Gates Wields the Ax, and a U.S. Command Dies

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates announces a plan to close U.S. Joint Forces Command during a press conference at the Pentagon

Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared Monday that he plans to kill the Pentagon's U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) — a high-tech training operation in Norfolk, Va., that employs more contractors than troops. It's a key step in weaning the U.S. military off the post-9/11 defense-spending binge, and it will be only the first in a string of tough cuts to come. The announcement marked the first time in recent memory that a Defense Secretary has called for scrapping one of the major commands — institutions with all the defenses of any medieval moated castle.

"It is important that we not repeat the mistakes of the past, where tough economic times or the winding down of a military campaign leads to steep and unwise reductions in defense," Gates said. "The Department of Defense cannot expect America's elected representatives to approve budget increases each year unless we are doing a good job, indeed everything possible, to make every dollar count."

In part, Gates is reacting to the post-9/11 belief that massive investment was needed to increase security against perceived threats — following a devastating attack on U.S. soil by zealots armed with box cutters. It was only three weeks ago that a top JFCOM official told Congress of plans to spend $285 million "to support the urgent development of infantry immersive training capabilities through the advancement of close-combat infantry immersive training simulations."

Huh? The nation has been at war for nearly a decade and now they're telling us the military has an urgent requirement to learn how to fight? "The Department," Gates said Monday, "must start setting priorities, making real trade-offs, and separating appetites from real requirements."

But cutting military capability, no matter how marginally, can be like shaking hands with a switchblade. Gates and Congress have lopped off the military's low-hanging fruit over the past two years. They have ended production of the Air Force's prized F-22 jet fighter early, scrapped a new Navy cruiser and terminated more than a dozen other programs, saving more than $300 billion in planned costs.

And just two months ago, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, declared JFCOM and its training mission "essential." Republicans are expected to accuse Gates of weakening national security, as will a bipartisan group representing southeastern Virginia, where JFCOM (pronounced Jiffy-com) is based. Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat, warned that killing one of his state's major defense facilities (Virginia, let it be noted, is home to many major national-security bodies, among them the Pentagon and the CIA) would be penny-wise and pound-foolish. "You sometimes have to spend money in order to save money," he said, emphasizing the command's role to compel the military services to play nice, and perhaps more efficiently, together.

JFCOM (and its 2,800 employees, reinforced by its 3,000 contractors) is only a decade old and spends about $240 million a year training U.S. troops to fight. It's one of 10 of the Pentagon's major commands, including those responsible for nuclear weapons, transportation and special operations. It sprang from the U.S. Atlantic Command, which like each of the remaining commands, oversees a geographic region (others cover Africa, Europe, the Middle East, the Pacific, South America and the U.S.).

General Ray Odierno, just back from commanding U.S. forces in Iraq, is JFCOM's new boss (his predecessor, Marine General James Mattis, has been promoted to head U.S. Central Command, following David Petraeus' move to take over command of the Afghan war following Stanley McChrystal's firing). Late Monday, Odierno's staff said it would work hard to "de-establish" the command, and added that it appreciates the Pentagon's promise to provide "the best professional career advice and placement assistance available." Most of JFCOM's work will become the responsibility of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and its staff.

Gates also wants to cut spending on contractors by 10% and make other savings totaling $100 billion over the next five years. (Over the past decade, the share of every Pentagon payroll dollar going to private contractors, instead of folks in uniform or government civilians, has jumped from 26 cents to 39 cents). Wily in the ways of bureaucracy — he once ran the CIA, after all — Gates is basically bribing the Pentagon to cut its own overhead by pledging that the resulting savings will stay in the military's wallet to fund new personnel and weapons. Such savings of about 2%, combined with President Obama's plan to increase military spending by 1% annually, should give the Pentagon enough money to outfit and modernize the current 1.4 million–strong active-duty force. (Pentagon spending has grown more than 10% annually since 9/11 and now tops the Cold War average.)

Of course, the real threat to U.S. well-being just beyond the horizon may not even be armed: Pentagon bookkeepers now predict that interest payments on the national debt will by 2017 exceed the almost one-fifth of the federal budget currently allocated for defense.