Alarmist Defense Cuts Won’t Help the Deficit

Secretary Gates’s Announcement Distracts from Needed Budget Cuts

Secretary Gates’s announced staff and contracting cuts would not help reduce the deficit and distract from real solutions to downsizing the budget, writes Lawrence Korb.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gestures during a news conference at the Pentagon on August 9, 2010 where he discussed possible staff cuts. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gestures during a news conference at the Pentagon on August 9, 2010 where he discussed possible staff cuts. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Pentagon will spend more than $700 billion in the upcoming fiscal year on defense—more than the rest of the world combined and more than at any time in our history except for World War II. The defense budget, exclusive of war costs, has grown in real terms for 13 straight years—the longest period of sustained grown in our nation’s history—and it is now higher than at the height of the Reagan-era buildup. Pentagon spending is the third-largest item in the overall federal budget after Medicare and Social Security and has grown by more than 6 percent since President Obama came into office.

This nation has a huge deficit problem that both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen say we must deal with if we want to protect our national security. Yet Gates reports that the Pentagon’s budget will continue to grow even after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end—adding to the budget problem rather than helping reduce it.

Gates called a press conference on August 9, 2010 to prevent Congress from cutting the defense budget or even stopping its continued growth. He announced at this conference yesterday that the Pentagon would close the Joint Forces Command, freeze hiring in his office, cut 50 of the 1000 generals and admirals, and reduce spending on private contractors (except in war zones) by 10 percent a year.

He could not give an estimate of how much the Pentagon would save with these steps. But chances are it will not be very much. The Joint Forces Command, for example, only spends about $240 million a year. Gates also couldn’t say whether the command’s 2,800 military and contract employees would be terminated or transferred. There will be no savings at all if they are simply transferred.

If each of the 50 generals and admirals cost the government $250,000 a year, the total savings will be about $13 million a year when all 50 are eliminated. And that assumes that 50 more colonels and captains will not be promoted.

Reducing the number of contractors excludes the several hundred thousand in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the Pentagon admits it is not sure how many contractors it actually has.

The Pentagon budget will not decline even if all these comparatively small savings come to pass. Gates wants to use these savings to buy more weapons, and that is the key issue that needs to be addressed. Exactly how many more planes, ships, tanks, and strategic nuclear weapons does the Pentagon need and for what purpose? Gates asked why the Navy needs 11 aircraft carriers when the rest of the world has only one. But when pressed on the issue, he said he would not recommend a reduction in the carrier force. That question will obviously have to be answered by a secretary of defense who wants to deal with the big issues.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow