Defense Secretary Robert Gates' plans to curtail growth in defense spending is predictably prompting backlash from private industry and some members of Congress. But Gates' recommendations are modest at best — he still anticipates a 1 percent annual growth rate. And knee-jerk reactions that such cuts will hurt national defense are just that. If anything, Gates may need to push more to rein in defense spending to ensure the country's long-term economic health.
Gates, the last holdover from the Bush administration, has dubbed part of the problem he faces "brass creep." Top ranks of the military are up 13 percent since 1996 due in part to the reactivation of officers in the prosecution of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are more four-star admirals and generals than during the Vietnam War, even as the country's active troops have shrunk by almost half.
But the problem is far more than just having too many bosses. Defense spending in the country has doubled in the past 10 years, and Gates concedes too much work has been farmed out to private contractors. He has promised to tackle everything from duplicative operations to health benefits for veterans and their families, who have been largely shielded from the extraordinary increases in health care costs most Americans have had to bear.
The defense secretary's first concrete proposal would close the $240-million-a-year Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., shedding as many as 2,800 military and civilian positions and another 3,000 contractors. Some employees will inevitably be moved, however, as the command's work of coordinating the various services for work on the battlefield will be reassigned.
Gates' effort is an offensive maneuver. He promises the department can hold growth in defense spending to no more than 1 percent annually by finding 2 percent to 3 percent in cuts elsewhere. That, he hopes, will stave off congressional efforts to cut the department even further. He's banking on public sentiment to continue — as it has since 9/11 — to avoid significant belt-tightening when it comes to spending money on defense and national security. Surely the defense industry, which makes billions off government contracts, will help press that case with the public and congressional allies.
But unrestrained government spending in any endeavor is ripe for inefficiencies and ultimately strips resources from other priorities — such as reducing the federal deficit. Gates has opened the door to a leaner and smarter Defense Department. President Barack Obama and Congress should make sure that's the beginning of the discussion, not the end.