Proposed Pentagon cuts make strange bedfellows

Friday - 8/13/2010, 6:26am EDT

WFED's Max Cacas

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By Max Cacas
Reporter
Federal News Radio

Much of official Washington still is trying to understand Defense Secretary Robert Gates' proposals to trim $100 billion from the Pentagon budget over five years.

The secretary laid out the case for the reduced spending last Monday, as part of the effort to redirect Defense spending to other needs, particularly ensuring the military continues to modernize and recover from more than eight years of war. Gates said the goal is to shift money from back-office functions to meet warfighter needs.

Gates wants to eliminate the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., the DoD's CIO's office and the Business Transformation Agency as well as freezing hiring in his office as well as defense agencies and combatant commands. He also wants to cut contractors 10 percent a year for three years.

Interestingly, one of the few voices of support for Gates came from Capitol Hill, and from an unlikely side of the political aisle. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett's (R-Md.) 6th district encompasses much of western and central Maryland along its common border with Pennsylvania. He's also a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Bartlett's district includes facilities like Ft. Detrick in Frederick, Md. He said he backs Gates' goal of trying to reign in Pentagon spending.

"Every time we have a problem," he said in an interview, "we set up a new command, a new committee, a new checkpoint, to make sure it never happens again. A huge, huge bureaucracy has grown up around that, and I think it's high time we stopped and take a look at where we are, and what can be cut."

Bartlett is concerned that the nation's military has "too many administrators, too many regulators and buyers in the Pentagon than we need."

Bartlett's position backing Gates puts him at odds with fellow Republicans such as Congressman J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.). Constituents from his 4th district include many of the 5,000 people who work at the Norfolk, Va.-based Joint Forces Command. In a written statement, Forbes characterized the Gates' proposal as part of the "piecemeal auctioning off of the greatest military the world has known."

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) said shuttering the Joint Forces Command would deal a devastating blow to the state at a time of runaway federal spending on what he called "lower priorities."

Another member of the Virginia Congressional delegation who agrees with Republicans Forbes and McDonnell on the issue of closing the Joint Forces Command is Democrat Gerry Connolly, who represents the defense-heavy 11th district.

"I have to look at the details of that, but I have to say, I am skeptical at the end of the day that it will yield the desired savings," he said.

Connolly's district along with being home to countless Defense agencies also is hosts a large number of the contractors who provide goods and services, big and small, to America's military. And that, too, has Connolly questioning the priorities of Gates.

"The approach of setting arbitrary percentages for every year, regarding federal contracting, so that we're going to reduce federal contracting per year, for three years running, a total of 30 percent, I think is a very arbitrary and mindless approach to fiscal management," he said.

Still, the Pentagon's top managers who are trying to meet the Secretary's mandates say they understand what he is trying to do, and the urgent need to do it.

Lt. Gen. Jeff Sorenson, the Army's chief information officer, said at a recent INPUT breakfast it's the reason why he and his colleagues are reviewing IT spending with a fine toothed comb.

"We are all about trying, in the department right now, to get at some of these efficiencies," he said. "Specifically, with regards to what Secretary Gates talked about…it is about trying to do this more efficiently."

He cited, for example, efforts to modernize enterprise e-mail, which could yield savings of up to $150 million. And he says he and his colleagues are considering a long list of ideas to make that goal achievable.

Al Mink, business development director with SRA International, said the contracting community has nothing to fear from Gates' proposals to trim Pentagon spending. He said vendors should find some comfort from the history books.

"This fits within the historical cycle," he said, "for America and American defense. So though it's the news today, it was the news 50 years ago, too, as we stood down from World War II, and we saw cuts in conventional forces that went to nuclear forces for the Cold War. So, we're in another similar cycle, and it can mean a definite reduction in defense spending."

Mink said an era of reduced Pentagon spending also presents an opportunity, because as DoD shifts, the best firms will shift with DoD.

"The best firms have already anticipated such shifts, and are already contributing to the body of knowledge, and some of the recommendations for change," he said.

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