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August 10, 2010

Secretary Of Defense Gates Announces Plan To Disestablish Joint Forces Command, Cut Civilian And Military Personnel

You can say a lot of things about Robert Gates but you can't say he's just riding out his time at the Department of Defense.

Most of the cuts he's proposing here involve civilian workers, contract positions and Flag Officers and their staffs.

Gates said he will recommend that President Obama dismantle the U.S. Joint Forces Command, which employs about 2,800 military and civilian personnel as well as 3,300 contractors, most of them in southeastern Virginia. He also said he will terminate two other Pentagon agencies, impose a 10 percent cut in intelligence advisory contracts and slim down what he called a "top-heavy hierarchy" by thinning the ranks of admirals and generals by at least 50 positions.

The reduction in funding for contract employees -- by 10 percent annually over three years -- excludes those in war zones.

Although the moves will save an unspecified amount of money, defense officials characterized them as a political preemptive strike to fend off growing sentiment elsewhere in Washington to tackle the federal government's soaring deficits by making deep cuts in military spending. The Obama administration has exempted national security from its budget reductions, but Gates said he fears that Congress might not be able to resist for long.

"It is important that we not repeat the mistakes of the past, where tough economic times or the winding down of a military campaign leads to steep and unwise reductions in defense," Gates said. He cited threats from Iran, North Korea and other countries -- in an implicit reference to China -- as justification for continued overall growth in the Pentagon's budget.

With deficits soaring and combat operations officially over in Iraq, it's inevitable that there will be a draw down in costs and infrastructure dedicated to supporting that fight. If history teaches us anything, it's that politicians will cut way too much and usually in the wrong places (F-22 anyone?). If Gates can get ahead of that curve and cut lower priority items to spare the essentials, all the better.

The big ticket item in this package is the Joint Forces Command. Now whether Gates really wants to shutter it or is using it as a chip for something else, isn't clear (though I bet he's serious). These games are played on a lot of levels.

Assume for the moment Gates really wants to close up the shop, is that a good or bad thing? Obviously, there's no easy answer and it depends on who you talk to. CDR Salamander, who has been advocating for a culling of the bloat at the flag level for awhile, seems to think we can survive very nicely without it. Lawmakers who are concerned mostly about jobs in their districts will sing a very different tune.

(Added) Lex has a few kind words to say in favor of contractors vs. full time civilian employees.

An interesting note somewhat lost in all of this...

He also promised to conduct a "zero-base review" of all defense intelligence programs, meaning an examination of each and every program and its budget. James Clapper, who is moving over to ODNI from the Pentagon, will conduct a similar review of all federal intelligence programs in order to find waste and redundancy, Gates said.

I wish all of the federal government should be doing this. Justify your existence from scratch, not just because "we've always done this".

Overall this seems like a good thing. Even the most hardcore hawk will admit there's more than a few places the DoD could slim down without hurting the mission. Though as always, the Devil is in the execution.

Now, if we can only get the rest of the government to follow DoD's example. One place that should be easy to cut back (were it not for public employee unions) is the explosion in federal salaries. Right now the average total federal compensation package is closing in on doubling the average in the private sector.

But there's no doubt that federal pay is higher than private pay across the board, not just in the upper brackets. If Congress were to freeze federal pay raises until the private sector begins to catch up, the savings to taxpayers would be considerable. Heritage scholar James Sherk estimates that ending the disparity could save the taxpayers $47 billion a year. (A study by the American Enterprise Institute put the figure at $40 billion.) That won't get close to balancing the budget, but add up 10 years of that and the government will save significant money.

And it's done without cutting government services or subsidies. "In the past, the implication was that if you are spending less, then you are doing less," says Grover Norquist, the conservative head of Americans for Tax Reform. "But you could save money by paying public workers what you pay private workers and still do the same things."

Is federal pay the big ticket budget item that entitlements are? Of course not but if you can't cut the low hanging fruit (economically and politically) you have zero chance of doing the hard stuff.

This seems like the kind of thing Republicans could run like crazy on.

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posted by DrewM. at 11:24 AM

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