Give Defense Secretary Robert Gates this: He's gutsy. Earlier this month, on the 65th anniversary of V-E Day, he traveled to Dwight Eisenhower's hometown of Abeline, Kan., in order to dust off Ike's warnings about the "military-industrial complex" and an entrenched government bureaucracy willing to "pile program on program" in order to cater to it.
Give Defense Secretary Robert Gates this: He's gutsy.
Earlier this month, on the 65th anniversary of V-E Day, he traveled to Dwight Eisenhower's hometown of Abeline, Kan., in order to dust off Ike's warnings about the "military-industrial complex" and an entrenched government bureaucracy willing to "pile program on program" in order to cater to it.
Just as the man who'd freed Europe warned of "seeing his beloved republic turn into a muscle-bound, garrison state - militarily strong but economically stagnant and strategically insolvent," Gates sees the same happening today, alongside growing government debt and a public demand for belt-tightening.
Before the objections can even begin to form, understand that the Pentagon chief - who has held the post under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama - isn't talking about waging war on the cheap or making cutbacks that would put troops on the battlefield in any additional danger. Nor is he talking about the $700 hammers of lore. Quite the contrary, his goal is to cut a bloated administration - bringing the number of generals and the bureaucracies they oversee more in line with the number of rank-and-file troops.
"The private sector has flattened and streamlined the middle and upper echelons of its organization charts, yet the Defense Department continues to maintain a top-heavy hierarchy that more reflects 20th-century headquarters superstructure than 21st-century realities," he said.
Indeed, overhead is estimated to make up 40 percent of the Pentagon's budget - excluding the cost of waging the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - tallying something close to $220 billion for the next fiscal year. One example he cites - that a request for a dog-handling team in Afghanistan had to be passed through the commands of five four-star generals before getting the final OK - especially illustrates the need for streamlining. Meanwhile, Gates also would cut back on the use of private-sector contractors the DOD has increasingly turned to, arguing that in some cases they produce more waste. "We ended up with contractors supervising contractors - with predictable results," he said in his speech.
In many ways, the attempt to tame the growth of military spending and create a more efficient, modern, versatile fighting force is reminiscent of the battle former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was preparing to engage in right up until Sept. 11, 2001. It was a good idea then, and it remains one today.
Though he's only targeting up to $15 billion in administrative savings the first year, Gates wants to produce more fiscal discipline over the long haul - as opposed to the one-time, feel-good axing of a piece of military hardware, for example.
Unfortunately, few members of Congress want to risk being tagged anti-military, even if this is a bureaucratic issue rather than a combat one. Defense contracts are popular pork.
Some of Gates' proposals are already in trouble, like his effort to boost medical premiums for retired military personnel. They pay a little more than one-third of what federal employees do for family health insurance and haven't seen an increase in their bills since 1995, though the Pentagon's share of health costs for active-duty and retired personnel has gone from $19 billion to $50 billion in the last decade. Likewise, Gates' suggestions to trim big-ticket items fell on deaf ears, as when he observed, "You don't necessarily need a billion-dollar guided missile destroyer to chase down and deal with a bunch of teenage pirates wielding AK-47s." That said, Gates has a good track record in getting cuts when he goes looking for them, having eliminated tens of billions in weapons programs deemed wasteful or obsolete during his tenure.
Look, the U.S. spends seven times what the next closest nation, China, shells out for defense, more than 40 percent of the world's total, all by ourselves. At $549 billion, U.S. defense outlays have doubled since 2000, and that's not counting the wars. Arguably that spending has begun to compromise our economic competitiveness, which is its own kind of defense. To be sure, this new effort will require massive amounts of political capital and promises to be an uphill battle, but if it can make the military more modern and responsive while saving the taxpayer, it's a fight worth having.
Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.