ABILENE — Defense Secretary Robert Gates vowed Saturday to lead an effort to cut as much as $15 billion in overhead costs from the Pentagon's $550 billion budget and warned that without the savings the military will not be able to afford its current force.
Under Gates' plan, the billions taken from the Pentagon's vast administrative bureaucracy would be used to pay for weapons modernization programs and the overall fighting force in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates also hinted that additional cuts to major weapons programs would probably be necessary in the coming years.
The Pentagon's budget has almost doubled over the past decade, but the faltering national economy and surging U.S. debt will impose new austerity on the military, Gates warned.
"The gusher has been turned off," he told an audience of about 300 people at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Kansas. "And it will stay off for a good period of time."
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Gates is far from the first defense secretary to promise major cuts in the Pentagon bureaucracy. Throughout his tenure, Donald Rumsfeld railed against the inefficiencies plaguing the Defense Department but was unable to realize significant savings. The Clinton administration similarly promised savings by turning to private contractors, an effort that only produced greater costs.
But Gates said that the ballooning national debt lends his efforts a new urgency. "The national economic situation is different than it has ever been in modern times," he told reporters Friday. "If we want to sustain the current force, we have no alternative."
Gates told President Obama in January that he planned to stay in office through December 2010, but the defense secretary hinted Friday that he would be willing to stay on longer to ensure that the savings he is seeking are realized. He emphasized that his proposed savings of $10 billion to $15 billion a year were rough estimates.
Among Gates' apparent targets for major cuts are the private contractors whom the Pentagon has hired in large numbers over the past decade to take on administrative tasks that the military used to handle. The defense secretary estimated that this portion of the Pentagon budget has grown by as much as $23 billion, a figure that does not include the tens of billions of dollars spent on private firms supporting U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.