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Interview with Defense Secretary Robert Gates

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - January 6, 2011

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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.

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