Pentagon Reform: Hope Springs Eternal

The Pentagon is notorious for promising to reform itself but never actually getting around to doing so. Secretaries of Defense and their leading assistants always promise to streamline the bureaucracy and render it more efficient, but the bureaucrats watch their political overlords come and go, and are most efficient and effective when it comes to maintaining the status quo. Those reforms that do come to fruition invariably involve changes of process and organization, equally invariably accompanied by the creation of new agencies or sub-agencies and the headquarters to lead them, which all require additional civilian personnel and resources—in other words, more bureaucrats. Thus, even positive changes come with a drag that reduces their net value.

Given DoD’s inability to confront its inefficiencies, many reform efforts have originated on Capitol Hill, often drawing upon ideas hatched in the web of think tanks that dot the Washington landscape. Perhaps the most effective reform was the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that empowered the Joint Staff at the expense of the military services; assigned control of military operations to field commanders who reported to the Secretary of Defense; and enhanced the authority of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. On the other hand, despite almost annual legislative attempts to tinker with the DoD’s acquisition process, the costs of major weapons systems continue to rise even as it takes increasingly longer to field them. Similarly, with the recent exception of reforming the military retirement system, neither Congress nor DoD have come fully to grips with rising military personnel costs, notably with regard to military health care, or with the incessant growth of the civilian personnel corps.

Partly as a result of the cumulative, multi-year effects of sequestration, and partly because personnel and O&M (operations and maintenance) costs continue to outstrip annual overall defense budget growth, both military end strength and force posture have declined since the final year of the George W. Bush Administration. In particular, overhead and support now comprise over 40 percent of total Pentagon spending—some $240 billion out of a base budget of approximately $550 billion. As such, DoD’s overhead figure is more than twice the combined total defense budgets of France and the United Kingdom. The cost of DoD headquarters alone amounts to over $40 billion, more than the entire German defense budget.

These developments, coupled with the growing recognition that cutting-edge technology increasingly resides in a private sector that is chary of doing business with the government, have led to a renewed effort, both on Capitol Hill and (not surprisingly) to a considerably lesser extent in the Pentagon, to modernize and render more efficient programs and procedures that in some cases hark back more than half a century.

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