Defense Reform in the Next Administration


As the country prepares for a new presidential administration, those with an interest in national security unsurprisingly turn their eyes to the Pentagon, contemplating what changes in policy and personnel the transition will bring. With a rising China, a resurgent Russia, a persistent Islamic State (ISIL) —  just to name a few challenges — there will be no shortage of crises awaiting the next secretary of defense. But these vexing geopolitical issues, as important as they are, should not distract from what remains unfinished, and, in some cases, unstarted business: reform of the Department of Defense operating system. Improving the internal processes of the department — how it reaches decisions, how it implements decisions, and how it communicates decisions — must be an imperative for the new leaders of the federal government’s largest agency. For whatever your views on ISIL or China or Russia, whatever your thoughts on the future of the aircraft carrier or the need for a long-range bomber, defense reform is the proverbial handle that fits every tool.

Put starkly, the workings of the Pentagon’s bureaucracy are broken, so much so that even the most far-sighted leader finds policy difficult to develop and often impossible to execute. Decisions are not so much made at the Department of Defense as excreted through mind-numbing, time-consuming administrative peristalsis. Jargon and acronyms often pass for thought and insight, while PowerPoint slides substitute for considered discourse, all in a vast, somewhat demoralized bureaucracy whose sub-organizations do not communicate, possess no sense of institutional boundaries, and, in the absence of clear decision rights, have no way to adjudicate disagreements. These problems have been recognized by a few especially perceptive authors such as Michael O’Hanlon, Mackenzie Eaglen, Justin T. Johnson, and Frank Hoffman. The work by Sen. John McCain and his staff on defense reform is a hopeful sign. But there has been little action to date, and most reform proposals, which are often pitched at a high level of abstraction, don’t get to the root of the problem. In any event, real change is impossible without the active cooperation of the Department of Defense itself.

The Department of Defense is both complex and complicated, and the planning system is so entrenched that, while many despair of its Soviet-style five-year programs, there is much cynicism about the ability of the organization to actually change. Even the most idealistic often take the Panglossian view that, for all of its many problems, the Department of Defense works as well as it possibly can, with each administrative failure endured as if a test of faith in Creation itself. We have spent the last five years at the Pentagon, first at the top levels of the Army and then running the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel & Readiness. We have been closely involved in nearly every recent controversy at the Pentagon: women in combat, transgender service, defined contribution retirement plans, and, of course, the Force of the Future. Far from jading us, this experience has given us great hope that the Pentagon’s management structures can be improved. There are a number of specific reforms that are obvious, needed, and achievable.

These reforms would enable the secretary of defense to make better decisions, save money, and improve the lives of servicemembers and their families. None of these, we note, involve acquisition, the Ramree Island of reform, or BRAC, which has compelling logic but political controversy. Over the next few weeks, we will explore each of these in greater depth at War on the Rocks, but an encapsulated summary here can perhaps illustrate the types of changes we urge. Some of our suggestions deal with discrete programs, while others are broader cross-cutting measures. At first glance, none of them seem glamorous, but each is essential for ensuring our military can deter adversaries and, when necessary, fight and win the nation’s wars.

Reform of the Military Health System

The Department of Defense oversees one of the largest health care systems in the world. Its cost is nearly $50 billion per year, about 10 percent of the entire defense budget. Despite this extraordinary expense, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current organization of military medicine. While senior leaders fear that the rising costs of health care will threaten other defense priorities, service members and their families continually express concern about the quality and availability of medical care. As with many of the problems with the Department’s operations, this dissatisfaction finds its real source in a mission whose coherence has been lost. For service members and Congress, the purpose of the overarching Military Health System (MHS) is to provide top-flight health care to military families. But for the military services, the MHS exists to provide a platform on which to train the medical force. These two ambitions are increasingly irreconcilable..

Health care reform is in the midst of major transformation. Hospitals have closed, with more care being moved to an outpatient basis. Meanwhile, reimbursement is transitioning from an indemnity model to what is known as value-based care, in which providers are paid for managing outcomes rather than for simply performing procedures. The military health system has not kept up with these innovations. Most of the Pentagon-run military treatment facilities (MTFs) are underutilized, and many doctors see few patients compared to private sector peers. This is expensive. The Institute for Defense Analyses estimates that inpatient and outpatient care in the private sector is 30 to 50 percent less expensive; the private sector already provides 65 percent of all military health care. It can also be risky. Surgery performed by high-volume surgeons at high-volume facilities has lower complication rates, lower re-admission rates, lower mortality rates, shorter lengths of stay, and lower overall costs. As such, low-volume MTFs are not the best option for military families and the taxpayer, especially when it comes to specialty care.

If beneficiary care is suffering, so too is the readiness of the military’s medical force. The great majority of diagnoses at MTFs are for newborn care, pregnancy, and maternal health. In effect, the MTFs are birthing centers with no caseload alignment to the demands of an operational environment. Another Institute for Defense Analyses study in 2015 found that the top ten diagnoses in MTFs did not match a single trauma-related combat injury. For its part, the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission suggested the MTFs are not able to serve as training platforms, raising the specter that improvements in readiness developed during war are lost as military physicians return to their stateside medical practices.

It is possible to improve the military health system while also enhancing the readiness of the medical corps. Yet, despite outside pressure, the Pentagon has not embraced such reform in any meaningful way. MHS governance is instead fractured by service allegiance, constant staffing turnover, and a penchant for inertia, all of which hamstring a shared effort to address institutional challenges. Change is needed.

Reform of the Readiness Reporting System

Readiness is one of the most frequently recited words in the Department of Defense lexicon. It is also among the most misunderstood. A recent colloquy on readiness among some of the very best military analysts demonstrates the problem. They disagree, but not due to analytical failures on any one writer’s part. Rather, their chosen subject, the readiness of the Army, is so amorphous as to resist rigorous examination. In the end, discussions of readiness usually devolve to derping.

There are a number of problems with the current approach to readiness. In the military services, unit readiness is measured by a set of ratings that capture whether there is adequate personnel and kit and whether required training has been completed. This is all helpful information, as far as it goes. But it is a tactical gauge, not a strategic one. While the current readiness reports tell you how the unit stands against what the military service has designed it for, whether or not that design is the right or needed one is an equally important question for the national command authority. It also does not tell you how inputs (more money) are related to outputs (combat effectiveness) or what “success” in readiness preparation really means (e.g., “How many completely manned and trained Army brigade combat teams should we have?”). This is why questions of readiness have become stalking horses for inter-service and inter-governmental budget battles. It also explains the public affairs schizophrenia in which the military services can decry the state of readiness at the same time others at the Pentagon assert that the military can satisfy all national security requirements.

The few “joint” readiness analytics that do exist only measure force sufficiency against selected operational plans (OPLANs), which are prepared by combatant commanders. Alas, these measures are also insufficient. It is not only that they scarcely include critical enablers, privileging instead the brigade combat team, the aircraft carrier, the aircraft squadron, and the Marine battalion. It is also that they shed little light on the president’s military options, which is what readiness should really concern itself with. For the OPLANs in question, current analytics are relatively binary (e.g., sufficient/not sufficient), requiring further decryption to understand their strategic meaning. What pre-crisis option development does exist is often static and stale, divorced from current readiness data (which shapes available options) or policy analysis (which determines desired end states and risk). In sum, the secretary of defense and president have little informed sense of military options until a crisis breaks. At all times, the secretary of defense should have the Department’s best estimation of possible actions vis-à-vis top-tier concerns. For each concern, this should consist of a range of options that are both realistic (i.e., informed by current readiness) and politically informed (i.e., tied to political end states and attendant risks). We are a long way away from this type of system. But designing it is possible.

Reform of the Strategic Planning Process

The word “strategy” is perhaps as misunderstood and slippery throughout the five walls of the Pentagon as “readiness.” Simultaneously referring to particular military objectives, our overall approach to peer and near-peer competitors like China and Russia, and the Pentagon’s priorities for managing a stagnant budget, it has come to mean all things to all people and thus nothing really to anyone. When most people, ordinary Americans and elected officials alike, ask about the nation’s strategy with respect to China and Syria, for example, they envision the secretary of sefense to be carrying around a classified briefcase full of top-secret documents. The reality, however, is rather drab and mired in a bureaucratic morass that cries out for attention and remedy. In truth, strategy is usually just a to-do list, not an integrated specification of ends, ways, means, assumptions, priorities, sequencing, and theory of victory.

A major challenge to improving the Pentagon’s strategic planning processes is that, like questions of readiness, the owner is hard to identify. To answer simple questions like “Who is responsible for our strategy in Syria?” one would need detailed organizational charts of the Joint Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense, State Department, the White House, and a sprawling number of agencies within the intelligence community. In an increasingly complex world, an inter-agency approach to key national security questions is the only prudent one, but diffusing such critical matters to so many independent actors will usually result in exactly what the United States possesses: a muddled understanding of our objectives and goals and a stove-piped approach to achieving them. Even within the Department of Defense, there is a perennial tug-of-war between the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and the Joint Staff as to who “owns” strategy for the Department and, indeed, the nation. All too often, the answer to this question rests with the personalities of the officeholders rather than in well-developed processes and procedures that can be easily governed by the secretary of defense.

Despite the number of well-qualified, dedicated people working on questions of strategy throughout our government, articulating a coherent vision that can serve as a touchstone for senior leaders in times of crisis remains elusive. Major documents like the National Security Strategy and Quadrennial Defense Review receive vast inter-agency review before being published. The end result is often a litany of vague, banal objectives that do not provide any meaningful guidance against which senior officials may make substantive decisions. It is no surprise that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said he never bothered to read them. The vultures are circling around the QDR and no heroics should be spent in a rescue attempt, but its demise should not blinker reformers to the continued need to better join strategy with planning, programming, and budgeting. The attenuated connection between strategy and budget has been hardly addressed in recent discussions of reform. Yet, without strategic handrails upon which senior leaders (and the public) may lean, questions about funding additional aircraft carriers and Army force structure become preferential ones separated from each other and isolated without context. Deputy Secretary Bob Work deserves praise for his insistence that scenario planning and war-gaming undergird the planning process. But these gains are not deeply rooted and continued growth is not assured. Nothing short of comprehensive review of the Pentagon’s current strategic and budgetary processes is required.

Reform of the Civil Service

With his “Force of the Future” initiative, Secretary Ash Carter has taken steps to reform the calcified personnel system. But much work remains, especially on behalf of the civilian workforce. The current rules that govern federal service were more or less put in place after the assassination of President James Garfield. That was 140 years ago. Some of these rules have continued relevance, such as the emphasis on merit rather than patronage in hiring. Yet despite Secretary Carter’s efforts, there is a revealed preference for more and more extensive change. Here are some facts we learned while leading Force of the Future. Department of Defense employees’ scores in the Global Satisfaction Index, a survey that measures employees’ job satisfaction, have dropped nine percent in the last five years, three times the government-wide fall. More than 75 percent of hiring managers at the Department of Defense say that they cannot hire the talent to do mission-critical work. While the private sector typically fills positions in less than two months, the Department of Defense takes more than 110 days to fill positions with external candidates and, inexplicably, only slight less time to fill a position with an internal one. On average, the private sector spends $645 per employee each year on professional development; the Department of Defense spends only one-third this amount. And, despite a stated commitment to diversity, women make up less than 30 percent of the Senior Executive Service in the Department of Defense. These dismaying statistics can be supported by many more.

It is true that the Department of Defense does not control the civil service system. That is the job of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Federal agencies are really just franchises of OPM when it comes to employment practices. But with more than 700,000 civil servants, the Department of Defense is by far the largest employer in the government, and this size gives it the standing to argue for government-wide change. Even when stymied by OPM, the Pentagon can act independently to improve the efficiency of its hiring process, invest more in its employees, and strive for greater diversity. For now, committed defense civil servants suffer under an inflexible, one-size-fits-all system of defining work, hiring staff, managing people, and assessing and rewarding performance. These weaknesses in the personnel system make support of Pentagon’s mission more complex, costly, and risky than it needs to be.

Using Data for Improved Management

Data collection and analysis are transforming how organizations operate. This management revolution traces back to the introduction of CompStat by the New York City Police Department more than 20 years ago. CompStat involved the detailed gathering of crime statistics; each week, police leaders from across New York would pore over data, focusing on areas where violence was spiking (or falling). With a revelatory clarity only near real-time data can provide, they would share best practices in crime prevention, hold one another accountable for measurable results, and reallocate resources to those areas truly in need. It was, by all accounts, a wild success. Today, governments at all levels rely on similar programs — programs in which, as one leading advocate writes, “the power of purpose and motivation, responsibility and discretion, data and meetings, analysis and learning, feedback and follow-up” are married to improve policy outcomes.

Despite its ubiquity across the nation, the Department of Defense has been oblivious to the use of these data tools. This is a shame, for they could have a powerful impact on some of the Pentagon’s most intractable problems, such as reducing suicides, eliminating sexual assault, and banishing hazing. For example, CompStat-style data would allow the Department of Defense to answer the questions that today can be only met with silence: What units have high rates of hazing? Drunk driving? Sexual assaults? Perhaps more resources to prevention should be devoted to these units. Are suicides or suicide attempts especially low in a particular unit? Perhaps these units have adopted practices that could be replicated across the entire force? Unfortunately, we still cannot answer these questions because there are no rigorous data collection and analysis mechanisms in place that can be used for day-to-day management.

There is a fear among some at the Department of Defense that this type of data would facilitate micromanagement from leadership or — worse — from Congress. This is anathema to all in an organization that valorizes mission command. Yes, no one wants the secretary of defense to call up a battalion commander demanding better outcomes on measures only partly within that unit’s control. But mission command — empowering lower echelons — does not mean that senior leaders should be kept in the dark. Mission command may be about “hands off,” but it must be, as a corollary, “eyes on.” Having better data (and the systems to use it) would allow the department to tailor interventions, share successes, and demonstrate what works and what doesn’t. This reform might not eliminate all of the problems that plague the Department of Defense. Some, such as suicide and substance abuse, have deep-seated, societal causes that defy easy solution. But, then again, that’s what they said about crime in New York, too.


In 1999, psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons assembled a group of students who were asked to watch a short video. Only about a minute in length, the video captured two basketball teams — one dressed in white, the other in black — as they moved around passing a basketball among themselves. The students were asked simply to count the number of aerial and bounce passes made by the team wearing white. Into this straightforward scenario, the researchers introduced something extraordinary. Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a full-body gorilla suit appears. As the teams continue their drills, the gorilla ostentatiously struts to the middle of the screen, pounds her chest, and then calmly walks out of the camera’s view. After screening the video, Chabris and Simons asked the students a question. Did they notice anything odd in the video? Perhaps something unusual? Surprisingly, only half of the students noticed the angry gorilla parading through the basketball game. For the other half of the students, the focus on the immediate task of counting passes had blinkered them to the most remarkable part of the video. In their popular book The Invisible Gorilla, Chabris and Simons discuss the implications of their famous findings for everyday life, concluding that the experiment reveals how too often the human mind fails to account for the most essential parts of a situation.

Defense planners like to contemplate black swans. Some even brood about pink flamingos. But the most important issue facing the Department of Defense is a different animal entirely, the invisible gorilla of defense reform. The Pentagon just doesn’t work very well, despite having a plethora of talented people both in and out of uniform. That is what Chabris and Simons would call the essence of the situation. Much of the bureaucratic pathology has to do with the organizational design. Everyone seems to know this, but few have the ambition to identify the problems clearly. But if the next secretary of defense is going to have a fighting chance at rare success, the first move must be against a system that simply can’t deliver on its promise. Tough work to be sure, but it’s the free world at stake.


Brad Carson served as acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness from 2015-2016. Previously, he was Under Secretary of the Army and General Counsel of the Army. He also was a U.S. Congressman. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He can be contacted at

Morgan Plummer departed the Obama administration after serving on the immediate staffs of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Under Secretary of the Army, and Deputy Secretary of Defense. Prior to that, he served more than ten years on active duty in the U.S. Army. He can be contacted at

Image: Department of Defense