One of the military's 10 combatant commands, Joint Forces Command, known as "jiff-com," trains troops from all services to work together - jointly, in military jargon - for specific missions.
It employs about 6,000 people - most based in Hampton Roads, others elsewhere in Virginia and Florida. Its headquarters are at Norfolk Naval Station, and it has a command center in northern Suffolk.
Gates said he expects to dismantle the command over the coming year, but not all of its functions will be eliminated. Some tasks, including force management and sourcing, will be transferred to the Pentagon's joint staff. Other functions deemed essential to promoting "jointness" will be reassigned to other entities.
The economic impact of losing even half the positions at the command would be huge. The Norfolk Ford plant that closed in 2007 employed roughly 2,400 workers.
Not surprisingly, elected officials across the state and region lambasted Gates' announcement and said they would fight it, but it's not clear what they can do to halt the process. Unlike the Navy's plan to relocate an aircraft carrier from Norfolk to Jacksonville, Fla. - which requires Congress to approve funds to make Mayport Naval Station ready to host a nuclear carrier - Gates indicated this bureaucratic reshuffle doesn't require legislative approval.
Gates' proposal for shifting defense spending has broader implications for Virginia than the closure of JFCOM. He ordered several other steps to trim overhead, including cutting spending on support contractors and paring staff at most headquarters by reducing the number of general and flag officers and civilians who hold senior executive positions.
He is moving quickly, demanding action plans for most items within three to four months.
"The way to make sure something gets done in this building is to set short deadlines," he said.
The commonwealth is home to more than 12,000 defense contractors and is second only to California in military-related businesses, Gov. Bob McDonnell said. The companies that employ them have collected $341 billion since 2000, so a reduction of 30 percent over the next three years, as Gates directed, will be an enormous hit, he said.
In a hastily called news conference at Old Dominion University, McDonnell stood alongside Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, Suffolk Mayor Linda Johnson, and U.S. Reps. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake; Bobby Scott, D-Newport News; Glenn Nye, D-Virginia Beach; and Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland County.
McDonnell announced the formation of a commission whose task is to retain and expand the state's military and national security facilities.
He and Forbes cast Gates' announcement in partisan terms.
"It appears as though this administration is cutting investments in national defense in order to pay for massive new social programs," McDonnell said. Forbes accused Gates of participating in "the piecemeal auctioning off of the greatest military the world has ever known."
Gates insisted the proposal will not reduce the defense budget. The services will keep the savings accrued and apply them to higher priorities, such as building more ships and replacing equipment worn out in current conflicts, he said.
Virginia's Democratic senators also protested.
"In the business world, you sometimes have to spend money in order to save money," said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. His colleague in the Senate, Jim Webb, said efficiency is important, but it shouldn't be sought "at the expense of the command that is leading the charge for the future of our military doctrine."
Harold W. Gehman Jr., a retired four-star admiral who served as JFCOM's first commander, said Gates doesn't need congressional support to reorganize military commands, but he also doesn't want to alienate the people who approve the military's budgets.
The command still has an important mission, Gehman said. But he said it has become bloated and could benefit from restructuring.
"Every command should have to justify what it does and why it does it," Gehman said. "Joint Forces Command is going to have a hard time justifying 6,000 people."
Two things seem to have doomed Joint Forces, according to Gates' remarks. At the time it was created in 1999, with a mission to infuse "jointness" into everything the military does, the extra layer of bureaucracy was justified because its mission was so important, Gates said.
But the command is now part of a military that has embraced joint operations - and proven so during long engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps more important, though, is the makeup of its work force. According to the military's own statistics, JFCOM employs far more contractors than any other combatant command. More than half its workers - about 3,000 - are contractors. The remaining 2,800 are about evenly split between uniformed military members and civilian federal employees.
In Suffolk, the command has been a powerful engine driving local economic development.
Hundreds of military and civilian employees work at its north Suffolk campus, a 640,000-square-foot facility leased for an estimated $16 million. Hundreds more are employed by defense contractors working nearby.
"Hopefully, this is not what it sounds like," Mayor Johnson said. "We want to know exactly what it will mean - what it could mean. Will other opportunities come in its place?" She said she will work with the area's congressional delegation to minimize the impact, and, if possible, to prevent the closure.
Gates said he hopes he can convince Virginia's delegation that reducing overhead and administrative expenses will help the state in the long run by focusing more on core priorities.
"If, as a result of these efforts, I'm able to add a billion or two billion dollars to the Navy's shipbuilding program of record, Virginia may well come out with a lot more jobs than it loses," Gates said. "This is why the point needs to be emphasized again and again: this is not about cutting the defense budget. It's about a reallocation internally."