In his last speech to Congress, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Wednesday that defense budget cuts could “hollow” out military capability.
“A smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and do fewer things,” Gates said before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense in his last congressional testimony as Defense secretary.
The Senate Armed Services Committee confirmed CIA Director Leon Panetta to be Gates’ successor on Tuesday, and the full Senate could vote by week’s end.
Gates said there are still some relatively pain-free cuts to be made by “culling overhead” costs on headquarters’ staffs outside of Washington, but meeting Obama’s goal of USD 400 billion in cutbacks over 12 years means “real cuts,” not only finding efficiencies.
He warned lawmakers against taking a percentage off the top of the Pentagon’s budget.
“This kind of salami-slicing approach preserves overhead and maintains force structure on paper, but results in a hollowing out of the force from a lack of proper training, maintenance and equipment, and manpower,” Gates cautioned.
Joint Chief’s Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, also making what is expected to be his last appearance before Congress before his term ends October 1, said no one should expect defense budget cuts to be easy.
Beginning in 2015, the U.S. will begin reducing the number of active-duty Army soldiers from 547,000 to 27,000 and the Marine Corps from 202,000 down to 15,000-20,000, he outlined.
The reductions in force size and benefits would help protect other programs, Gates and Mullen said.
Gates told the Senate Appropriations Committee that he is “very concerned” by a House-approved cut of USD 1 billion in funding for a program to modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons.
Spending on modernizing the nation’s aging nuclear arsenal was part of an accord with the Senate when it ratified the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, he said. That accord calls for reducing the number of strategic nuclear weapons held by both countries over the next seven years.
Gates and Mullen also warned against closing foreign military bases and pulling back into a “fortress America”.
The Gates and Mullen proposed a budget request for USD 553 billion and an overseas contingency operations request for USD 117.8 billion.