Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he’d rather have a smaller "superbly capable" military than a hollow force.
Gates told the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee June 15 that even as the department looks for savings, there has to be an admission that reductions will increase risks. It was his last appearance before Congress before his retirement June 30.
"This process must be about identifying options for the president and for you, the Congress, to ensure that the nation consciously acknowledges and accepts additional risk in exchange for reduced investment in the military," Gates said.
Adding, "Above all, if we are to avoid a hollowing effect, this process must address force structure, with the overarching goal to preserve a U.S. military capable of meeting crucial national-security priorities even if fiscal pressure requires reductions in that force’s size."
But, he said, if force structure is reduced the consequences are that a smaller military – no matter how superb – "will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things."
Even as the Defense Department looks for efficiencies and cuts, the world remains a dangerous place, the secretary said, and those looking for savings would do well to remember that.
"Our military must remain strong and agile enough to face a diverse range of threats – from non-state actors attempting to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction and sophisticated missiles, to the more traditional threats of other states both building up their conventional forces and developing new capabilities that target our traditional strategies," he said.
Gates discussed areas that will be studied for savings.
The first is the planned future reductions in the size of the ground forces, the second is the proposed reforms and savings to the TRICARE military health plan program for working-age retirees, and the third is the budget and the strategy choices required to meet the savings targets recently laid out by President Barack Obama.
In 2006, one of his first acts was to increase the size of the Army and Marines. He said at the time, and maintains today, that the ground forces were being stretched by the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the surge into Iraq threatened to break the forces.
The Army grew by 65,000 to 547,000 and the Marines by 27,000 to 202,000. He further authorized the Army a temporary increase of 22,000, which will end in fiscal 2013.
"The objective was to reduce stress on the force, limit and eventually end the practice of stop-loss, and to increase troops’ home-station dwell time," he said. "This has worked. And I can tell you that stop-loss in the Army is now over. There are no Army soldiers stop-lossed."
Army and Marine Corps leaders believe that by fiscal 2015, they can begin drawing down end strength with minimal risk – reducing Army active duty end strength by 27,000 and the Marine Corps by somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000.
"These projections assume that the number of troops in Afghanistan will be significantly reduced by the end of 2014 in accordance with the president’s and NATO’s strategy," Gates said. "If our assumptions prove incorrect, there’s plenty of time to adjust the size and schedule of this change."
Reforming TRICARE is another priority for the department, Gates said. DoD health care costs have climbed from $19 billion in fiscal 2001 to $52.5 billion in fiscal 2012. The fiscal 2012 budget calls for modest increases to TRICARE enrollment fees for working-age retirees, which later would be indexed to national health expenditures.
"All six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have strongly endorsed these and other cost-saving TRICARE reforms in a letter to the Congress," Gates said.
This must happen because the current TRICARE arrangement cannot be sustained, he said. "If allowed to continue, the Department of Defense risks the fate of other corporate and government bureaucracies that were ultimately crippled by personnel costs, and in particular their retiree benefit packages," he said.
He urged the senators to approve the change.
The president called on DoD to find $400 billion in savings. An earlier effort netted $100 billion in savings over five years.
"The goal was and is to sustain the U.S. military’s size and strength over the long term by reinvesting efficiency savings in force structure and other key combat capabilities," Gates said.
He called the results mixed, saying the services did a good job of locating savings and making tough choices, with defense agencies doing less well. "I believe there are more savings to be found by culling more overhead and better accounting for, and thus better managing the funds and people we have," he said.
Adding, "But one thing is quite clear. The efficiencies efforts the department has undertaken will not come close to meeting the $400 billion in savings laid out by the president."
Meeting those goals will require real cuts and real choices, Gates said.
"Here I would leave you with a word of caution. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past, where budget targets were met mostly by taking a percentage off the top of everything, the simplest and most politically expedient approach, both inside the Pentagon and outside of it."
He called that approach salami-slicing and while it maintains force structure on paper, it results in hollowing out the force from a lack of proper training, maintenance of equipment and manpower.
"That’s what happened in the 1970s, a disastrous period for our military, and to a lesser extent during the late 1990s," he said.
Gates has launched a comprehensive review to ensure that future spending decisions "are focused on priorities, strategy and risks and are not simply a math and accounting exercise."
He wants congressional support for a leaner, more efficient Pentagon and continued sustainable, robust investments in troops and future capabilities.
"Our troops have done more than their part; now it’s time for us in Washington to do ours," he said.