Deficit Commission Calls For Defense Budget Cuts The Pentagon's budget has doubled since September 11, and a growing number of Republicans are joining the calls for cuts. Several newly-elected conservatives say the budget deficit is so large that they're open to slashing the Defense department budget to reduce the debt.
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Deficit Commission Calls For Defense Budget Cuts

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Deficit Commission Calls For Defense Budget Cuts

Deficit Commission Calls For Defense Budget Cuts

Deficit Commission Calls For Defense Budget Cuts

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The Pentagon's budget has doubled since September 11, and a growing number of Republicans are joining the calls for cuts. Several newly-elected conservatives say the budget deficit is so large that they're open to slashing the Defense department budget to reduce the debt.


Tom Gjelten, national security correspondent, NPR
Dov Zakheim, former comptroller, Department of Defense
Kori Schake, fellow, Hoover Institution


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington.

Since the attacks of 9/11, the Defense Department budget has roughly doubled. It now accounts for half of all discretionary spending. Some budget watchers estimate the U.S. spends almost as much on the military as the rest of the world combined.

With growing worries about federal spending, the co-chairs of a bipartisan commission on the nation's deficit took aim last week at the Pentagon budget. The military is so big, they say, that the government can cut at least $100 billion from its swelling budget.

And they're getting support from more conservatives. Many politicians have long considered the defense budget untouchable, especially amid the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's fear of being labeled soft on defense. But some newly elected Republican members of Congress are publicly mulling across the board cuts, including at the Pentagon.

In this hour, we'll be joined by Dov Zakheim. He was the undersecretary of defense and comptroller at the Pentagon from 2001 to 2004. Also with us, Kori Schake, who worked on the National Security Council for President George W. Bush.

If you work in defense as part of the military, for a contractor or otherwise, what, if anything, would you cut and why? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

First, we're joined by NPR's national security correspondent Tom Gjelten. He is with us here in Studio 3A. Welcome.

TOM GJELTEN: Hi, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: So when was the last time that there were significant cuts at the Pentagon?

GJELTEN: In terms of absolute spending cuts, absolute dollars cut from the Pentagon budget, that would've been in the 1990s. There were actually several years in a row where spending went down in absolute numbers, year after year. This was, of course, the period when the United States and other countries were enjoying the so-called peace dividend in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War.

There was less of a distinguishable military threat, national security threat to the United States in those years, so it was easy to justify this. But the pressure to cut defense spending actually probably dates back to the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings' Deficit Reduction Law, which I think came into effect in 1987. We saw deficit - we saw spending at the Pentagon cut in the aftermath of that.

So there's roughly, I'd say, a 10-year period there from late '80s to the late '90s, when we really did see some significant defense cuts. And then as you say in the intro, the trend turned back up again. And for the last 10 years it's been really - defense spending has been really growing at a pretty dramatic pace.

LUDDEN: Driven by the terror attacks at 9/11, and then of course we have two ongoing wars. With troops continuing to be added under the current administration, how much money are we talking about? What is the budget and what, you know, percentage of that are people talking about having to cut?

GJELTEN: Well, current budget - current defense spending is roughly in the neighborhood of $700 billion a year. The actual defense - Pentagon budget is somewhat less than that because one of the things that Congress does is fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sort of separately from some of the main Pentagon budget, often through contingency funding or supplemental bills.

But if you combine all that together, you're looking at $700 billion. And as you say, the deficit reduction commission is talking about, really, some pretty significant cuts, although over a period of time. Now, one of the notable cuts is that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says he confined $100 billion in savings at the Pentagon over the next five years, but he wants to apply those savings to other programs, in other words, to reallocate those savings rather than cut them entirely.

The deficit reduction - the chairman of the deficit reduction commission would like to see that same saving come straight out of the budget, so not be reallocated.

LUDDEN: I'm curious, in the past decade, have we seen the actual number of troops increase, not just the budget, but the number of soldiers out?

GJELTEN: Sure. That's called end-strength or force structure. And as we've engaged in these two very costly land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, certainly there has been an increase in forces.

LUDDEN: Okay. Let's bring our other two guests in. We also have here in Studio 3A, Kori Schake. She worked in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, and she's now a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Welcome.

Ms. KORI SCHAKE (Research Fellow, Hoover Institution): Pleasure.

LUDDEN: And also we have Dov Zakheim, who was the undersecretary of Defense and comptroller of the Pentagon. You thought of all these - you thought about this a lot, from 2001 until 2004. He's also here. Welcome.

Mr. DOV ZAKHEIM (Former Undersecretary, Department of Defense): Thank you.

LUDDEN: Can I just get each of you quickly to react to the deficit - the co-chairs of the deficit commission and what they suggested in terms of defense cut that came out just recently? Kori first.

Ms. SCHAKE: I would make two points. First is that it doesn't seem to me -well, it seems to me reasonable that as other funding - other spending programs are going to have to be substantially reduced to get us out of the enormous debt hole we are in, that defense should also be under consideration. It's not where I would start, but I think it should also be under consideration.

The proportions that the British defense review that just concluded as part of their big budget cuts, they took roughly 22 percent reduction across government programs, but defense took about an eight percent cut. In terms of proportions, that feels to me, personally, about right.

We can have a debate about the proportions, but it seems to me a difficult argument to make that in a time of shared sacrifice, where clearly retirement age is going to have to be increased, Social Security and Medicare might need to be means-tested, that those kinds of significant reductions that are going to need to be taken doesn't seem to me politically saleable to suggest that at a time when defense spending has doubled in the last decade, that defense should be sacrosanct.

LUDDEN: Dov Zakheim?

Mr. ZAKHEIM: Well, in principle, I agree with Kori. We have to understand the difference between what Mr. Gates is doing and what the commission chairs are recommending, and it isn't just the idea of holding on to the money. What Mr. Gates is really trying to do, at least as I see it, is to transfer money from operations, that is to say, not the training but the contractors who support operations, to procurement of new systems.

Now, we can argue about which system should be, which systems shouldn't be. But if you worry about the long-term - and we buy systems, it takes them about 10 years to develop them and then we use them for 30 or 40 years. So if you're thinking about the long-term, Mr. Gates argues you cannot simply cut that flat-out. It doesn't work.

The deficit commission, on the other hand - and, oh, by the way, the deficit commission sees all these cuts coming in four years, by 2015. Mr. Gates adds another couple, really, in fiscal years. The Deficit Commission says, no, let's go after the procurement - the systems that we procure, these big-ticket items. That is a problem because what you're essentially doing then is not cutting back on things that will not have implications down the road, but instead making a bet about the future that we just don't know.

Ms. SCHAKE: May I add a point on to that?


Ms. SCHAKE: I agree with Dov that the commission - it would be sensible for the commission to suggest top line figures, but it doesn't seem to me helpful for them to be cherry-picking specific systems. What they ought to do is go back to the Defense Department and say, show me a program that minimizes risk over this timeframe at this level.

LUDDEN: We have asked to hear from callers who work in the military in some capacity. We already have a number of calls on the line. Let's listen now to Max in Oakland, California. Hi, there.

MAX (Caller): Hi. How are you doing today?

LUDDEN: Good. Go right ahead.

MAX (Caller): Well, I would personally cut the training because I know my unit, we did some pretty generic training, but we flew all the way to Estonia, my entire battalion.

LUDDEN: And you're a Marine, is that right?

MAX (Caller): Yes. Yes, ma'am. And when we're there, we were just in the forest and we all thought it was, you know, a very great opportunity for all of us. But at the end of the training, we all said, you know, this is awesome. We're in, you know, a foreign country, but we could have done this anywhere in the world. Why not stay in the U.S. if not California?

LUDDEN: Okay. Insourcing training, Dov Zakheim...

Mr. ZAKHEIM: Well, let me say this: If you were sitting in Moscow and you saw Americans training in Estonia, I think your reaction would be a little bit different than if you saw them training in California.

MAX: I agree but I don't know if it justifies sending that many people over there.

Mr. ZAKHEIM: Well again this...

MAX: I think you could have got the same message done with half as many people.

Mr. ZAKHEIM: Well this is Kori's point. That's not the kind of thing a Deficit Commission should be managing. I think it's a fair point to have the Defense Department look at efficiencies. That's what Mr. Gates is saying he will do and given his track record of firing senior people, delivering on the surge, you know, most people say he may be one of the greatest secretaries ever so I take him at his word.

So if your question is we should be more efficient I don't think he would disagree with you. The issue I think that's on the table is should the Deficit Commission be making those sorts of recommendations, and I think not.

GJELTEN: Dov, the secretary has in fact suggested cutting some equipment, not simply operations. He's talking about, he very much wants to cut the second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. I think the Army is also looking at cutting a land-based cruise missile system, so it's not - they are looking at some big procurement items, right?

Mr. ZAKHEIM: Well no, absolutely right. And certainly when I was in the Pentagon we cut some big ones too: Crusader, Comanche Helicopter. That's not the issue. Let's take one of the big ones that the Deficit Commission has recommended which is essentially killing the Vertical Take-off Joint Strike Fighter version and cutting back on the others. Now there are an awful lot of countries out there that have invested research and development funds and are committed to buying this airplane and the more we do the kind of thing the Commission recommends the less likely they are, A, to be able to afford it and, B, to be happy with us for essentially leading them down the garden path.

Now if we believe as I personally believe that we can't do as much in the world on our own as we used to be able to and we need our allies, then this isn't the way to make friends and influence people. It's that kind of thing that troubles me.

LUDDEN: Alright Max, thank you for that phone call. Kori Schake one of the difficulties when you look to do this is that domestically at least so much of what is produced and happens for the military is spread all across the country, so - purposely I believe, right? You heard a lot of district - congressional districts out there in a lot of communities. How much of a problem is that?

Ms. SCHAKE: Well I think it is a problem in a time of economic strain and uncertainty for the country. At the same time, defense isn't just any other industry. The conversation that I think we need to have is where do we accept risk? This is, I think, the point that Dov was also starting to make which is that you - we have to have a transparent conversation about whether you accept risk in the near term or risk in the long term and some of the people who would cut specific programs are optimizing to near-term stability and accepting longer-term risk. Whereas Secretary Gates, I think, is making the inverse calculation. He is in my judgment a little bit over-optimizing to the near term.

LUDDEN: We're talking about whether or not to cut the Pentagon's budget to reduce the deficit. Up next, we'll hear from a conservative who argues it's time to trim the fat and your calls. If you work in defense as part the military for a contractor or otherwise. What if anything would you cut and why? Call us a 800-989-825(ph) or e-mail I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

One of the lessons of the midterm elections is that many Americans are worried about government spending. A number of fiscal conservatives backed by the Tea Party are now headed to Congress and to trim the budget deficit they've put almost everything on the table including, for some, the defense budget.

Last week's proposal from the president's Deficit Commission only added to the argument, calling for a $100 billion in cuts in defense spending. If you work in defense as part of the military, for a contractor or otherwise, what if anything would you cut and why? Our number is 800-989-8255, our e-mail address And you can join the conversation at our website, go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're joined here in Studio 3A by Tom Gjelten, NPR's national security correspondent, Dov Zakheim, who served as undersecretary of defense and comptroller from 2001 to 2004 and Kori Schake, a fellow at the Hoover Institution. And yesterday some of you watching Sunday morning TV may have seen the Republican Senator-elect Rand Paul on CBS's "Face of the Nation"(ph) asked about cutting the deficit.

(Soundbite of news show, "Face the Nation"

Dr. RAND PAUL (Republican Senator-elect, Kentucky): If you're serious about the budget you have to look at the entire budget, military and domestic, if you want to make a dent in the debt.

Mr. BOB SCHIEFFER (Host, "Face the Nation"): Are you willing to cut both sides, including the military?

Dr. PAUL: Absolutely, absolutely. And you have to look at it. There's no way else, you know, it's all-consuming between entitlements and then the domestic spending and then the national defense. If you don't look at all of it you don't get anywhere close and this is an exploding problem, getting worse as we speak.

LUDDEN: Kori Schake, do you think there might be more pressure among some of the newly-elected conservatives who made, you know, deficit reduction such a big part of their platform? Do you think there might be more pressure to make defense cuts?

Ms. SCHAKE: Yeah, I think there will be and I think it's in the context of a growing national concern about the strategic vulnerability that this enormous debt creates for our country.

LUDDEN: A national security problem as some have put it, that it's a long term national security problem?

Ms. SCHAKE: That's a terrific point. As a matter of fact the Joint Forces Command, which issues one of the foundational documents for the entire defense planning process, came out with its joint operating environment document last year and they identified one of the top threats to the country as our debt and something you need to solve because if we don't the sheer paying of interest on debt will crowd out the space for defense spending in the longer term. We've got to fix this problem.

LUDDEN: And so how would you see that playing out, Dov Zakheim?

Mr. ZAKHEIM: Well, it's good that you mentioned Joint Forces Command, Kori, because it's one of the things that Mr. Gates wants to eliminate. He wants to eliminate the entire command. There's no question that we can't go on this way. 1 percent increase in interest rates adds about $130 to $140 billion dollars to the deficit, so we simply have to find cuts everywhere.

The question with defense is simply this: How do you do the cutting while you're still fighting a war? Now if Mr. Obama carries out his plan to pull troops out of Iraq, as he's already started, well there are some savings. And it's arguable that the, what are called the supplementals, these are bills that don't come against the baseline of defense spending - and this is what Tom mentioned earlier - but they do count against the debt and so one way to reduce the defense spending is to reduce those supplementals.

The basic baseline budget, as it's called, the ordinary defense budget, that's our hedge against the future. And there I think, other than the kinds of efficiencies that Mr. Gates is talking about, it's going to be difficult to cut though not impossible. The supplementals are an entirely different story.

GJELTEN: Now both of you served in the Bush administration and I'm curious about the history of efforts to try and keep defense spending under control. There have been efforts to limit, for example health benefits and retirement benefits. Did you actually try to do...

Mr. ZAKHEIM: Oh absolutely.

GJELTEN: And what happens when you try to do?

Mr. ZAKHEIM: That's quite a story, in fact, even when I left the administration I testified on the Hill in favor of getting some control over a program that right now I think is going to hit about $60 billion dollars in 2014, so that's bigger than most defense budgets in the world. We have not really done anything to control the spiraling cost of defense spending and part of it is that the Congress will not listen.

Right now all the chiefs of staff, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the secretary of Defense, everybody recognizes that something as simple as increasing co-payments - by the way, co-pays have not increased in well over a decade. Anybody out there listening, when was the last time you went ten years without an increase in anything?

GJELTEN: That's military healthcare you're talking about.

Mr. ZAKHEIM: That's right, military healthcare, so - and Mr. Gates wants to get his arms around that one. And I wish him the best of luck because this is a classic case of people on the Hill talking about savings, talking about cutting the defense budget and yet when you have something as simple as adding a little bit to the cost of what is by far the best health plan in the United States, Congress looks the other way.

Ms. SCHAKE: There is - as a matter of fact internal to the defense budget there is a problem that mirrors the growth of entitlements in the federal budget writ large. We have the same problem internal to the defense budget.

LUDDEN: Let's get another caller in here. Kyle(ph) is on the line from Hartford, Connecticut, hi there.

KYLE (Caller): Hi there, how are you doing?


KYLE: I appreciate you taking my call. I was calling because you know there's going to have to be cuts in the military. That's clear. It's just absolutely necessary to start reducing the cost of government across the board. But it's not as simple as saying well we can cut here or we can cut there. The services are inter-dependent on one another and it's a synergistic system, so you can't simply say well we can scale back the Air Force because there's not the same Cold War threat.

We need that for power projection. We need the Navy to maintain commerce and keep the sea lanes open. The Army is our land-holding when we come into a kinetic fight. These systems are necessary for one another and you can't simply say we're going to change the benefit structure for people that enlisted you know, 10, 20, 30 years ago. That's not fair to someone who made a commitment, but cuts are going to have to be made across the board but there's no easy answer.

LUDDEN: All right. And Kyle you're in the reserves. Is that correct?

KYLE: Yes, I'm in the reserves now and prior to that I spent 13 years on active duty so I'm very familiar with how these systems work. Although one of the things that is going on. I know that the Army at least is looking at changing its retirement structure and plan for people currently joining, and that would help, you know, 20, 30 years from now. But some changes are going to have to be made in the short term just to how monies are spent within the Defense Department to try to rein in some of the spending.

But there's not an easy answer. We can't simply say we're going to cut program A or program B. It's going to have to be across the board and the pain is going to have to be shared, just like all of these cuts across the government are going to have to be shared.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Kyle, thanks for your service and thanks for your phone call.

KYLE: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: And Kori Schake, you're nodding your head there.

Ms. SCHAKE: Yeah, I think he makes two important points, first about not cherry-picking particular programs but looking at defense as an integral whole. It seems to me one useful way to think about how to make cuts, if you are going to make significant cuts to the defense program, is go back to the department and ask them to build you the best force structure they can, the best program they can in $50 billion increments. So that they build you managed risk across the force instead of just eliminating specific programs. I think that's what the caller was getting at.

The second thing that he is getting at is about the responsibility we have to people who are in service and came in service under particular circumstances. The longer we wait to get control of our debt spending, the more extreme the near-term measures are going to have to be. And so if we want to be able to keep the promises we've made to people who are in the service now, we've got to get this problem under control now. If we wait another five years, clearly you're going to have to make very disruptive choices.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's get another phone call, Steve is in Groveland, California, go right ahead.

STEVE (Caller): Hi I'm not sure what the credentials are of your speakers but I'm a former military. I'm a pilot and I'm an engineer who designed equipment for the F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and there's just way cheaper ways to do things. We should eliminate the F-35 and replace it with cheaper, less risky and more mission-capable unmanned drones. So you're not eliminating any capability you're just getting things cheaper.

LUDDEN: So Steve, you worked on this what kind of waste did you see?

STEVE: Well I worked on equipment on the electrical equipment and the stuff is just way over-designed. There's way cheaper equipment like the contactors I designed. There's way cheaper ones available and the military sets up this whole network of how to qualify equipment and stuff like that. And everything's just gold-plated. And the whole plane, like an F-35, $200 million a copy, counting the R and D costs going into those. That's ridiculous when you can get a drone that can do the same thing for about $20 million.

LUDDEN: All right, thank you for the call Steve. And Dov Zakheim, you're nodding there.

Mr. ZAKHEIM: Yeah. I mean, there are really two parts to this. One is the plane versus the drone and I think most people will tell you that in certain circumstances you do need the plane. You simply don't have the same kind of, what the military calls, situational awareness, what normal human beings as it were or people speaking English would call knowing what's going on. Not that the military aren't normal human beings but they do speak a different language.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZAKHEIM: The second part which is can we do it cheaper is a valid point. Not that the first point wasn't valid but it's a different point and what I understand Mr. Gates is asked his undersecretary for acquisition, Ash Carter, to do is look exactly at that. Get rid of the gold plating, get the prices under control. They've done that. They've demonstrated they can do that say with attack submarines. So it's doable but you have to change what's called the culture of acquisition in the Pentagon.

The bureaucrats have been doing the same thing the same way. Most of them really don't even know the science anymore, because you don't have to take any courses once you get into the government. You don't have to take refreshers. You don't have to learn anything new. So given - and anybody knows the pace of technology changes, and these folks have been sitting there 20 years, and they haven't taken any new course. That has to change. So the caller is right about that. But I think the tradeoff between drones - which I personally funded and supported when I was in the Pentagon and pushed very hard for - and manned aircraft is not a simple one-for-one tradeoff. And, again, I do apologize to the military. They're certainly human.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Well, how much, Dov, you know, is contracted out? Hasn't - and hasn't that, also, as Tom Gjelten is saying - so much has grown in this past decade -hasn't that been part of it? And are they more vulnerable to cuts? Or is that actually going to be shifted, you know...

Mr. ZAKHEIM: No. I think that's where Mr. Gates is headed. He said he wants to cut contracting by 10 percent a year for the next three years, which, if you do the math, is about one quarter - a little more than a quarter of all contractors. Why to do that? Well, very often, somebody retires from the military or from the civil service and takes the same exact job, just what's called flipping his card, getting a new card and doing the same job. And then the question is: Well, wait a minute. If that person retired, why is he or she back? And what's happened is, again, the culture of the bureaucracy is to over-rely on people to do what essentially are their jobs. That will save us a lot of money.

Ms. SCHAKE: May I add one quick point? Which is that, credit where it's due, Congress has actually been a real force for good on pushing for DOD procurement reforms - Senator McCain, in particular. And lots of folks in Congress have tried to impress on the Pentagon that they need to do this better, with more transparency and with less gold plating in the process.

GJELTEN: I'm curious about something we haven't talked about, and that is how will the burden on the U.S. - the U.S. defense burden increase as other countries' defense spending goes down. And we have one example. The caller just mentioned the development cost of the F-35. Well, we've just found out that the United Kingdom is going to buy only - what? About a 10th...

Mr. ZAKHEIM: Right.

GJELTEN: ...of the fighters that it originally intended to buy. And as other governments spend less on these fighters, the per-unit cost to the United States, obviously, goes up, right?

Mr. ZAKHEIM: Well, the answer, of course, is not to buy fewer at our end, because that's going to drive it even higher. And that's the dilemma. I think, again, what we just talked about, what the previous caller talked about, it is imperative that our acquisition core really does its job. As Kori said, Senator McCain and others have pushed this. Secretary Gates has taken this on as almost a personal crusade. We have got to keep the control of cost just so much better than it's been. It takes too long. It costs too much. The things, then, don't always work. And when we're working with our allies, we have to make sure that we don't price ourselves out of their markets.

Ms. SCHAKE: Can I pick up on another part?

LUDDEN: Actually, let me just remind people that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Go ahead, Kori Schake.

Ms. SCHAKE: I want to pick up on another part if Tom's very good question, which is in the operational sense, allies cutting their defense spending has a twofold effect on the United States. First, there are fewer things they will be able to do because they're not spending and buying the kind of equipment. Same thing is there will be greater risks associated with them doing it because, for example, if you are not buying up armored Humvees, but you are in Iraq in 2007, the risk to your troops would be much greater to risks than the U.S. That, of course, has political consequences. And so it's a real pity that NATO countries haven't worked this collectively in the alliance and used the defense planning process of NATO as a way to make sure that the mosaic fits together as all of us make reductions.

LUDDEN: Well, an interesting point, Tom, that the U.S. now has - about 5 percent of its GDP goes to defense spending. France, England, Britain, Canada, it's down to 2 percent, and they're cutting back.

GJELTEN: Less than two. Less than two. The United Kingdom, even after this 8 percent cut that they've talked about is around two, which is high compared to other NATO allies. I mean, Germany is 1.3. Italy is 1.7. Spain is 1.2. So they're way down.

LUDDEN: Let's take another phone call. Greg is in Orlando, Florida. Go right ahead.

GREG (Caller): Hey, good afternoon. I'm enjoying the conversation you guys are having there.

LUDDEN: Thanks.

GREG: I'm a midlevel Army officer, and I spent last year in Afghanistan. And I fully support proper defense spending. I can't really answer the question what I would cut and why, because I think there's more culture of - people view federal dollars as an endless supply of funding, so they, you know, they design projects accordingly without, you know, needing to take, you know, cost into account.

LUDDEN: Without having to cut something else out, just because you design something new, in other words.

GREG: Well, more like there's - okay, unit administrators and commanders, they spend up their - this year's budget to justify the following year's budget. Even if they don't need something, they buy it just - so the next year, they don't look like they got their budgets cut from the previous year.

LUDDEN: All right. Greg, thanks so much for calling up, and thanks for your service, also.

Mr. ZAKHEIM: Well, let me reiterate that. Thanks for your service and for being out there. I was out there again in December, and I think you folks do a phenomenal job in difficult conditions. You just put your finger on another part of this cultural problem. The idea that, God, you can't be left with money. Part of our difficulty is that - and I found this. You know, I was comptroller and chief financial officer. In the real world, outside the Pentagon, the chief financial officer is a lot more important. But in the Pentagon, the comptroller is a lot more important. And your job is to get the budget through.

What happens then? That's somebody else's problem, very often. And so it leads to the kind of behaviors the caller just talked about. It's crazy that if you have money left, you spend it so that you can make sure you get more money next year. And it's that kind of thing that, I think, the secretary is trying to get at, and it's going to take work by Congress, by this secretary, by - and that's another thing - by his successor. We have to be sure that whoever comes in after Mr. Gates and after who comes in after Mr. Gates, those people are as committed to controlling this, because this problem is not going away in a year or two.

LUDDEN: We have a couple of emails. William in Florida says he grew up in the Florida Panhandle. Consolidation is needed. He ticks off a whole list of Naval bases and Air Force bases that are all within a few hundred miles there and asks: Why not consolidate them?

Another, Steve in Oakland asks: Could the guests speak to why we need so much defense spending in the first place? What about a defense budget that funds the reduction of arms around the world? I'm not sure about that that's going to happen, but we will have to leave the conversation there.

Kori Schake worked on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. Dov Zakheim was the undersecretary of defense and comptroller of the Pentagon from 2001 to 2004, and Tom Gjelten is NPR's national security correspondent. Thanks to all of you.

Ms. SCHAKE: Thank you.

Mr. ZAKHEIM: Thank you, Jennifer.

GJELTEN: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Coming up: an argument that to be really successful right now, President Obama should not run in 2012. The Opinion Page is next.

I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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