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Senators grill defense officials on proposed spending cuts

By Tom Cohen, CNN
  • A Virginia senator accuses the Defense Department of "stonewalling"
  • A Defense official says cutting overhead costs will free money for fighting forces
  • The plan would eliminate the Joint Forces Command in Virginia

Washington (CNN) -- Some U.S. senators expressed frustration Tuesday with what they called a lack of information from the Defense Department on plans to hold down military spending by closing the Joint Forces Command in Virginia and other steps.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the proposed spending reductions, top defense and military officials said the plan is intended to eliminate unnecessary overhead costs and shift those savings to America's fighting forces.

The proposal announced last month by Defense Secretary Robert Gates aimed to hold the growth of the $530 billion Defense Department budget to 1 percent next year.

Ashton Carter, the defense under-secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, told the panel that tighter federal spending as the nation struggles to recover from the economic recession meant "learning to do more without more."

After years of consistent growth in the Pentagon budget, officials now realize they face the challenge of "delivering what is needed for the amount of money we're going to get," Carter said.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, questioned whether the proposed elimination of the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk received proper analysis of the impact on both the military and the affected community.

On the eve of the hearings, Webb and the state's other senator, Mark Warner, sent a sharply worded letter to Gates suggesting the Defense Department didn't have the facts and figures to justify the closing of the Joint Forces Command.

The senators said their requests for detailed information had been ignored. "This leads us to conclude there is no comprehensive analysis to support your recommendation to close JFCOM," the letter said. "The present lack of transparency and consultation stand in stark contrast to how decisions of this magnitude are typically made."

"The Department has yet to provide any analytical data to document projected savings that would result from the transfer of this essential responsibility to another entity," the letter continues.

Video: Pentagon tightens defense belt

The senators said the closing of the command would impede the efficiency of combat operations, and they called on the Defense Department to allow members of Congress to participate in the deliberations.

"We urge you to allow Congress the opportunity to review the Department's cost assessments, business case, and recommended courses of action prior to any decisions on JFCOM's fate or any reductions in its service-support contracts.," the senators' letter said.

The command, which has an annual budget of $240 million and 2,800 military and civilian employees, is one of the department's 10 "combatant commands." Unlike most of the others, it does not have a particular global region of responsibility, such as Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East.

Webb told Pentagon officials he felt "stiff-armed" and "stonewalled" by the Pentagon, after being informed of the command closure only 15 minutes before it was announced and after having sought details about the move for seven weeks.

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn responded that the proposed elimination of the command was "a military decision" rather than a "business case analysis."

The command duplicates services and was not "a value-added function," Lynn noted.

"I know we disagree on that, but that is the rationale," Lynn told Webb, who shot back that the decision went well beyond military jurisdiction.

"There are no decisions of this magnitude that are military decisions, not in the United States," said Webb, a combat Marine in Vietnam and a former Navy secretary. "Those are civilian decisions."

Lynn promised to provide more information about the decision and said he would work to keep Virginia lawmakers and leaders informed.

Other senators on the Armed Services committee also expressed frustration with a lack of details and analysis in the Gates proposal.

"It appears that there was inadequate analysis and inadequate openness in the procedure that preceded the August announcement," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, the committee chairman, who added he was "disappointed" at the lack of firm details six weeks later.

"I fully understand the frustrations of the senators from Virginia, for instance, and others about their inability to obtain a more complete rationale of the plan of the Pentagon's proposed actions. The secretary's intent to reduce duplication, overhead and excess in the Department of Defense is commendable, but his actions should be supported by an open process which includes detailed analysis, and full consideration of opposing views," Levin said.

In response, Lynn said more details would be coming later this year and in the first half of 2011, when the department would present its budget request for 2012.

Lynn said the goal was to streamline operations, reduce unnecessary staff, shed overlapping commands and take other cost-cutting steps intended to improve efficiency.

The ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said he "strongly supported" the plan to eliminate JFCOM.

The intention is to shift the savings on overhead expenses to war-fighting needs as the nation winds down the Iraq war and remains engaged in the Afghanistan war, Lynn said.

The Joint Forces Command in Virginia is made up of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are trained and equipped to work together in response to the needs of other combatant commands. It grew out of the old Atlantic Command and became the Joint Forces Command in 1999.

Eliminating the Joint Forces Command was just one of a wide-ranging series of proposals presented by Gates. Others included:

-- Eliminating some of the 65 military boards and commissions to cut the budget for them by 25 percent in fiscal year 2011;

-- A review of all Defense Department intelligence to eliminate needless duplication;

-- Eliminating the Defense Department's Business Transformation Agency, which has day-to-day oversight of acquisition programs that would be handled by others in the department;

-- Reducing funding for service support contractors by 10 percent a year for each of the next three years;

-- Freezing the number of jobs in the Officer of the Secretary of Defense, the Defense Agencies and Combatant Commands at current levels;

-- Seeking to stop "brass creep," a term former Sen. John Glenn used for situations when higher-ranking officers were doing jobs that lower ranking officers could handle. To address that problem, Gates is ordering a freeze on the number of generals, admirals and senior civilian officials at current levels.

In announcing the proposals last month, Gates was adamant that the Pentagon must change its way of thinking about money.

"The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of savings and restraint," Gates said. "Toward this end, I am directing that any new proposal or initiatives, large or small, be it policy, program or ceremony, come with a cost estimate. That price tag will help us determine whether what we are gaining or hope to gain is really worth the cost."

The House Armed Services Committee will take up the same topic Wednesday.

CNN's Charley Keyes contributed to this report.