WASHINGTON — The outgoing defense secretary, Robert Gates, said Tuesday that the U.S. military would become smaller and service members' pay and benefits could be reduced as the Pentagon struggles to meet President Barack Obama's stringent cost-cutting targets.
In what he called his last major policy speech in Washington before he steps down June 30, Gates said that in order to meet Obama's goal of $400 billion in military spending cuts over 12 years, Americans would face tough choices over whether to eliminate some weapons programs, shrink the size of fighting units, and overhaul health care and retirement packages for service members.
While declining to offer specific proposals, Gates said the Pentagon's efforts to trim costs around the margins so far had been "disappointing" and that only major cuts could produce the savings that Obama and some lawmakers are demanding as the United States wrestles with ever-growing debt and budget deficits.
Americans should be under no illusions, however, that serious cuts wouldn't fundamentally change the size and shape of the U.S. military.
"A smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and do fewer things," Gates told an audience at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
One of the longest-serving heads of the Pentagon in U.S. history, Gates presided over the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan under Obama and his predecessor, President George W. Bush. But during his final months in office Gates also warned that the post-9/11 era of blank-check military spending was over, and he began an effort to streamline overhead and operations costs, eliminate unnecessary programs and re-evaluate the size and location of combat brigades to stave off future calls for belt-tightening.
"The defense budget, however large it may be, is not the cause of the country's fiscal woes. But as a matter of simple arithmetic and political reality, the Department of Defense must be at least part of the solution," Gates said.
Nevertheless, the Pentagon in February unveiled a $553 billion budget that was the largest in its history, driven by what defense analysts said was an ever-expanding range of strategic threats, from pandemic illnesses to piracy and human trafficking.
Speaking on Tuesday, Gates expressed frustration with the inability to trim the Pentagon's bureaucracy, at one point likening his pro-efficiency efforts to "an Easter egg hunt" in which it was "nearly impossible to get accurate answers to questions such as 'How much money did you spend? How many people do you have?' " he said.
Nevertheless, he said that some programs were "absolutely critical" to U.S. military capability, such as building more Navy ships, state-of-the-art strike fighters and ballistic missile submarines.
Offering a progress report on his cost cuts, he said that 30 programs had been canceled or curtailed that would have cost more than $300 billion if they'd been completed. He cited another $54 billion in savings from freezing civilian staff and pay levels and downgrading some civilian positions, as well as reducing reliance on contractors and eliminating unnecessary studies.
Service members' salaries also could be on the chopping block, he said, considering that all the branches of the armed services consistently had recruited and retained more service members than targeted, and because health care costs also were spiraling.
More cuts could come from reducing overhead costs, particularly in the regional and combatant commands overseas, he said.
"There are still too many headquarters, offices and agencies employing too many high-ranking personnel and contractors consuming too many resources relative to real military missions and measurable results," Gates said.
But in a reflection of the difficult decisions ahead, Gates said that defense officials had studied the potential cost savings of bringing the three remaining brigade combat teams in Europe back to the United States. When the cost of bringing them back and building domestic facilities for them was calculated, however, there were virtually no savings to be had in the short term.
The "low hanging fruit ... have not only been plucked, they've been stomped on and crushed," Gates said.
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