The Defense Reform America Deserves


Everyone seems to support defense reform, but what does it mean? Defense reform is one of those phrases that simultaneously means a lot and absolutely nothing. At its most meaningless, it’s a buzz phrase used to advance a pet project. At its best, defense reform is about building a better military for today and the future.

Skeptics point out that political leaders always talk about acquisition reform, yet the acquisition system never seems to improve. Others express concern that defense reform is really an attempt to provide national security on the cheap. Both of these concerns have an element of truth, but defense reform is nonetheless a vital project.

Although the defense budget has been significantly cut in recent years, the Department of Defense remains the third largest government organization by budget authority and the largest by employment. Improvements and efficiencies can always be found in an enterprise so large. Defense reform might not fix sequestration or buy back Army end strength, but improving how the Department of Defense does business is always a worthy project.

Categories of Defense Reform

Defense reform means different things to different people, so let’s begin by attempting to categorize the problems and possible solutions.

Earlier this year a group of experts signed a letter outlining a defense reform consensus with three key elements: another round of base closures, reducing the ranks of Department of Defense civilian employees, and reforming military compensation. While it was left out of the public letter, acquisition reform is another major component of defense reform with support from organizations like Brookings, AEI, and Heritage, as well as widespread support within the defense industry itself. Articles here at War on the Rocks have proposed a number of other targets for defense reform, such as security cooperation and the budgetary process. And defense industry reform was the topic of an excellent War on the Rocks podcast.

In short, the public debate on defense reform suggests at least three main areas of focus:

Acquisition and technology reform aimed at innovation, affordability, and efficiency. The DOD needs to be able to acquire new technology and systems faster, cheaper, and without so many bureaucratic roadblocks, but also without disastrous waste and mismanagement.

Personnel and culture reform with an eye toward flexibility, accountability, and right-sizing. The DOD needs to attract and retain young talent for both uniformed and civilian positions. It also must improve its ability to reorganize and reduce its workforce. The Military Compensation and Retirement Reform Commission’s final report can be a major factor here.

Infrastructure and systems reform to improve scale, efficiency, and reach. The Department of Defense must be able to close (or even add) bases in accordance with its actual needs. More efficient logistics systems are also necessary for the department to respond quickly and flexibly to emergent demands.

These categories cover much of the defense reform debate, but some other areas could use additional attention. Take defense cooperation, for example: progress has already been made on export control reform, but other components, such as allied defense industrial cooperation, need improvement.

Another category that has escaped much attention is policy-making reform. Some of the same problems that plague defense acquisition also bedevil defense policy, but the costs are less visible. Within the administration, do the layers and organizations involved in policy decisions make sense? Within Congress, do the multiple overlapping committees make sense?

A third defense reform category worth considering is warfighting reform. The categories mentioned thus far focus largely on providing warfighters with the best possible support and equipment at the best possible price. This is all well and good, but perhaps we should have a parallel conversation about how we fight. This is a significant departure from the debate in Washington, but the goal for defense reform should not be an innovative and effective defense bureaucracy but rather an innovative and effective military. Of course, numerous organizations within the services and the Department of Defense think about warfighting innovation constantly, but the defense reform conversation in Washington has largely been focused on the tail and should not lose sight of the tooth.

Warfighting reform could address some of the big strategic and operational questions: Do we need more or less jointness? Are our combatant commands organized properly? Should all the services conduct space and cyber missions? And at the operational and tactical level, how can the U.S. military better prepare for a rapidly innovating enemy? The counter-IED fight is an example of where the military responded to innovation too slowly. The U.S. military eventually developed a response, but far too many lives were lost in the process. We should expect to fight against rapidly innovating foes in the future, so we must prepare our military to rapidly innovate in response.

What about Congress?

Congress has taken surprisingly strong steps on defense reform. The chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are both new this year and both are eager to make substantive reforms. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) has long been seen as a defense policy wonk in a Congressman’s clothes. Thornberry laid out a modest but achievable set of defense reform proposals in the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Meanwhile, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) seized the reform mantle as only he can. His Senate-passed NDAA contained a number of bold reform proposals that pushed the boundaries of the defense reform consensus and met some resistance from an otherwise eager Pentagon leadership team.

The two chairmen have approached their jobs differently for a variety of reasons – not least the prospect of lengthy tenures with the gavel. Thornberry is likely to have four or even six years as Chairman. The Republicans will likely retain control of the House through the 2016 election, and the electoral fundamentals make Republican control of the House after the 2018 election a decent bet. Thornberry’s own seat is fairly safe, as he represents one of the more conservative districts in Texas and has done so for 20 years.

Sen. McCain’s situation is quite different. Up for re-election in 2016, he may well face a difficult Republican primary. McCain is also not at all sure if his chairmanship will last beyond the two years of this Congress. Political analysts give Democrats a decent chance of regaining control of the Senate in next year’s elections. That would end McCain’s role as chairman, and he might not even remain as ranking member due to Senate Republican term limits. This gives him a strong incentive to make his impact in the remaining 15 months of this Congress. Both chairmen have a strong interest in reforming the Department of Defense, but one may have only two years while the other likely has four or more years to make his mark.


A discussion of Congressional priorities naturally leads us to the FY2016 NDAA – a study in two different reform approaches. The House-passed version contained several reforms focused primarily on streamlining and simplifying the acquisition process. Thornberry made clear that he viewed this bill as a first step in a multi-year reform effort. On the personnel side, the House bill contained a major reform to military retirement, based largely on recommendations from the Military Compensation and Retirement Reform Commission.

The Senate version of the NDAA includes many of the reforms in the House bill and adds some more controversial proposals to the mix. On personnel and culture, the Senate bill carried largely the same military retirement reforms, plus an aggressive requirement to reduce civilian employees. On acquisition, the Senate included a push for non-traditional acquisition efforts and a push to give service chiefs more authority over acquisition. (Be sure to read this War on the Rocks interview with Sen. McCain about acquisition reform.)

As I write this, McCain and Thornberry are still negotiating the final version of the NDAA.  Details of retirement reform seem to be a sticking point, but it is clear that the end product will contain major reforms on military retirement and at least incremental reforms on acquisition. Neither proposal, however, does much to meaningfully address infrastructure reform.

The Five-Sided Building

While many defense reform proposals require Congressional action, a significant chunk of reform can be accomplished by the Pentagon alone. On acquisition and technology, the Department of Defense has launched the Better Buying Power initiative and the Long Range Research and Development Program Plan, and established an office in Silicon Valley. Most of these reforms have little political opposition and can be implemented without support from Congress.

On personnel and culture, the Pentagon is currently developing a Force of the Future proposal that addresses a range of personnel issues. According to press reports, this package of proposals is wide-ranging, innovative, and certain to generate controversy. One major government employee union is already opposing this proposal, and there are rumors that senior Pentagon leaders believe that personnel reform is largely dead in Congress. While personnel reforms that require Congressional action are harder to implement, Pentagon leaders should recognize and capitalize on the strong support of McCain and Thornberry and the positive progress on military retirement.

On infrastructure reform, Pentagon leaders often lament that Congress has refused to authorize another round of base closures (often referred to as BRAC – Base Realignment and Closure), but once again, the Pentagon has the legal authority to close bases without a full BRAC process. The reality is that BRAC provides political cover for members of Congress and for the administration. If the Pentagon is serious about infrastructure reform, DOD leaders should propose a few targeted closures or realignments without waiting for a full BRAC authorization.

Next Steps

It is clear that the FY2016 NDAA will carry major defense reforms, but what about next year… and beyond? Will the Pentagon’s FY2017 budget request include reforms? Already, there are whispers that the top brass think defense reform is done. And what will Congress be able to do in an election year? Sen. McCain and Rep. Thornberry have made it clear that they plan to continue reform initiatives in next year’s NDAA, but electoral politics may force them to tread lightly on emotional issues like military healthcare reform. After November 2016, will the presidential campaigns have quashed defense reform efforts or given them new impetus? And what will the new president prioritize?

Real defense reform requires a sustained partnership between Congress and the administration – both the Pentagon and the White House. Congressional leaders want to continue the defense reform project, and presidential candidates are will likely follow suit. Instead of closing the book on defense reform, Pentagon leaders need to continue to push forward with more efforts. Defense reform is making a difference, but difficult problems remain. They can be addressed effectively only if senior leaders continue to make reform a priority.


Justin T. Johnson is the senior analyst for defense budgeting policy in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for National Security and Foreign Policy.


Image: Dept of Defense