Defense Secretary Robert Gates: ‘When It Comes To The Deficit, The Department Of Defense Is Not The Problem’

As ThinkProgress and The Progress Report have documented, there is a growing coalition of both Tea Party-backed conservatives and stalwart progressives who are coming together to demand cuts to the bloated defense budget. This coalition was given further momentum last week, when the co-chairs of President Obama’s Deficit Reduction Commission released a report that calls for $100 billion in defense cuts.

This morning, Defense Secretary Robert Gates pushed back against this movement for defense cuts. Speaking at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council, Gates revealed that he had told the co-chairs of the deficit commission that it would be “catastrophic” to cut defense spending by 10 percent. He told attendees today that cutting defense spending requires a “scalpel, not a meat axe,” and concluded, “When it comes to the deficit, the Department of Defense is not the problem”:

President Barack Obama’s deficit commission last week recommended significant cuts in military spending as part of its formula for drying up red ink in the federal budget. Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates punched back. “When it comes to the deficit, the Department of Defense is not the problem,” Mr. Gates told attendees at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council here.

Mr. Gates says he met with deficit panel chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson and delivered the message that a proposal to cut military spending by 10% “would be catastrophic,” given security threats the U.S. faces and save only $55 billion. That would make only a minor dent in a deficit that’s over $1 trillion a year, he suggested. Defense savings, he said, require “a scalpel, not a meat axe.”

Mr. Gates says he’s getting good cooperation from military leaders in an effort to cut $100 billion from military overhead, but he said he wants to reinvest that money in increasing the military’s fighting capability — what Mr. Gates called the “tooth side.”

U.S. defense spending dwarfs over one hundred countries’ GDPs, and 2009 spending is over $500 billion more than what China reportedly budgets, the world’s next highest military spender. And it is simply untrue that the Department of Defense is not a major factor in the budget deficit. Defense spending has accounted 65 percent of the discretionary spending increase since 2001, making it a key factor in the growth of the U.S. budget deficit since then.


To really understand exactly how much spending the Department of Defense consumes, all one has to do is look at the amount of discretionary spending that goes to the military compared to other sectors. The non-partisan National Priorities Project put together the following graph, showing how discretionary spending for FY2010 is doled out. The Pentagon’s budget consumes 58 percent of this spending, dwarfing all other sectors:

Last spring, Gates gave a speech at the Eisenhower Library about the need for a more efficient and streamlined Pentagon budget. He warned that creating such a budget would take “political will and willingness…to make hard choices — choices that will displease powerful people both inside the Pentagon and out.” It is up to Gates to admit that reining in the Pentagon budget must be part of any serious effort to reduce the deficit, and to stand up to those “powerful people.”