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Big fights await DoD cuts

Aug. 9, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
(U.S Navy)

A new set of proposals for chopping billions of dollars worth of unneeded costs at the Defense Department has already come under attack.

The Defense Business Board proposed cutting DoD's civilian work force by at least 15 percent, imposing a top-down hiring freeze and closing Joint Forces Command. The prescriptions, unveiled July 22, came after Defense Secretary Robert Gates — in search of more money for weapons programs and other hardware — asked the advisory panel for help in finding ways to pare $101 billion over five years in overhead and waste.

The next day, six members of the Virginia congressional delegation — including Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb, both Democrats — took aim at the notion of shutting JFCOM, which employs thousands in the Norfolk, Va., area.

"There may be merit in tightening the structure of various commands within the individual services that interact with the Joint Forces Command," the six said in a statement, "but it is illogical for an independent Pentagon advisory board to recommend that we undo what our nation has worked so hard to achieve in military jointness over the past two decades."

With more than 6,000 civilian workers, military personnel and contract employees, JFCOM is charged with bringing the services together to work on common missions and roles. It drew the board's attention in part because of its heavy reliance on contractors, who make up more than half the work force, according to official numbers.

Regardless of whether JFCOM is contractor-heavy, "that has nothing to do with whether the command is delivering overall value to the mission," said Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, a trade group representing contractors.

And last week, a senior federal labor union official took a swipe at the advisory board's recommendation to shrink the civilian work force.

"Cutting 15 percent of the defense work force doesn't make sense for our country," William Fenaughty, national secretary-treasurer of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said in a statement.

Last month's recommendations are a prelude to a more comprehensive cost-cutting blueprint set for release in October. In comparison to this year's $531 billion base defense budget, the savings would likely be modest. But in releasing the package last month, board member Arnold Punaro warned that making it reality would be tough. Gates would need total cooperation from Pentagon officials and Congress to slay "this overhead dragon," he said. "Base closing[s] are easy, compared to the roadblocks that will be thrown up once his decisions are made."

Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell declined comment last week, saying that Gates had not had a chance to examine the board's recommendations.

The business board does "not hold the key to this castle. He [Gates] is tapping into a lot of different people inside and outside the department for assistance in this."

Jim McAleese, a Virginia-based defense analyst, said he expected few of the board's ideas to be adopted outright, but some proposals could gain traction in the Pentagon's internal budget negotiations. Their release came barely a week before the military services — also under orders to find efficiency savings — delivered their five-year spending plans to Pentagon brass.

"I think they'll be folded into the broader process, and you're going to see them manifest themselves subtly," McAleese said of the board's recommendations.

Gates and other Pentagon leaders are warning contractors and Congress that the generous military spending increases of the last decade are over as the federal government now battles a torrent of red ink.

"I think the biggest threat we have to our national security is our debt," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Staff, said in June. Not long before, Gates warned in a speech that "the gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time."

Nevertheless, some analysts question whether that message has hit home, even with those inside the Pentagon.

"[The gusher] is not off yet, so I don't think it will sink in at all levels of DoD until it's actually shut off and some sacrifices have to be made," said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank focusing on defense issues.

Harrison said at least a handful of the board's recommendations —such as closing the Networks and Information Integration directorate in the Office of Secretary of Defense and reducing the frequency of duty station moves — stand a good chance of being realized.

"If they can show that it's a shared sacrifice and for a good reason, I think they might have a little more success in getting this through," he said.

The business board plan "is a modest beginning to address the problems," said Winslow Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information. "They're talking not about savings, but internal transfers."

In its briefing slides, the DBB cautioned that many proposals would take years to yield benefits and savings. Perhaps intentionally, it furnished no detailed roadmap on how the Pentagon should go about eliminating "organizational duplication and overlap" or make the proposed cuts to the civilian work force.

The board was also critical of DoD oversight of its corps of contractors, saying that spending on outside firms should be frozen until an accurate headcount is made.

The Association of the United States Army and the Air Force Association saw merit in cutting back on duty station changes. "I know the Air Force is already making a number of these types of moves and it lines up with the effort to save money wherever possible," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Dunn, now president of AFA.

But the Air Force has already done the "delayering" that Gates is seeking, Dunn said, making it tough to find more efficiencies.

Dunn did single out one promising possibility for pruning: the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where the board's numbers show the size of the work force has jumped by more than 20 percent in the last few years to 2,636, not counting more than 2,000 contract employees.

"I think you could make headway in that area," he said.

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