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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is going to make a serious attempt at squeezing savings out of the Department of Defense and how it would be a great example for the rest of the government if it were to work. Of course, it is hard to gauge the potential effectiveness of something that is only a rough outline; hard details are always a better indicator both of how effective the proposal could be and of how serious Secretary Gates is about doing it. Back then, the SecDef had cited an urgent need to find about $10 billion in savings over the next several years due to shrinking funding bills from Congress as the sense of urgency fades and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. Tonight, we have the details of his plan.
According to the New York Times article, the program Gates has envisioned is even more ambitious than previously thought. Originally, he was interested in $10 billion in savings throughout the Pentagon/. Now, we learn that number has grown to be $7 billion just by 2012, and expanding to $37 billion annually by 2016. While we have gotten used to seeing hundreds of billions of dollars being thrown around by Congress lately, especially for Defense, $37 billion in savings and spending cuts every year by 2016 is a lot of money, especially considering we are dealing with one of the most legendary examples of entrenched bureaucracy. What Secretary Gates is proposing is not so much a new program, but a complete change to the organizational mindset.
If anything, tonight’s article confirms that Robert Gates is truly the man for the job. Not only is the plan more ambitious than everyone thought initially, but the Secretary of Defense is fully aware of the size of the project he’s decided to take on. To encourage the various chiefs of every little department, directorate, command, etc, to make cuts and adjust priorities, he has included a powerful incentive. According to the New York Times, every dollar saved on the management side will be reinvested in the combat side of the branch it came from.
Excellent play: cutting defense spending is widely unpopular, because everyone automatically believes “oh noes they’re going to give less money to our troops!”, but the fact is that when people hear Department of Defense, they tend to think “armed forces” instead of one of the world’s largest, most inefficient bureaucracies supporting the armed forces. By casting it as reforming the management side of the Department of Defense, Secretary Gates can attempt to defuse some of that criticism that is bound to come from all sides and give his plan a chance to work.
However, management is but one target of the reductions. According to the article, the Secretary is targeting his own staff and departments that report to him, as well as the usual target for Defense spending cuts: programs in development that are grossly over-budget and may not even be that beneficial to the nation’s arsenal. Unfortunately, those three targets for cuts and efficiency improvements manage to get on the wrong side of just about everyone in the military-industrial complex. As I noted a couple of weeks ago, if there is one thing that will kill Secretary Gates’ plan, it is the bureaucratic inertia. With the details of the plan comes the prospect of doing it through a dialogue with everyone involved, but if there is one thing that will prevent bureaucratic inertia from overcoming the attempt, it is old-fashioned military discipline.
The strict timetable and order that 2/3 of the reductions found must be in the form of actual cuts give the program a great chance. Taking industry heads, members of Congress, and all the various stakeholders within the Department of Defense straight on is a risky gambit, but it is one that must be made. However, if Secretary Gates can pull this off, why not make it a model for the rest of the government and implement with the same discipline that the military can?
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The Brief Thoughts: Defense Spending Reform Takes Shape by The New Age of Politics, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.