WASHINGTON — Rep. John M. McHugh has more questions than answers right now about Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's plan to reorganize defense spending — but he knows just enough to be nervous.
Among the highlights of the defense secretary's budget is a plan to stop contracting out so much of the Defense Department's work, a trend that gained steam under his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, after the Sept. 11 attacks.
That could cost jobs around Fort Drum, Mr. McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor, said in a telephone interview. The only question is how many jobs, and the congressman said he has no idea.
"You could have any number of contractors affected," said Mr. McHugh, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
Fort Drum, like other installations, has expanded its use of contractors for security and other jobs. Across the Defense Department, contractors comprise nearly 40 percent of the work force, a figure Mr. Gates said he aims to cut back to 26 percent, the same level as in September 2001.
Some 13,000 private contractors could be replaced with civil servants in the next year, the Pentagon announced. As many as 39,000 could follow in the next five years. Many of those work in defense acquisition, which will undergo a major restructuring if Mr. Gates's proposal becomes reality. But the range of jobs contractors now perform has become expansive.
Mr. Gates's proposal is a sharp departure from Mr. Rumsfeld's philosophy that the military was taking too many of its own workers off important jobs to guard installations or perform other tasks he said were well-suited to private contractors.
Mr. McHugh said Mr. Gates called him ahead of the announcement to discuss the plan's major points and ask for support. The congressman said he would support parts of the plan where common ground could be found.
Although he did not openly criticize the proposal in an interview, Mr. McHugh did say in a statement that the proposal "would be tantamount to an $8 billion cut" and took issue with Mr. Gates's proposal to cut missile defense spending. Cutting missile defense would pose a danger to the homeland, Mr. McHugh said.
While contracting reform could have the most direct effect at Fort Drum, other proposals are bound to affect the base and the 10th Mountain Division. "Everything that affects the Army is of importance to us," Mr. McHugh said.
Mr. Gates said he will order a suspension of part of the Army's Future Combat System, halting for now the fielding of a new ground combat vehicle. He did say the Army does need a new vehicle, however. Mr. McHugh said the secretary was clear about suspending that part of the program, not ending it.
However, Mr. Gates did not say how long the suspension would last.
Mr. Gates told reporters this week that the Future Combat System decision was the toughest of a few dozen program decisions he made.
The secretary also said he would back off the Army's plan to field 48 combat brigade teams, trimming that number to 45 — still a sharp increase over the past several years. Overall, the plan continues to expand the total size of the Army.
He also foreshadowed officials' intention to try again to recover some of the costs of the Tricare health care program, or at least discuss how to do that in future budgets. Efforts to raise fees have fizzled in Congress the past few years but health care is "eating the department alive," Mr. Gates said at a press conference. Health care will cost the department $47 billion in fiscal 2010, roughly equal to the nation's foreign affairs budget, he said.
He said the department will not propose raising fees again but wants to discuss the issue.
"We figure maybe we'll have a better chance of having a serious dialogue with the Hill if we go ahead and fund it and then begin the conversation. So we'll keep our fingers crossed," Mr. Gates said.
Congress has firmly opposed such increases, but Mr. McHugh has warned that boosting Tricare benefits, as Congress has done, while keeping out-of-pocket costs untouched is a hugely expensive approach.
Mr. McHugh said congressional reaction to the secretary's plan is likely to break along regional lines rather than partisan ones, given the effect on particular shipbuilders and other large defense contractors in certain locations.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., steered clear of judging the proposal, saying in a statement only that final decisions are up to Congress and that lawmakers will "carefully consider" it.