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Originally published Saturday, May 8, 2010 at 8:35 PM

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Gates takes aim at need for reducing bureaucracy, spending

Defense Secretary Robert Gates challenged some sacrosanct Pentagon spending practices in a speech Saturday, directing military and civilian officials to find cuts in their overhead and operating costs and then transfer the savings to the fighting force.

ABILENE, Kan. — Defense Secretary Robert Gates challenged some sacrosanct Pentagon spending practices in a speech Saturday, directing military and civilian officials to find cuts in their overhead and operating costs and then transfer the savings to the fighting force.

In the speech, given on the 65th anniversary of the World War II victory in Europe, Gates said the Pentagon was wasting money it will no longer get, and he focused on targets as diverse as the cost of military health care, the large number of generals and admirals and the layers of bureaucracy involved just to send a dog team to Afghanistan.

"The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade," Gates said. "Military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny. The gusher has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time."

Gates, a carry-over Cabinet member from the Bush administration, has canceled or trimmed several dozen weapons programs, with long-term savings predicted at $330 billion. Now he is looking for complementary cuts across the Defense Department's civilian and military bureaucracies, the overseas headquarters and their operating costs.

The goal is to convert as much as 2 or 3 percent of spending from "tail" to "tooth," military slang for support services and combat forces. The money is "needed to sustain American's combat power at a time of war and make investments to prepare for an uncertain future," he said.

The current defense budget, not counting the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, is $535 billion; the administration is asking for $549 billion for 2011.

While this may not seem like a significant savings, cuts of any size are certain to run hard against entrenched constituencies.

Gates said the nation owed high-quality health care to those in uniform, their families and veterans, but pointed out that members of the military health-care system have not been charged increases in premiums for 15 years, even though the program's annual cost has risen to $50 billion from $19 billion a decade ago.

His critique of top-heavy headquarters overseas was underscored by the date on which it was given but also by the location of the speech: the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene. In his talk, Gates questioned why, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Defense Department "still has more than 40 generals, admirals or civilian equivalents based on the continent" of Europe.

Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II, in his farewell address as president warned the nation of the menacing influence of an emerging "military-industrial complex."

Gates also took aim at the Pentagon bureaucracy. "Another category ripe for scrutiny should be 'overhead': all the activity and bureaucracy that supports the military mission," he said, citing an official estimate that overhead makes up about 40 percent of the Pentagon budget.

For example, a commander's request just for a dog-handling team to be sent to Afghanistan "has to go through no fewer than five four-star headquarters in order to be processed, validated and eventually dealt with," Gates said.

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The Defense Department's spending on day-to-day operations and maintenance costs about $200 billion annually, twice as much as 10 years ago, not including costs in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among Gates' apparent targets for major cuts are the private contractors the Pentagon has hired in large numbers over the past decade to take on administrative tasks the military used to handle. The defense secretary estimated this portion of the Pentagon budget has grown by as much as $23 billion, not including the tens of billions of dollars spent on private firms supporting U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

His new focus on slashing Pentagon bureaucracy also is driven by the realization that politics is severely constraining his ability to make cuts elsewhere.

He has noted, for example, that the United States maintains 11 aircraft-carrier strike groups at a time no other country has more than one, and he's questioned whether that huge advantage amounts to overkill.

The Pentagon, however, has no plans to scrap a $10 billion-to-$15 billion aircraft carrier, despite the vessels' increasing vulnerability to precision weapons. "I may want to change things, but I am not crazy," Gates said.

Gates, who was asked to stay in the job at the end of the Bush administration, has pledged to President Obama that he will serve at least through the end of this year. Asked whether he would be around after that, Gates replied, "We'll see what happens."

Compiled from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press

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