Taxpayer Won't Save With Tweaked Pentagon Budget

The Pentagon is looking to avoid bigger spending cuts down the road by making some cuts now. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced several efforts to run the military more efficiently this week. But savings from the cuts would not reduce the defense budget overall because the money would instead be reinvested in the military.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to save money to fight two wars. He's proposed, among other things, scaling back on government contractors and limiting the number of generals. But as NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman explains, these are not exactly budget cuts.

TOM BOWMAN: Gates' plan would trim thousands of defense jobs. Estimated savings in the first year? About $1 billion. But then Gates said this.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Defense Department): This agenda is not about cutting the department's budget.

BOWMAN: So what is it about?

Sec. GATES: Rather it is significantly to reduce its excess overhead costs and apply the savings to force structure and modernization.

BOWMAN: Translation: We're going to trim offices and positions we don't need and spend this money on things we want.

Professor GORDON ADAMS (American University): So the taxpayer isn't going to see any savings in the defense budget. The department might see a re-allocation of money.

BOWMAN: That's Gordon Adams, a professor at American University who worked in the Clinton White House on defense budgets.

Prof. ADAMS: What he's done here in this first round is pick, I would say, some low-hanging fruit that has given him a first down-payment on the savings he's looking for.

BOWMAN: What Gates is looking for is to trim more than $100 billion from the defense budget over the next five years. Each of the military services - the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines - will be responsible for finding those reductions, says Gates. Taxpayers won't see those savings either. Again, Secretary Gates...

Sec. GATES: Unlike budget cutting efforts of the past, the services will be able to keep the savings they generate to reinvest in higher priority war-fighting needs and modernization programs.

BOWMAN: So Adams says look for the services to cut things they don't want. There's talk the Air Force may eliminate the B-1 bomber, a long-range warplane designed during the Cold War. That's why it could be a good candidate for early retirement. Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments says the Pentagon's focus today is not an enemy with powerful air defenses; it's an Afghan guerilla holding an old AK-47.

Mr. TODD HARRISON (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): If your focus is going to be on counterinsurgency warfare and irregular type of operations, then the type of capabilities that a B-1 provides is not going to be as useful.

BOWMAN: The Air Force could use money saved on a plane like the B-1 for drone aircraft with cameras and smaller bombs. Those drones are now used to watch or kill that insurgent in Afghanistan.

At the heart of Gates's plan is his concern that as the Iraq War - and eventually the Afghan war - wind down, history will repeat itself. Congress will slash the defense budgets, just as lawmakers did after World War I, World War II, and Vietnam.

Sec. GATES: It is important that we not repeat the mistakes of the past, where tough economic times or the winding down of a military campaign leads to steep and unwise reductions in defense.

Prof. ADAMS: I wish him luck. I don't think that's at all likely.

BOWMAN: Gordon Adams, a former White House official, thinks big cuts in defense are inevitable. That's because both Republicans and Democrats are beginning to look at the roughly $550 billion defense budget as a tempting target to rein in government spending.

Prof. ADAMS: So the real question is: Where is he going to find the deeper and more serious cuts that are going to have to happen?

BOWMAN: Adams and other analysts say there are only a few places to look for those savings. And they include troops and new weapons, the very things Gates is desperate to save.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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