Defense Secretary Robert Gates is warning 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 on Saturday said that 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 more Boeing C-17 cargo airplanes and the General Electric-Rolls Royce secondary engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
“What it takes is the political will and willingness…to make hard choices — choices that will displease powerful people both inside the Pentagon and out,” Gates said on Saturday in a pointed speech at Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan., on the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.
Gates delivered his message of budget austerity in a symbolic location: Dwight Eisenhower warned against a military-industrial complex when he left office in 1961.
“Eisenhower was wary of seeing his beloved republic turn into a muscle-bound, garrison state—militarily strong, but economically stagnant and strategically insolvent,” Gates said.
Gates acknowledged that saving money in the defense budget “will mean overcoming steep institutional and political challenges, many lying outside the five walls of the Pentagon.”
Apart from making the case against the alternate engine for the F-35 and more C-17s, 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 health care costs under control, Gates said.
“Leaving aside the sacred obligation we have to America’s wounded warriors, healthcare costs are eating the Defense Department alive, rising from $19 billion a decade ago to $50 billion—roughly the entire foreign affairs and assistance budget of the State Department,” 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 challenged the bureaucracy that supports the military mission and took aim at scores of flag officers—generals and admirals—as well as the numbers of senior civilian executives.
“Another category ripe for scrutiny should be overhead,” he said. “According to an estimate by the Defense Business Board, overhead, broadly defined, makes up roughly 40 percent of the Department’s budget.”
Gates said the Pentagon’s approach to coming up with the requirements for specific programs and contract must change. Requirements for weapons systems should be based on a “wider real world context,” he said.
“For example, should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters relative to the number of carrier wings, when America’s military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds?” Gates asked in a reference to the congressional push to buy more Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets.
“Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners? Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?”
Gates said that those are the kind of questions that the government should be asking and consequently finding an answer in order “to have a balanced military portfolio geared to real world requirements and a defense budget that is fiscally and politically sustainable over time.”