Mabus and McCain Actually Agree … DoD is Broken


Since becoming secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus and Sen. John McCain haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on important naval issues. They certainly have differing views on energy, personnel, and shipbuilding policy. But there may be an important topic where Ray Mabus and John McCain actually agree on something — the reality that the Department of Defense is broken.

McCain is leading the charge to end longstanding policies that create unnecessary overhead and limit the effectiveness of the Department of Defense — particularly with his call to review Goldwater-Nichols and the defense acquisition system.

Similarly, Mabus pointed out recently that the so-called “Fourth Estate” within the Department of Defense — the Office of the Secretary of Defense; the Joint Staff; and defense agencies such as Defense Finance and Accounting Services, Defense Logistics Agency, and 20 other organizations — has swelled in size over the past two decades. He was very critical of how these support organizations actually supported the Department of the Navy.

These organizations were created to provide common services such as information technology, logistics, and intelligence to the military services, but over time the military services have had to modify their practices to support the defense agencies. The Fourth Estate’s benefit to the military services and our elected leaders is questionable at best. What is without question is that given the cost to maintain such overhead, these offices certainly draw scarce taxpayer dollars away from our nation’s military needs.

Their criticisms are not an indictment of the men and women currently working in or leading these organizations, but rather of a system that most of them realize is flawed by design. Throughout recent history, Congress has seen creating more bureaucracy as the best tool to fix national security problems. The Pentagon’s current problems are a direct product of that drive.

After World War II, Congress attempted to coordinate the Army and the Navy’s efforts by creating the position of the Secretary of Defense — with a handful of people, really — in what now has become the Department of Defense. The Fourth Estate grew, especially after 1958, largely to manage resources more tightly. After a series of military misfortunes in the 1970s and 1980s, Congress re-fixed the same problem by growing the military bureaucracy of joint organizations through the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986.

Similarly, after September 11 Congress attempted to reform the intelligence community by adding the oversight layer of Director of National Intelligence. The same approach was used to fix domestic security concerns by creating the Department of Homeland Security, again positioning layers atop existing layers. But as such agencies mature, they stray from original missions, they assume new roles, and their staffs grow while the cancer of bureaucratic accretion takes hold.

Within the Department of Defense, such bureaucratic layering chokes the life out of innovation and the ability to prepare for future threats. For example, after decades of trying to reform how the Pentagon designs and purchases new weapon systems, the process is no better than when these reforms began. Checking homework before, during, and after it is done never improves students’ learning — it just requires ever more checking to be done.

An internal Army study recently showed it takes over 10 years to navigate the paperwork and reviews to produce exactly nothing — a decade worth of administration for every weapon system. Responding to the onerous oversight and coordinating documentation has become the critical path for acquisition programs. Imagine what cost these dubious reviews and tenuous paperwork drills add to every ship or plane the Pentagon tries to provide to our operating forces.

The Fourth Estate’s approach to operations is to consolidate functions within the services and attempt to find one-size-fits-all solutions to military problems. These efforts come at the detriment of the military services. Defense organizations also arose to provide information systems, financial services, and logistics to the military services. However, these organizations attempt to do business with a uniform, standardized approach, to the detriment of the four military services. While defense-wide consolidation appears to be good idea theoretically, in practice the outcomes are almost always a disaster and a waste all their own. Further, the consolidation of massive military functions and systems greatly increases catastrophic risk, as the recent Office of Personnel Management data breaches clearly indicate.

To illustrate how complex and costly a Department of Defense-wide “good idea” is, one needs to look no further than the failed attempt to create a single personnel system for the department: the Defense Integrated Military Human Resources System. After 12 years of effort, and spending more on it than the price of two Littoral Combat Ships, Secretary Gates canceled the program and the only thing yielded by this effort was a bad acronym. Worst of all, it doesn’t appear the Pentagon has learned anything from these failed efforts.

The quest for uniformity and standardization across an enterprise the size of the Department of Defense is a terrible business practice and violates common sense, but unfortunately is often attempted to achieve Pentagon efficiency. Rather, we should be taking a decentralized approach to executing Title 10 missions and focus on working together when and where it makes sense. For 60 years, the Pentagon and Congress have made efforts to create a single unified defense organization — a bad idea in 1947, 1958, and 1986, and remains so today.

Every service in the U.S. military has its own unique institutional culture based on common history and missions. Such organizational diversity should be viewed as the strength lent by each service and, therefore, worth preserving. Creating organizations and processes which force the merging of disparate programs is an expensive fool’s errand. The Navy and Marine Corps have been in the same department for over 200 years and they are still trying to perfect naval integration. To think four services can fully integrate to support the shared lie of “jointness” is absurd.

Finally, every U.S. president from Eisenhower to Obama has complained about the advice given to him by senior military officers. Goldwater-Nichols was to solve this by offering a single military voice to the president. Unfortunately, the single “joint” voice perpetuates groupthink or “the least common denominator” approach to decision making, adding the price of an expensive staff which uses extensive (meaning slow) staffing.

This approach may have been acceptable during the Cold War when dealing with a single enemy. But given the complexity and uncertainty of the future security environment, such an approach surely will not serve future presidents well.

Today’s sailors and marines are forward deployed to global hot spots 365 days a year to assure our allies and deter aggression. In the unfortunate event that deterrence fails and a major war emerges against a modern adversary, our decision-making cycle will need to be fast and right. Officers unfamiliar with naval forces cannot make the rapid decisions needed in this new environment. Wars in the future will not be fought like World War II or the Cold War, for which our current organization was designed.

No one in the Pentagon understands the people, platforms, and operational capabilities of the naval services better than the Commandant of the Marine Corps and Chief of Naval Operations. It makes absolutely no sense to have an Army paratrooper officer involved in making decisions for a Navy anti-ballistic missile system, or a submariner choosing Army tank designs. Yet that’s the system the Joint Staff and Congress have put in place today. Any legislative change that returns more control to the Service Chiefs must be fully supported.

To make these changes real, Congress and the Department of Defense must have a candid conversation about what’s broken in the U.S. military and put aside politics to find solutions. This is not just about saving taxpayer dollars or saving defense programs popular in congressional districts, although it will cut overhead; this is about national security. The Pentagon’s own ineffective bureaucracy may become its Achilles heel in future conflicts; adversaries will surely have a faster decision cycle than we have today.

Despite their policy differences, Secretary Mabus and Sen. McCain, both former naval officers, are unafraid to tackle difficult issues and are undeterred by bureaucratic resistance. Their critiques of our institutional weaknesses are on the mark. While the task of trimming the briar patch of bureaucracy within the Department of Defense is a daunting one, I’m sure they are up to the challenge.


Robert Kozloski is a program analyst for the Department of the Navy. The views expressed here are his alone and not of the Department of the Navy.


Photo credit: David B. Gleason (adapted by WOTR)