From Carbon Paper to the Cloud: Fixing the Pentagon’s Back Office


Over the holidays, one of us got a jolt from the past. Dave’s youngest son was home on leave from the Army, and his leave form happened to be on the kitchen counter. It looked familiar — a little too familiar. The bottom of the form read:


The Army has been using the same form for leave requests for 23 years — and this form is nearly identical to the one Dave used as a West Point cadet to take summer leave in 1975. The only notable difference? Today’s form no longer contains carbon paper between multiple copies.

What other U.S. business or non-profit could still be doing business the way it was in 1993 and still be in business? Contrast this with the cutting edge in the private sector. SYPartners, a design consultancy founded by former Apple executives, lets its employees (many of whom are millennials) book time off by sending a single email to their manager. When the manager approves the vacation, it is logged into 10,000ft, a resource tracking software. It’s a two-step process that takes a matter of minutes.

Using a decades-old paper form to manage Army leave time may not seem all that noteworthy at first glance. But the volume of manpower, energy, and effort it takes to manage a single form, multiplied by nearly 1.1 million soldiers taking one or more leaves per calendar year, is simply staggering. With more than 2.2 million men and women in uniform, active and reserve, the U.S. military often throws manpower against almost any bureaucratic task. Since the costs of military manpower are often viewed as “free” once the troops are recruited — and because the costs of doing routine business are largely opaque — few if any incentives exist to attack dense bureaucratic thickets that have accumulated over decades. The Department of Defense (DOD) has spent billions of dollars on information technology, but many parts of the defense enterprise still depend on “automated manual processes” — layering automation on top of industrial age processes without changing the underlying approach.

As global security challenges multiply and defense budgets and military end strength decline, wasting scarce manpower and fiscal resources on outdated processes comes directly at the expense of combat capabilities.

Many military processes — most often those associated with standard business functions such as pay, time off, and travel — are archaic residuals brought directly into this century from the last. The Army’s leave form is but one example. The byzantine Defense Travel System (DTS) and Defense Finance and Accounting System (DFAS) are two mammoth bureaucratic counterparts that are both enormously expensive, inefficient, and manpower intensive. Industry best practice outstripped DOD in virtually every business function years if not decades ago.

The hidden internal cost growth within DOD over the last 15 years has been well documented by us and many others. The full cost of individual service members increased by 46 percent between 2001 and 2011, and the percentage of the defense budget consumed by pay, benefits, and healthcare grew even more. This continuous erosion of the buying power of the defense budget has garnered substantial attention in recent years. Some high-profile portions of the defense enterprise, such as acquisition, have been singled out for reform by both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees.

Yet the larger picture of bureaucratic costs remains unrecognized and largely unexamined. Antiquated enterprise processes inside the services and DOD are generating excess work, consuming untold manpower and energy, and costing the department millions annually. Moreover, these dense bureaucratic layers reach all the way down to junior officers and NCOs and help drive them out of uniform. It remains perversely ironic that the same Defense Department capable of ongoing innovation and forward thinking in some areas — think third offset strategy or the Force of the Future initiative — remains locked into paralyzing processes and bureaucracies for routine functions.

Process reform is not glamorous, but it is absolutely essential if DOD is to wring more combat capability from its budget. Several steps would help clear out the underbrush and begin reshaping DOD to be a 21st-century enterprise. These could be initiated by the Department’s chief management officer, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, with the service under secretaries leading service-level actions.

Charter a DOD “Creative Destruction Task Force”

We wrote about this in 2013, and the idea remains sound. In a bureaucracy that only adds new tasks and requirements but never removes any old ones, work that is no longer efficient or even essential needs to be un-invented. DOD needs to re-examine rules, regulations, and processes across the defense enterprise and eliminate those that no longer serve any productive purpose.

Embrace design thinking

This increasingly popular concept seems arrestingly simple: learn what the real issues are that need to be solved; define the problem; generate possible solutions; build a prototype or plan; test and get feedback. Companies such as IBM and GE are using it to transform themselves to compete in an environment characterized by increasing speed and complexity. Pentagon planners will argue that of course they do business this way, just as many business leaders do at first, but most processes are built upon years of accrued ways of doing business. Design thinking is essential to identifying the true goal of each process — a much harder task than it may seem — and then devising the most streamlined way to get there.

Replicate the Navy’s Reducing Administrative Distractions (RAD) initiative in the other services

In 2013, then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert launched this initiative to shrink administrative requirements for sailors and to identify “programs that can be eliminated, reduced, converted to electronic media, automated or otherwise made more efficient” (RAD was initially led by the current CNO, Adm. John Richardson, and continues to shape his thinking). The other services would benefit from a similar initiative. Junior officers in every service would cheer such a project led from the top to allow them to focus less on email, surveys, and bureaucratic processes and more on leading their troops. It might even help convince a few more of them to stay in uniform.

Seize industry’s top ten best practices for common enterprise functions

Several years ago, one of us heard Larry Ellison, then the CEO of Oracle, describe his company’s efforts to share best common business practices across a vast range of diverse customers. He had found that nearly every business in America has similar management requirements for people, dollars, and accountability. In one case, a customer was adamant about requiring its own special design due to the customer’s uniqueness — much like DOD. But after temporarily shifting to Oracle’s process, the company liked it much better and canceled its special one-of-a kind order. DOD is dominated by a mentality of uniqueness that repeatedly drives it to expensive customized solutions when common business solutions would often work equally well. DOD does have unique requirements when designing tanks and submarines. However, it ought not have them for common enterprise functions like travel, pay, and vacation.

Crowd-source change

Use social media and other outreach efforts to seek suggestions for processes (and identify unneeded work) to remove, reform or compress. Every single person who works for DOD knows what wastes time and squanders efforts — use their knowledge! Junior and mid-grade officers and NCOs as well as relatively new civil servants can provide fresh eyes on systems and ways of doing things that have now become encrusted barnacles on daily actions in the field, fleet, and corridors of the Pentagon. Enlist this vast army of eager reformers to help drag the bureaucracies into this century. They will be more than happy to uninvent low-value work, which will make them more productive and increase job satisfaction.

In an era of constrained defense resources, freeing up expensive uniformed and civilian DOD manpower to focus on the unceasing demands of military operations around the world is essential. Running the department in this environment in much the same way it was run in 2001 — or 1993, or 1975 — robs vital energy and resources from the critical warfighting tasks at hand. Cleaning out the underbrush of outmoded processes is the only way that the U.S. military can take its current resources and get substantially more warfighting capability from them. Fixing the back office is no longer optional. In a world of tight resources, it is the only way for the U.S. military to remain strong and capable.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.