WASHINGTON — In an effort to deter potential budget cuts by Congress and streamline a burgeoning Defense Department, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates Monday proposed to cut spending on contracting, to close a command stationed in Norfolk, Va., and to reduce the number of flag officers and civilian leaders.
The proposed changes would lead to the elimination of thousands of jobs. However, whether the changes — which add up to small fraction of the defense department's $535 billion annual budget — will be enough to pacify Congress remains unclear. With war funding, the defense budget has doubled since 2001.
"We must be mindful of the difficult economic and fiscal situation facing our nation," Gates said in briefing reporters at the Pentagon Monday. "We cannot expect Congress to approve budget increases each year."
Gates called the changes an effort to eliminate waste and duplication.
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"I am determined to change the way this department has done business for a long time," Gates said.
Gates called for the closure of the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., one of the military's 10 commands. It employs 2,800 Defense Department employees and another 3,000 contractors, and has a $704 million operating budget.
With the elimination of JFCOM, other command posts will have to write new doctrine, monitor U.S. coordination efforts with NATO allies in Afghanistan and oversee how the services are readying their forces, all tasks that now fall under JFCOM. Many of those tasks will fall under the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, he said.
Former Iraq commander Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who leaves Iraq later this month for JFCOM, will now be tasked with shutting down the command, much as he was charged in Iraq with winding down the U.S. mission there.
Gates also proposed cutting the budget for contractors who support the Defense Department by 30 percent over three years; freezing the number of employees in his offices, defense agencies and combatant commands; and eliminating 50 generals and admirals and 150 top civilian posts over two years. He also called for cuts in intelligence contractors.
The secretary made the announcement while Congress is in recess, but regardless, his proposal spurred immediate protests from Virginia Republican officials.
Gov. Bob McDonnell said he was "deeply disappointed" that Gates targeted JFCOM for extinction. In a statement, McDonnell said JFCOM provides essential coordination for the armed services in a time of war, and also provides "good quality, high paying jobs for thousands of Virginians and could not come at a worse time."
Republican Rep. Randy Forbes, who represents the district where JFCOM is, said in a statement: "The American people will see this decision for what it is: a first step in a long string of national defense cuts that will systematically and intentionally gut the institutions that protect and defend the freedoms and liberties upon which our nation was founded — and they will not stand for it."
In addition, Gates proposed closing the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks, which is based out of the Pentagon and designed to advise the secretary on technology, and the Information and the Business Transformation Agency, which was created in 2006 to reform the department's business practices and has a $340 million annual budget.
However, Gates didn't tackle the department's biggest budget problem: Its exploding health care costs, which are expected to reach $50 billion by fiscal year 2011 and $65 billion five years after that. Those changes, he said, will be forthcoming because "we are being eaten alive" by health care costs.
In a statement issued by the White House, President Barack Obama welcomed Gates' initiatives: "Today, Secretary Gates advanced our effort to invest in the defense capabilities that we need in the 21st Century, while being responsible and accountable in spending taxpayer dollars."
Gates has made overhauling the defense budget one of his top goals; indeed, some believe that he's extended his tenure as secretary — despite numerous promises to leave — to tackle the budget, which he's said will take several budget cycles to change.
So far, Gates' efforts to change the budget have had mixed results. He's proposed that the department not purchase any more C-17s, a military transport plane, and eliminate the F-22, a fighter plane. However, Congress has tried to reinstate C-17.
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