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Secretary Robert Gates’ dramatic (but limited) plan to cut defense spending.

By Fred Kaplan

Three things are worth emphasizing about the $78 billion in Pentagon budget cuts that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is ordering over the next five years.

First, it’s not really a cut. Rather, as Gates acknowledged in the press briefing he held on the subject Thursday afternoon, it’s a reduction from the sum that the military had planned on spending over the next five years. And, even so, each year’s budget will still be at least a little larger than the budget of the year before.

Second, that said, the way Gates squeezed out that $78 billion represents, at least potentially, the biggest cultural change that the military services have been forced to undergo in at least 20 years—wrenched from “a culture of endless money,” as Gates put it, to “a culture of savings and restraint.”

But third, if Congress is serious about chopping the deficit, the Pentagon budget will have to be cut further—will have to be truly cut. And, as Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all but warned at the press briefing, that’s when the bureaucratic battles will rage.

Gates’ announcement, a sort of preview of the Fiscal Year 2012 defense budget to be laid out in full next month, marks the culmination of a policy he put into motion last year, when he ordered the military services—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines—to cut, over the next five years, $100 billion in wasteful, ineffective, and unnecessary programs. In exchange, he said at the time, they could use the savings to invest in higher-priority programs (as defined in part by the services, in part—and ultimately—by Gates).

The fiscal pressures, he noted at the time, were fierce, and the Pentagon was no longer exempt. If the military wanted to maintain its might, perform its missions, and preserve its cherished programs, its chiefs would have to find the money from within; they weren’t going to get it all from the White House or Congress anymore. (He repeated those points today.)

These cut-and-swap exercises came on top of a massive review supervised by Gates himself a year earlier, in the opening weeks of the Obama administration, which resulted in cuts or cancellations of more than 30 weapons systems, including the Air Force’s F-22 stealth fighter, the Army’s Future Combat System, and the Navy’s advanced DDG-1000 destroyer.

Gates announced today that, in the budget scrubs that got under way this past summer, the Air Force found $34 billion in waste and duplication that it was fine with cutting, the Army found $29 billion, and the Navy $35 billion—in all, $98 billion. (The various Department of Defense agencies not related to any service found an additional $54 billion to cut.)

The services were allowed to pour all $98 billion of their savings into programs that, Gates and the chiefs decided, were really needed. The Air Force got more unmanned aerial vehicles (aka “drones”), a new radar for its F-15 fighters, and funds to develop a new long-range bomber. The Army got upgrades for the M1 tank and Bradley fighting vehicle, new tactical-communication gear, and accelerated fielding of its own suite of drones. The Navy got more F-18 fighters, some electronic jammers, and a few more ships.

There are two remarkable things about this process. First, I’m pretty sure this is the first time a defense secretary has given the services such a clear, specific incentive to clean out their own closets and cellars. Gates also had his own staff stay on top of it, so the chiefs wouldn’t pull the usual stunt of proposing to cut items that they know Congress would add back in and thus wind up with all the money they ever wanted to begin with.

Second, some of the junk that the chiefs and the agency heads dug up is just astonishing. They’re consolidating commands that aren’t as active as they were in Cold War times (and thus shedding duplicative staff and infrastructure), watching fuel costs, and scuttling task forces that haven’t done anything useful for years or decades.

A new plan to consolidate the military’s e-mail data centers, Gates said, will save $500 million. Eliminating the requirements for 400 internal annual reports—many of them mandated decades ago, most of them unread, all of them useless—will save $1.2 billion.

These things are small, but they add up. The fact that they’ve been allowed to gnaw on the Pentagon dole for so many years, practically unaudited, much less unchallenged, indicates just how out-of-control the beast has become.

Many years ago, during my first guided tours of the Pentagon budget maze, my tutor, a veteran of the game, told me, with a chuckle, “It’s easier to wrap your arms around this if you just leave off all the zeroes.” And so, a line-item costing $100 million—a lot of money in most federal departments—could be jotted down as “0.1,” i.e., one-tenth of a billion dollars, with all the zeroes left off, which is to say barely noticeable, not worth the trouble to ask questions about.

At the time, the defense budget was $100 billion. As it’s skyrocketed over the years, the threshold of noticeability has risen, as well. As Adm. Mullen noted at today’s press briefing, the defense budget has doubled just in the last decade, and, as a result, “We’ve lost our ability to prioritize, make hard decisions, made trades.” For the first time since the post-9/11 money surge, the military has only now had to start re-learning the art—or, really, learning it, since the officials on duty now have never had to do it before.

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