The Pentagon's sequestration opportunity

Department of Defense/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Chuck Hagel answers a question at a confirmation hearing in the Senate Armed Service Committee at the Dirksen Senate Building in Washington D.C., Jan. 31, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Why has true reform proven elusive at the Department of Defense?

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  • There is a tendency for policymakers to target "low-hanging fruit"

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  • Acquisition reform means fixing a broken process, not simply cancelling what are often needed systems

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One month into sequestration, the chorus is growing in Washington: the Pentagon must use this defense drawdown as an opportunity to tackle the internal drivers of military spending such as creeping bureaucracy, compensation, and excess infrastructure. This is an effort long overdue but few politicians or military leaders have wanted to take it on seriously to this point.

Yet as Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University, said at a recent AEI event, "When there's this much consensus across this broad a spectrum of people doing defense in this town, somebody at the Pentagon has to wake up and start listening."

This unanimity for needed change among defense watchers is not limited to think tanks, either. As The Washington Times explores, members of the press have begun echoing the need to trim the Pentagon "back office" and reporters have consequently increased their skepticism of proclamations of doom from senior defense leaders. The New York Times published a front-page story entitled, "Cuts Give Obama Path to Create Leaner Military," arguing that far from jeopardizing national security, sequestration could give the administration cover to enact politically-sensitive defense cuts. (Whether it will do so remains a big open question.)

Even former Obama Pentagon officials are joining in.

Given this unique broad consensus, however, why has true reform proven elusive at the Department of Defense? A new report from the American Enterprise Institute provides several possible answers.

First, there is a tendency for policymakers to target "low-hanging fruit" such as major weapons programs, force structure and endstrength. After all, shedding programs and capabilities can often produce large savings quickly. In contrast, some of the most-needed reforms in the areas of military and civilian compensation and excess bases often take years to realize savings. Moreover, bitter political fights such as the controversial 2005 base closure round still linger in the minds of many on Capitol Hill. The prospect of reforming military compensation – even when conducted in a way so as to not affect currently serving troops and retirees – is always a political lightning rod because politicians refuse to use it as an opportunity to add new benefits while simultaneously changing others.

And yet, the D.C. chorus is correct. Pentagon leaders have no choice but to implement fundamental reforms that address core cost drivers without further damaging core capabilities. What Washington needs now is clear minded and courageous political leadership. Reforms must be substantive and comprehensive rather than tinkering at the margins or efforts to simply stall and buy time to avoid hard choices.

Acquisition reform means fixing a broken process, not simply cancelling what are often needed systems. A new base closure round should focus on eliminating excess capacity while seeking to partner with state and local communities most suited and ready to take over and privatize federal property. Compensation reform should seek to provide servicemembers and their families with better value, and not just rely on an "all pain and no gain" approach. Finally, defense manpower should be reduced first by the proper rightsizing of the Pentagon's nearly 800,000-large civilian workforce and reducing the military "tail" – not blindly cutting force structure.

The answers are all available; they simply need to be acted upon. New Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will need to begin a public campaign to break longstanding and often inaccurate conventional wisdom about what must be done. He can start today in his first major policy address at National Defense University at 12:30 p.m.

If he is serious, Hagel will begin to outline steps to take on these major institutional roadblocks that are "hollowing out the defense budget from within," and not simply the same old tired solutions that have already been tried to meet reduced budget targets over the last four years.

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