U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday announced the elimination of a major U.S. combat command and other steps designed to save money and protect his department's ability to defend the country during a time of economic constraints.
Secretary Gates announced that within the next year, he will close Joint Forces Command - one of the department's 10 major combat commands. The 2,800-member organization based in Virginia has an annual budget of $340 million. It promotes cooperation among the military services, helps determine which forces are needed for which missions and conducts joint training, sometimes including foreign forces. Gates said some of those functions are no longer needed and others can be done more efficiently by other units.
Gates also announced a series of cuts and freezes designed to sharply reduce the number of senior military officers, civilians and contractors in the defense department, to reduce the number of reports the department generates, and to eliminate redundancy in intelligence gathering, among other steps.
The secretary said the defense department needs to find enough savings to make up for expected slow growth in its half a trillion-dollar base budget in the coming years. He said he expects about one percent growth, but he noted that the department needs three percent to accomplish all of its missions.
"As I look around the world and see a more unstable world, more failed and failing states, countries that are investing heavily in their militaries, as I look at places like Iran and North Korea and elsewhere around the world, as I look at the new kinds of threats emerging from cyber to precision ballistic and cruise missiles and so on, my greatest worry is that we will do to the defense budget what we have done four times before, and that is slash it in an effort to find some kind of a dividend to put the money someplace else. I think that would be disastrous," said Robert Gates.
Gates said the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan do not present a budget problem. Rather, he said, his concern is about the future.
"This isn't about finding money for the wars we're in today," he said. "We've got that money. It's about protecting the money for the future."
The secretary would not specify which future threats he sees as most important, but he noted that the U.S. Navy needs more ships, an element that is critical to the U.S. desire to balance China's growing capabilities and assertiveness in the Pacific.
Gates said that in order to defend the country at a time of fiscal restraint, he needs to change the way U.S. defense officials think.
"The ultimate success of these initiatives, as well as the other reforms underway, in the end will depend on a fundamental change in culture and attitude across our defense institutions," said Gates. "The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced with a culture of savings and restraint."
The secretary called these steps a "down payment" toward making the defense department more efficient and said they focus resources where they are most needed. He said he also plans to tackle two politically sensitive issues by looking at potential base closures in the United States and at reducing the skyrocketing costs of military health care.
But unlike most of the steps he announced on Monday, those would require congressional approval. And many members of congress are concerned about losing jobs in their districts through base closures and about putting more health care costs on the troops.