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Generals Push Back On Robert Gates' Budget Cutting

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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has spent a good portion of the past two years going up against an entrenched web of military bureaucrats and defense lobbyists to try to restore rationality to the defense budget.

He's battled against obsolete military hardware, pledged to make cuts to the civilian bureaucracy, and ordered the Pentagon to shed $100 billion in overhead. Now, as Ginger Thompson and Thom Shanker report in the New York Times, Gates has put "the military's sacrosanct corps of generals and admirals" in his crosshairs, by "ordering his staff to cut at least 50 positions, and making clear that he would be happier if they cut more." And it doesn't stop there:

Pentagon officials said the measures were aimed at more than a number. Mr. Gates said he wanted to flatten a bureaucracy that had experienced significant "brass creep," swelling to "cumbersome and top-heavy proportions." He complained, for example, that a request to send a dog-handling team to Afghanistan goes through no fewer than five four-star headquarters.

Beyond that, Pentagon officials said, Mr. Gates wanted to push back against a culture of entitlement that had allowed some senior officers to pad their lifestyles as well as their commands.

Gates warned 'em: "No sacred cows." But, as the Times points out, the critters laying up in the yard are more of the canine variety:

Salaries and benefits, however, are the least of it. The biggest costs are created by the general's staffs -- including security details, senior advisers, communications teams, schedulers and personal aides. Mr. Harrison said the military's highest-ranking generals and admirals -- 40 four-star and 146 three-stars -- each had salaries, benefits and staffs whose cumulative annual costs easily exceed $1 million.

"When you have a head dog, you also have a deputy dog, then a deputy deputy dog, and a deputy deputy deputy dog," said General Punaro. "The layers are suffocating the bureaucracy."

One has to imagine that maybe, just maybe, if military commanders weren't accustomed to rolling like the cast of Entourage, General Stanley McChrystal might still have a career. But I digress! As you might imagine, those head dogs are barking back at Gates.

"We are well compensated, and we live very comfortable lives," General Eaton said, referring to the military's most senior leaders. "But when you look at all the things going on around a general, the nation is getting a very, very high return on its money."

And yet it's worth noting that even as the number of generals and admirals has increased since 9/11, the "the overall number of active duty personnel has declined from 2.2 million in 1985 to some 1.5 million today." If you're wondering how comfortable their lives are, or what their take on the bottom line is, here's Danger Room's Spencer Ackerman, recently returned from Afghanistan, with the news:

Some considered the war a distraction from broader national security challenges like Iran or China. Others thought that its costs -- nearly ten years, $321 billion, 1243 U.S. deaths and counting -- are too high, playing into Osama bin Laden's "Bleed To Bankruptcy" strategy. Still others thought that it doesn't make sense for President Obama simultaneously triple U.S. troop levels and announce that they're going to start coming down, however slowly, in July 2011. At least one person was convinced, despite the evidence, that firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal meant the strategy was due for an overhaul, something I chalked up to the will to believe.

But if there was a common denominator to their critiques, it's this: None understood how their day-to-day jobs actually contributed to a successful outcome. One person actually asked me if I could explain how it's all supposed to knit together.

It just gets to be hard to worry about the comfort of generals.

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