Gates Urges Careful Thought in Defense Spending Reductions

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo., May 19, 2011 — Find­ing $400 bil­lion in addi­tion­al defense spend­ing reduc­tions over the next 12 years will require care­ful thought that con­sid­ers the risks the reduc­tions cre­ate, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said here today.

In a ques­tion-and-answer ses­sion with stu­dents at the U.S. Army Engi­neer School here, Gates warned against what he called the “man­age­r­i­al cow­ardice” of across-the-board cuts, advo­cat­ing instead an approach that retains excel­lence in the mis­sions the mil­i­tary keeps while cut­ting mis­sions and pro­grams that have val­ue but would pose an accept­able lev­el of risk if elim­i­nat­ed.

“Our approach in the Depart­ment of Defense to deal­ing with the reduc­tions that peo­ple think we need to make needs to be very care­ful­ly thought through,” the sec­re­tary said. “My con­cern is that almost every­body in Wash­ing­ton sees this as a math prob­lem, as opposed to a strate­gic prob­lem. So I’m try­ing to frame the process in the Depart­ment of Defense so that we’ll con­tin­ue the effi­cien­cies that we began last year, and we’ll look at mar­gin­al mis­sions and capa­bil­i­ties for some of those that have val­ue, but are not core mis­sions for us.”

Gates said “polit­i­cal­ly hard” issues such as mil­i­tary com­pen­sa­tion, retire­ment and health care costs, as well as base clo­sures, also need to be part of the dis­cus­sion.

“But I think the real issue,” he added, “is that if we’re going to take a big hit in the bud­get, I want pol­i­cy mak­ers [and] the polit­i­cal lead­er­ship of the coun­try to think of it in terms of ‘What addi­tion­al risk are you pre­pared to take?’ ”

Pre­vi­ous large-scale defense spend­ing reduc­tions — in the 1970s after the Viet­nam War and in the 1990s after the Cold War — were tak­en across the board, Gates said, call­ing that approach “absolute­ly the worst way to deal with this.”

“That is the way you hol­low out the mil­i­tary,” he said. “That is the way you end up with a force struc­ture that hasn’t changed, but you don’t have near­ly enough mon­ey for train­ing, for exer­cis­es, for tank miles, for steam­ing days or fly­ing hours, or enough bul­lets to shoot in basic [train­ing] to learn how.”

The sec­re­tary not­ed that nation­al pol­i­cy for more than 20 years has been for the mil­i­tary to be able to fight two major region­al wars simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.

“One approach [to spend­ing reduc­tions],” Gates said, “would be to say the like­li­hood of that hap­pen­ing is fair­ly low, and there­fore, what are the impli­ca­tions if I think of it sequen­tial­ly instead of simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, where we won’t have to fight two at the same time? What are the impli­ca­tions of that for force struc­ture? How many [brigade com­bat teams] can you take out of the force, how many fight­ers can you take out of the force, and so on, if you’re only going to fight one war at a time?”

But that approach, he said, also requires con­sid­er­ing the risk.

“If you make that deci­sion and cut that force,” he said, “the ene­my always has a vote.”

The sec­re­tary pre­sent­ed a hypo­thet­i­cal exam­ple in which the Unit­ed States is involved in a future con­flict in Korea.

“Who’s to say that the Ira­ni­ans don’t say, ‘What a great oppor­tu­ni­ty — the Amer­i­cans are busy over here, let’s take advan­tage of the sit­u­a­tion?’ ” he asked the stu­dents rhetor­i­cal­ly.

“That’s the risk that’s involved,” he said. “So when peo­ple make these deci­sions, I don’t want them to treat it as a math prob­lem. I want them to under­stand that there are strate­gic and mil­i­tary con­se­quences to these bud­getary deci­sions, and they need to make con­scious choic­es about what capa­bil­i­ties and what risks they’re will­ing to deal with.”

Gates said he wants to make the process hard, because it’s always polit­i­cal­ly expe­di­ent to impose across-the-board per­cent­age cuts when faced with the need for spend­ing reduc­tions. “If we’re going to cut the bud­get,” he said, “we need to make some very hard, con­scious deci­sions.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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