He directed the services and defense agencies to trim almost $102 billion from overhead and support costs for fiscal years 2012 to 2016. The Army, Navy and Air Force must each cut $28.3 billion during that period with another $17 billion coming from department-wide overhead reductions.
It won’t be easy, painless or without revolutionary change. Gates has stressed that he’s not asking for overall defense top line cuts. In fact, he concedes that at least some real growth is needed to sustain the current force structure. Instead, his plan is to redistribute funds within the services from the support and overhead “tail” to bolster the fighting “teeth.”
During a May speech at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan., Gates outlined some of his frustrations:
• health care expenses that have grown from $19 billion ten years ago to $50 billion
• growth in operations and maintenance costs – everything from flight training to mowing the grass – to $200 billion annually, nearly twice that of ten years ago
• a study that showed overhead accounts for roughly 40 percent of the defense budget
• only a 20 percent cut in senior leadership during the 1990s while the overall force was suffering reductions of nearly 40 percent
• a top-heavy bureaucracy that, according to Gates, places up to 30 staff layers between him and an action officer and requires approval from five, four-star headquarters before unit changes can be made in the war zone
Gates summarized for his Kansas crowd. “I am directing the military services, the joint staff, the major functional and regional commands and the civilian side of the Pentagon to take a hard, unsparing look at how they operate – in substance and style alike,” he stressed. “The goal is to cut our overhead costs and to transfer those savings to force structure and modernization …”
Robins Air Force Base and its parent Air Force Materiel Command will be a major focus of the Air Force as it struggles to meet those directives. The command has cradle to grave responsibility for weapons systems, a massive budget and immense contracting responsibilities.
Initiatives such as eliminating the two-star commander position at the three air logistics centers likely will arise – with considerably more momentum than it had a few years ago when it was first introduced then withdrawn. Other “streamlining” moves likely will come to the forefront very quickly.
Cutting operating costs will be particularly painful and community support could be decisive – not only in Robins reaching the specific goals it will be assigned but also in preserving the long-term viability of the base.
Doing what is necessary will not be simple. The low-lying fruit has already been harvested, meaning that revolutionary thinking will be required both on and off the base … and it needs to begin immediately.