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Skelton: Defense cost-cutting can't mean a budget cut

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Defense cost-cutting plan examined by House Armed Services Committee
  • Panel members say military budget needs to increase
  • Chairman Skelton commends ideal of greater efficiency

Washington (CNN) -- The powerful House Armed Services chairman warned Wednesday that he won't let a Defense Department cost-cutting initiative result in a budget cut for the nation's military.

"I do not support cutting the defense budget at this time," Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Missouri, said at the start of a committee hearing on the plan by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to hold down the growth of the $530-billion department budget.

The cost-cutting plan is intended to eliminate unnecessary overhead expenses and shift those savings to America's fighting forces, top defense officials told the House committee.

It includes controversial measures such as closing the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia, and other efficiency steps.

On Tuesday, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed frustration with the inability to get detailed information on the plan and questioned if proper analysis had been conducted in formulating it.

Skelton commended Gates and his team Wednesday "for making the hard choices necessary" in seeking to lower overhead costs, calling the initiatives "the most comprehensive effort of its kind in 20 years."

However, he told top defense officials appearing before the panel that "they need to persuade us this isn't an attempt to cut the defense budget."

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn responded that the plan was not an effort to reduce the defense budget, but instead a shifting of priorities that involved more than pure budgeting.

"It is also about operational agility," Lynn said, noting that Gates had concluded that the Joint Forces Command and other posts and programs targeted for elimination no longer were needed.

As at the Senate committee hearing the day before, members of the House panel asked why they were having trouble getting answers from the Defense Department to requests they had submitted for detailed information on the plan.

"The department has failed to fully respond," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-California, describing a request involving the Joint Forces Command decision that eventually got a response he described as tardy and incomplete.

"It leaves us somewhat frustrated," McKeon said. "I'm not saying we're against this ... but we don't understand the why and the wherefore."

Lynn responded that a thorough review based on military rationale led to the recommendation that the command be closed, rather than any kind of business rationale on how the move would save money.

"We think we'll be able to save a substantial part" of the $1 billion annual cost of the command, Lynn said.

On Tuesday, 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 letter said 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."

Webb also said 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.

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."

CNN's Tom Cohen and Charley Keyes contributed to this story.