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Gates on Pentagon Cuts, Implementing DADT, China’s Military Build-up

January 6, 2011 at 5:05 PM EDT
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As federal deficits rise, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is looking to cut spending by close to $100 billion in the next five years, a sign that even the Pentagon's massive budget is subject to government-wide belt tightening. He discusses the new budgetary measures, his China trip and "don't ask, don't tell" with Jim Lehrer.
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JIM LEHRER: And now to Secretary Gates. I spoke with him earlier this evening.

Mr. Secretary, welcome.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: So, bottom line, even with some cuts, the overall spending on defense is going to remain pretty much the same, at least for a while?

ROBERT GATES: We will have modest growth in the defense budget for the next three fiscal years.

And, then, the last two years of the five-year period, we will be protected against inflation, but not have real growth. So, this is really all about a reduction in the rate of growth, not actual dollars in defense. I mean, because of inflation, because of very low rates of growth, we will get more money in F.Y. ’13, fiscal year ’13, than we did in ’12 and so on.

At the same time, we have conducted this entire effort to ensure that the important parts of the defense budget, our force structure, planes, ships, and strength in soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, modernization investments, taking care of our people, those are going to grow robustly, at 2 percent to 3 percent per year, through the whole period because of the cuts in overhead that we have identified — the savings of overhead that we have identified and transferred to those meaningful accounts.

JIM LEHRER: Isn’t it unusual to be able to reduce costs in some way and save that money and reallocate it somewhere else, rather than have to give it back to the federal deficit or the federal government overall?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think two things.

First of all, there tends to be a very short memory here in Washington about things. But, last year, we capped or cut programs that, had they been built to conclusion, would have cost the taxpayers about $330 billion. This budget for the next five years does return about another $78 billion to trying to tackle the budget deficit and the debt problem, but…

JIM LEHRER: So, those are real cuts?

ROBERT GATES: Well, those are changes in the expected dollars that we thought we were going to have when we prepared last year’s budget.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

ROBERT GATES: So, we project out five years. We’re about the only place in town that actually budgets for a five-year period.

And so we have amounts that we look at for that entire five-year period. And those amounts are going to be lower than we expected last year. So, in this sense, it’s a cut. But in terms of actual dollars, as I indicated, it’s — we’re going to see very modest growth year-on-year.

But the real growth comes in the accounts that matter, the weapons accounts, the troop accounts, that kind of thing.

JIM LEHRER: And that — you’re maintaining that by switching some money that you’re not going to spend, and spend it in those areas, right?

ROBERT GATES: Well, we’re finding that money by reducing overhead, what people refer to as waste or fat or whatever you want to call it, but we’re — the services, the military services, have done an incredible job of going into their budgets and going into the way they do business, and identifying consolidations, eliminations, and various other things to cut their overhead.

And they were incentivized to do that, because they were assured that what they saved in overhead, they could invest in military capabilities.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the new chairman of House Armed Services Committee issued a — talked to reporters after your announcement today. And he said: I am not happy.

He said the cuts were more dramatic than he had expected. Is dramatic a word you would use to describe what you suggested today?

ROBERT GATES: Well, first of all, I think that we presented these members of Congress, kind of cold, a lot of information.

JIM LEHRER: This was before your announcement, yes.

ROBERT GATES: This before the announcement. And we only met for about 45 minutes or so.

And so I really, I think, provided them with a huge amount of money. And my hope is that, as we go through the hearings for the fiscal year ’12 budget, that we will be able to show those who are interested in protecting defense that we have done that, and those who think that defense ought to contribute to reducing the deficit, that we have done that as well.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe that — you really do believe that your suggestion — suggested budget does what needs to be done to coincide with the need to cut federal spending overall?

ROBERT GATES: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: It’s a major contribution?

ROBERT GATES: And I — and, again, I would remind people of what we did last year, to the tune of $330 billion over a period of years.

But the other aspect of this is that I think people need to remember is that providing for the common defense is an unambiguous federal responsibility. And the truth of the matter is, if you cut the defense budget by $50 billion, that’s $50 billion on a $1.3 trillion deficit.

I would argue that defense is not the problem when it comes to the deficit. And if you look at defense as a percentage of federal expenditures or as a percentage of gross national product, we’re at a lower level, particularly for wartime, than we have been during any previous war, and as a percentage of the overall federal budget, about where we have been for a number of years.

JIM LEHRER: You use the term culture of endless money to talk about how some people have thought about it in the past, and those at the Pentagon and elsewhere. And you’re trying to end that. How close are you to ending that?

ROBERT GATES: Well, this is a pretty deeply ingrained culture.

I think this is the second year we have been at this, and I think people are beginning — people in the Department of Defense are good citizens and they’re also literate citizens. They understand the challenge the country is facing.

And just as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, has said, a huge national debt is a national security problem. And so people in the Department of Defense understand that this issue has to be dealt with and that we have to do our part.

JIM LEHRER: And the — so, you don’t think that the Pentagon should be put in the same category, say, with the Department of Education or the Department of State or whatever, that the Pentagon should be a special category because of its unambiguous mission?

ROBERT GATES: I believe so.

I think we have to do our part. I think we have to expect serious scrutiny in terms of how we spend our money, and to make sure that we’re not wasting taxpayers’ dollars, that we’re making smart decisions.

But the United States faces a very complicated and dangerous world. We face the situation — we still are engaged in a major war in Afghanistan. We still have 50,000 troops in Afghanistan — in Iraq. We have to deal with regimes, in Iran and North Korea that are very unpredictable, developing weapons of mass destruction.

We have strategic modernization programs going on in Russia and China. So, there’s a real world out there that has to be dealt with. And the idea that the United States can turn inward and ignore all those developments and pretend that al-Qaida doesn’t exist anymore or any of these other challenges exist is just not consistent with the real world.

And my argument is, ever since World War I, when we have come to the end of wars, we have dramatically reduced our defense spending, cut our military forces, and then ended up in another war. And what we have to understand is, a strong military is a deterrent to war, not a cause of war.

And when we have had to rebuild quickly to deal with threats, the cost in blood and treasure has been very high.

JIM LEHRER: Part of your proposal, though, calls for reducing the number of troops on the ground by 47,000 by the year 2015. How does that fit in to what you just said?

ROBERT GATES: Well, first of all, the Marine Corps has been thinking for a couple of years that they need to come down from — I authorized in 2007 an increase of 27,000 in the Marine Corps, from 175,000 to 202,000, and an increase in the Army of 65,000.

And the reductions that we’re talking about are projected to begin in 2015. The Marine Corps has been thinking about a reduction of 15,000 to 20,000 for some time. If they make those cuts as part of the program, they will still have somewhere between 7,000 and 12,000 more Marines in 2015 than when I became secretary.

If the Army cuts 27,000, which is what we’re looking at, in 2015 and beyond, they will still have somewhere in the neighborhood of 35,000 to 40,000 more troops than when I became secretary. So, I think it’s important to keep these things in perspective.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. But that assumes, does it not, that there will be no troops in Iraq and very few in Afghanistan by 2015, correct?

ROBERT GATES: Well, we have brought 120,000 troops out of Iraq. We have put roughly half that number into Afghanistan.

We have another 50,000 who are going to be coming out of Iraq this year. So I think that the Army is still going to be robust. So is the Marine Corps.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned China. You’re going to China this weekend. And you said in your press conference today that you’re interested in encouraging military-to-military relationships between the United States and China.

What are you talking about? What do you mean?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think that one way to — I think there are two aspects to this.

One is to open a dialogue on issues where we have common strategic interests, whether it’s instability or provocative behavior on the part of North Korea, whether it’s Iran developing weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons, piracy, terrorism.

And what I’m — what I’m hoping we can do is look at some opportunities where we have common interests, for example, counterpiracy or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, where our militaries actually can work together and get to know each other.

And I think that kind of collaboration creates the opportunity, as partners, to do some constructive things. I also think that it helps build a stronger relationship.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it’s wise, though, to keep China in mind as a potential competitor of the United States on a military level?

ROBERT GATES: Well, we obviously have to be mindful of the — and I referred to it a minute ago — of the Chinese military modernization programs, their anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles that potentially can put our aircraft carriers at risk, new fifth-generation aircraft.

ROBERT GATES: There have been some news stories about that.

So they have a lot of capabilities that they’re building. But we need to be mindful of that. We need to be in a position to deal with those capabilities in the future.

But — but, China, there’s no reason for China to be an adversary, and particularly in a military sense, for the United States. So I think looking for ways to be constructive, to be more open, to better understand what each other’s intentions are with some of these capabilities, this is the way that sovereign nations deal with each other.

JIM LEHRER: Do you read what they’re doing militarily as being more defensive or offensive?

ROBERT GATES: I think that they’re creating capabilities to be able particularly to project naval power further and further from mainland China. Partly, I think that’s to protect their own shipping. They have become increasingly dependent on energy imports, on imports of minerals and various kinds of ores.

Obviously, their economy is deeply dependent on imports and exports. And so part of that is a presence that has — that carries influence with it. Part of it is, I think, in terms of protection of their own shipping.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the timetable now for implementing don’t ask, don’t tell repeal?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I see the implementation in three segments.

The first that has to happen is defining clearly what the benefits issues are, what are the changes in regulations and policies and in the Uniform Code of Military Justice that have to be made. Second is taking all that information, then preparing the training materials for the force.

And then the biggest piece of this obviously is training 2.2 million men and women in the military. I have given instructions to try and accelerate, as much as possible, the first two pieces of this, getting the policy and regulations piece done quickly, getting the training materials quickly, so we can then move on and start the problem — or start addressing the challenge, just the physics of how you get 2.2 million people trained.

And — but our objective is to do this as quickly as we responsibly can, but we’re going to do it right.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Mr. Secretary, the Captain Honors case.

The commanding officer of the USS Enterprise was relieved of command because of these lewd videos. They came out in 2007 — 2006 and ’07. Why — what happened? Why was there not disciplinary action before now?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think one the things the Navy is looking into is sort of who was aware of these things and what actions should have been taken, what actions ought to be taken now.

I personally think that the Navy has handled this entire matter quite appropriately.

JIM LEHRER: Were you part — were you a part of the decision to relieve him of command?

ROBERT GATES: No. That was all done by the Navy.

JIM LEHRER: But you think it was the right thing to do?

ROBERT GATES: Yes

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of leaving command, where — you are set to leave this year, right?

ROBERT GATES: Well, at some point.

JIM LEHRER: What is your timetable? Well, there’s a report today, to be specific, that you might stay for the whole year, you might stay for another year, to the end of 2011.

Is that in the cards?

ROBERT GATES: Well, we will just see.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right. Whatever.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.

ROBERT GATES: Thank you.