to that point — because that’s why we’re here.”

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Mullen said the time has come to look for cuts in once-sacrosanct parts of the Pentagon budgets, such as military healthcare and benefits programs. Shrinking staff sizes in Defense Department agencies and organizations is also on Mullen’s radar.

During a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, Mullen made clear his belief that force structure — “platforms and people” — should be spared as long as possible during coming budget cuts.

“We have to put initiatives in place over the mid-term that will then start to generate cash in the out years,” Mullen said.

“Part of this is understanding where the money is,” Mullen said. “Two of the big places the money is is in healthcare, and it’s in pay and benefits.”

The Defense Business Board, a Pentagon advisory group, has warned that if left unchecked, personnel costs will end up being a poison pill for the military’s annual budget.

President Obama has ordered $400 billion in national security spending cuts over a dozen years as the administration identifies ways to help pare the federal deficit. Obama placed the Pentagon in charge of a sweeping review that will span the national-security apparatus to determine what kinds of missions are vital, which ones can be shed and where big cuts can be made.

The “overarching” thrust of the review is to answer this question: “What do you want to do with your military in this very challenging world?” Mullen said.

As officials move forward with that review, they insist every aspect of the national-security budget is being scrutinized.

“When I say all things are on the table, all things are on the table,” Mullen said. 

In their final months on the job, Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are arguing aggressively against terminating any of the major weapons development programs they have not already killed or truncated.

During a May 24 speech, Gates called part of his 2010 internal cost-cutting effort that led to $154 billion in savings “disappointing”: cuts to bloated staffs and offices within military agencies and other organizations. That part of the military does not belong to any one service and is referred to as the “fourth estate.”

Pentagon budget writers were only able to trim “less than a billion dollars in annual projected savings from a group of organizations that consume at least $64 billion per year by our latest estimate,” the outgoing Defense secretary said. “I believe we can and should do much better.”

Mullen echoed that sentiment on Thursday.

“At some point this is a question of ‘Will we trade force structure for the fourth estate?’ ” Mullen told reporters. “My answer is no.

“We’re not here to have staffs. We’re not here to have infrastructure,” Mullen said. “We’re here because we’re focused on the war-fighting mission that we’re tasked with.”

The veteran U.S. officer said the military’s force structure must be shaped as more than simply “the best counterinsurgency force we can be in the future, and that’s it.”

“We still have high-end war-fighting requirements that we’re going to have to resource,” Mullen said. “Now, they’re going to have to come in on cost and schedule — which many of them have not.”

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In a House-passed Pentagon 2012 policy bill and a House Appropriations Committee-approved Defense Department spending measure, the GOP authors fully funded most of DOD’s major weapon programs.

Analysts say Obama’s desired $400 billion in cuts should spare hardware platforms since they would be scattered across 12 years.

“See how easy this is?” Gordon Adams, who ran defense budgeting for the Clinton administration at the Office of Management and Budget, said Tuesday. “I don’t know why … there is this tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth. Even with the cuts the president wants, there is no challenger out there to the U.S. military for at least 25 years.”

The comment came in reaction to the House panel’s $9 billion reduction to the Pentagon’s $553 billion request, which found monies to cut in non-controversial parts of the DOD budget.

But as senior brass seek to trim staffs and shutter organizations, there will be a fight, Mullen said, noting senior officers and civilians will hold onto their large staffs with tight grips.

One way Pentagon officials could shrink staff sizes and shutter unneeded and redundant fourth estate organizations is by simply cutting off their funding. But Mullen said he feels that is not the most “prudent” way to handle it.