Grading Defense Reform


A month ago, Agenda SecDef called on the defense community to avoid defense reform for reform’s sake, and focus reform efforts on the Pentagon’s core mission: to generate military forces that can fight and win America’s wars. Since that time, reform proponents on the Hill, in the Department of Defense, and in our world of think tanks have flooded the zone with thousands of pages of their best proposals. To apply the words of our top defense leaders, these ideas range from concepts “to give Americans greater confidence that the Department of Defense is spending their tax dollars efficiently and effectively” to, respectfully, “micromanagement” (fighting words in today’s national security debate).

While there is convergence on many themes between House, Senate, and administration reform efforts, there are still significant differences, and, as Justin Johnson points out, widely varying senses of urgency and scope. But rarely mentioned is the fact that the host of new organizations, wiring diagrams, reports to Congress, staff drawdowns, and authorities under consideration will likely be the responsibility of a new secretary of defense and civilian leadership team to oversee and implement.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Transition is an opportune moment to shake things up. And far better to introduce wholesale reforms at the beginning of an administration than wait until the end when they are less likely to stick, as has been recent practice. But transitioning oversight of the warfighting mission amidst in this complex and demanding security environment is no small thing. The next secretary of defense will inherit operations against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, an ongoing mission in Afghanistan, the need to reset deterrence postures in Europe and Asia, and counterterrorism operations around the world — and that’s just the global “inbox.” His or her plate is, sight unseen, already overflowing. For that reason, any reform efforts under debate this year should be aimed at empowering the next secretary to take on major challenges while providing as much flexibility as possible.

The imperatives for reform we suggested last month are a useful scorecard to assess the proposals now under formal discussion:

Start any reform agenda with understanding of what problems to fix.

Grade: Incomplete.

We take some assurance that the Department of Defense, the Senate Armed Services Committee version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and the House NDAA all reference challenges that are increasingly trans-regional, cross-functional, and multi-domain, and the associated need to strengthen strategic integration. But this is the motherhood and apple pie of problem statements. Its generality persuades us that lasting reform still requires significant refinement to validate and scope so that possible solutions can be considered.

There are narrower defense reform problem areas with both better definition and alignment between the Pentagon and the Hill. Secretary Carter, Sen. McCain, and Rep. Thornberry have each recently highlighted the difficulty of inculcating innovation into the culture and practices of the defense acquisition system, and taken or proposed steps to address that. But their means of doing so are focused in different areas: Carter is highly invested in connecting Silicon Valley to the broader defense enterprise, while the Senate version of the NDAA splits the under secretary of defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics in two, and both the House and Senate introduce a range of new authorities to strengthen the Pentagon’s access to non-traditional suppliers and speed weapons development. These different approaches are both not generally at odds and not surprising. An excellent CSIS survey of the national security community on defense reform demonstrated a fair amount of “where you stand is where you sit” driving views on both principles and opportunities for reform. But launching such different takes on reform simultaneously will require serious, long-term commitment and patience by all stakeholders to succeed.

Seek flexibility to accomplish reform early.

Grade: Progressing

As we stated last month, the next secretary will struggle to implement a well-defined and widely supported reform agenda without the right tools and flexibility to shape, incentivize, or re-orient the department.

Here, the debate seems to be on the right track, moving decidedly away from reform being purely a matter of cost efficiencies. For example, both the House and Senate NDAA’s make good faith efforts to streamline the department’s strategy development process, shifting the bandwidth-heavy “routinized, bottom-up staff exercise” of the Quadrennial Defense Review to a top-down, narrowly scoped, and potentially classified tool for the secretary to drive a meaningful strategic guidance process.

Members also appear willing to significantly expand the secretary’s ability to manage the defense workforce. While the draft legislation continues to emphasize minimizing excessive size and management layers, the inclusion of a range of hiring and incentive authorities to bring in new talent and shape skillsets is a promising step. The Pentagon should work with Congress over the coming months to ensure these are tailored appropriately to empower the next secretary to recruit, reward, reassign, and size the civilian workforce from day one.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, under the chairmanship of McCain, in particular was enthusiastic in generating new organizing concepts for the next secretary to implement — from a requirement for a new organizational strategy to improve performance of headquarters functions, to cross-functional mission teams in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), to requiring one combatant command to organize around joint task forces. These ideas may well have merit and should not be rejected out of hand by a micromanagement-phobic Department of Defense. Indeed, there are many past examples of congressionally-mandated reform that the Pentagon has grown to love (e.g., Special Operations Command). That said, we have some concern that the imperatives to simultaneously shrink headquarters staff, test new organizational models, and require OSD to generate several studies that examine the issue are all in tension — particularly at the outset of an administration, and particularly with the requirement to decrease the number of defense senior leaders to take on these efforts. The Pentagon and the Hill should work together to ensure these new ideas are empowering the next secretary rather than setting him or her up for failure and frustration.

Where Congress misses a real opportunity for reform is their continuing avoidance of eliminating excess infrastructure through a base realignment and closure (BRAC) process. In an election year this is no surprise, but the political challenge is not going to go away in the future. The problem is well-identified, and continuing to delay takes away billions of dollars in resources that might otherwise be used toward the department’s warfighting mission. Past BRAC’s have had undeniable implementation challenges and unexpected costs, but this Congress is well-placed to work with the Department of Defense to come up with reforms — or even a new process altogether — to mitigate them. We believe this is the year to take on what is undoubtedly a challenging issue, whether now or in the lame duck session. And if not, we still believe a global posture review is warranted that includes recommendations on domestic basing as well. There is a tradeoff between our ability to deter and prevail in conflict overseas and the need to sustain unnecessary and unwanted infrastructure here at home.

Rally the defense community behind reform

Grade: Check Next Semester.

Defense reform fever has struck Washington, no question, and as two wonks thrilled to see it emerge from no man’s land, we’re reluctant to throw any cold water on the enthusiasm. But we have two concerns on the prospects for maintaining the momentum. First, despite all the noise about the year of reform, the size of the defense budget and its allocation between baseline and contingency (OCO) funding is likely to absorb the political attention and capital of this year’s defense authorization debate. Undoubtedly, the department needs a stable and predictable defense budget aligned to strategic needs rather than arbitrary budget caps. Indeed, such predictability is a necessity for a successful reform effort. But it seems unlikely that the political timeline will allow for a comprehensive and long-term budget deal this year, and that any sound and fury on the size and makeup up the budget won’t advance the debate further than the two-year deal reached last fall.

Second, as Sen. McCain said last week, “reform is not a singular event. It is a long, winding, and challenging process.” Easier said than done. This year’s debate will (hopefully) only bring about the tools for reform. It will be up to the next secretary to employ them in any meaningful way, and it’s a near certainty that the stakeholders in this year’s debate will not always be happy with the results. Giving the next secretary of defense a long leash for reform will require patience: Reforms will fail, will require up-front investment, and won’t win any popularity contests. Making good on any reform mandate generated this year will require that the next secretary continue to rally advocates, both in the building and across the river.


Loren DeJonge Schulman is the Deputy Director of Studies and Leon E. Panetta Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Ms. Schulman left the White House in 2014 after serving as Senior Advisor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. She has also worked as Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Director for Defense Policy and Strategy on the National Security Council Staff, and as a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Shawn Brimley is the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security. Mr. Brimley served in the Pentagon as Special Advisor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and at the White House as Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council staff.

Image:  DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz