WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today vowed to take the time necessary to reform the Defense Department and eliminate unnecessary overhead expenses.
At a Pentagon news conference, Gates said he has made fighting this fight the goal of his remaining time a defense secretary.
“I intend to spend every day, for as long as I remain secretary of defense, doing all I can to implement these reforms that are so critical to sustaining our military in the years ahead,” he said.
The secretary also threw down the gauntlet to Congress, saying that if the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill includes funds for an alternative engine for the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, he will ask President Barack Obama to veto the whole bill. If Congress includes an additional half of a percentage point to the military pay raise over the administration’s recommendation, however, he said he will not recommend a veto.
“I believe the defense budget process should no longer be characterized by business as usual within this building or outside of it,” the secretary said. “We in [the Defense Department] must make tough choices and decisions to ensure that current and future military combat capabilities can be sustained in a time of budget stringency.” Gates has the full support of the uniformed military in the building, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at the news conference.
“The proper stewardship of the taxpayers’ dollars is high on absolutely everybody’s list,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said. “I don’t underestimate the challenge that is here. But I think being able to get at overhead and shift it … and do so inside the force structure that we have right now is absolutely critical.”
Gates unveiled his goal of eliminating overhead and shifting the savings to more critical mission-oriented programs during a speech at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan., May 8. “I have challenged this department to become more efficient in the way it is organized, staffed and operated and, in so doing, find the savings necessary to sustain essential military force structure and capabilities,” he said.
The secretary met with defense and service leaders earlier this week to establish a plan and process for attaining this goal.
“Getting this done will require the priority attention of our entire leadership team and include all services, commands, components and elements of America’s defense establishment,” Gates said.
The department also will work with Congress, think tanks, academia and others for “specific and workable proposals on how to change the way this department does business,” he added.
Gates stressed that he is not asking for cuts in the defense budget. As the department fights two wars and as planners anticipate an unsettled future, he said, the department needs a certain amount of yearly real growth.
“The president’s budget proposal … proposes such a real growth path,” he said. “However, the department will face very difficult choices with regard to sustaining needed military capabilities in the years ahead unless it is able to shift resources away from excess management structure or lower-priority areas and towards current and future combat capabilities.”
His intent in shifting funds is to protect the required budget growth in areas most important to the defense of the United States, Gates said. These include force structure, uniformed personnel or future combat capabilities.
The secretary told reporters he is worried about congressional actions on the joint strike fighter program and the desire of some in Congress to buy more C-17 Globemaster III transport jets that he says the Defense Department doesn’t need.
The House Armed Services Committee has passed its version of the authorization bill, he said, and “it appears that the committee continues to insist that the department add an extra engine to the joint strike fighter.
“In addition,” he said, “the detailed conditions they have imposed on the overall [joint strike fighter] program would make it essentially unexecutable and impose unacceptable schedule and budget costs.”
The joint strike fighter program is the largest and most important acquisition project over the next decade. It has been through some tough times, and Gates personally intervened in an attempt to get the program back on track.
“Our team has taken aggressive steps to restructure and manage it through this critical phase in development,” he said. “I am therefore determined to ensure that it remains on track. Accordingly, as I have stated repeatedly, should the Congress insist on adding funding for a costly and unnecessary JSF extra engine or direct changes that seriously disrupt the JSF program, or impose additional C-17 aircraft, I will strongly recommend that the president veto such legislation.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)