WASHINGTON — Critics charge that the widespread budget cuts announced by the Defense Department on Monday amount to little more than rearranging military personnel and programs, with no real effect on troops’ operations or the Pentagon’s finances.
“Even with the big item, the closing of [Joint Forces Command], there may be some contractors who lose their jobs but mostly it just looks like military and civilian personnel moving to different offices,” said Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates outlined a lengthy list of moves designed to trim military costs and “instill a culture of savings and restraint.”
They included eliminating Joint Forces Command, the Business Transformation Agency and the Defense Networks and Information Integration office, moves which could jeopardize more than 6,000 military and civilian jobs. He also pledged to trim the number of flag and general officers by 50 and the number of senior civilian executives by 150 over the next two years.
But Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, downplayed those moves as more symbolic than effective.
“This isn’t dealing with the fundamental problem of the force structure, that the Army and Marine Corps have grown tremendously since the start of the wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan], and so have their costs,” he said
The Pentagon will also institute a hiring freeze for defense agency and combatant command positions for the next three years, cut funding for support contractor personnel by 10 percent, cut funding for intelligence contracts by 10 percent, and eliminate some advisory boards and commissions.
Officials from the services are asked to find $100 billion more in “overhead savings” over the next five years, money which Gates said the services will be able to reinvest in their own equipment and modernization programs.
In a commentary Tuesday, Patrick Cronin, senior advisor at the liberal Center for New American Security, said all of the announced moves are less about cutting defense spending than “maintaining military modernization” through more efficient bureaucracy.
“It is essential for the United States to invest in its muscle, even if means making sacrifices by retracting other parts of the organization,” he said.
Still, it’s unclear how severe those sacrifices will be. Goure said he expects most troops outside the Pentagon and the Washington area to see little impact from these changes.
“Unless you’re going to have one person doing the job of two, you won’t see a lot of job losses here,” he said. “The demand will still be the same. This is primarily rearranging deck chairs.”
Defense Department support contracts cover a wide range of responsibilities, everyday tasks like meeting coordination and clerical work but also highly specialized skills in information technology or intelligence gathering. Korb said contractors with the more mundane jobs will likely be forced out, leaving those tasks to troops and civilian defense employees.
But on Monday Gates promised that “a lot of things contractors do … peel potatoes, do the dishes” won’t fall to highly trained combat troops. He also noted that changes will not target or adversely impact troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said while Monday’s cuts may not have much of an impact on troops now, they may indicate “more budget difficulties down the road for everyone.”
The fiscal 2012 Defense budget proposal, expected next February, could see increases in health care fees for veterans, limits on permanent change of station moves and even base closures, all items defense officials have debated in recent weeks, Harrison said.