Short-Term Action Items for Lloyd Austin’s Pentagon

February 15, 2021
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The Pentagon has elephantine inertia. Its size, the complexity of its missions, and the lead times of its processes combine to shrug off attempts to alter its trajectory. For a new administration, such as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the initial cadre of political appointees at the Defense Department, four years can seem like ample time to wrestle the bureaucracy into compliance with its priorities. In reality, time is short, and the experienced hands that the Biden administration has tapped to lead the Pentagon know this. They will have to act quickly in key areas to respond to near-term demands, and to set changes in motion that will pay off in years to come. Striking a balance between dealing with urgent issues while beginning immediate work on desperately needed long-term structural reforms will be the overarching challenge for this team. Despite their different time horizons, both sets of activities must start today, so I propose the following brief “to-do” list for the Biden team to begin pushing the Pentagon in its preferred direction.

Dealing with the Elephants in the Room

There are two massive, urgent issues that Austin and his team are already dealing with: COVID-19 and cultural issues in the ranks. Regarding the former, the Biden plan envisions much greater Defense Department, and particularly National Guard, participation in supporting vaccination efforts. Given the Pentagon’s resources, planning and logistical capabilities, and can-do attitude, it would not be surprising to see the Defense Department’s role in the COVID-19 response grow over time. Austin and military leadership should make it clear to the White House and Congress that, while ready to support civil authorities as needed, the Defense Department should not be a substitute for a properly resourced public health sector. Internally, Pentagon leaders should be careful not to overcorrect for the debacle that was the U.S. government’s COVID-19 response by making public health and pandemic responses a key part of the next National Defense Strategy or its force-planning construct. Doing so might seem prudent today, but Pentagon leaders should keep in mind how this would continue militarizing properly civilian functions and distort the joint force’s mission set and priorities, likely without creating any meaningful change in its ability to respond to this sort of crisis. Instead, services and components will use these new demand signals to protect their budgets, end strength, and force structure, thereby hampering needed efforts to make the joint force more capable of deterring conflict with China or Russia.

 

 

The prominent participation of veterans in the events of Jan. 6 made clear that the military and the veteran communities have significant issues with white supremacy, violent extremism, and conspiracy theories. These issues are not new — I clearly recall the pro forma tattoo checks and questions about affiliations with militia groups during my service in the late 1990s — but they’ve become much more salient following the storming of the Capitol and the dawning realization of the depth and breadth of radicalization behind it. Similarly, the death of Army Pvt. Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood, Texas, and the subsequent Army report on the command climate and culture of that post exposed deep, systemic issues in the Army’s treatment of sexual harassment and assault, as well as its treatment of women in the ranks more generally.

Both cases have exposed a degree of racism and misogyny within the ranks that the Pentagon and military chains of command have long turned a blind eye toward under the misguided belief that dealing with these issues might harm combat effectiveness. There is ample evidence, however, that allowing these toxic beliefs to fester in the force has been much more harmful to the health and readiness of the force. Austin has already ordered a departmentwide review of sexual assault reporting and a 60-day “stand-down” to address extremism in the ranks. Given the depth, breadth, and duration of these issues, reviews, reports, and new policies will likely be necessary, but insufficient, without early and sustained secretary-level attention aimed at changing U.S. military culture.

There appear to be at least three (likely more) interconnected problems that the secretary will have to solve. The first, and most pressing, is the presence of security threats within the armed forces, civilian workforce, and contractor base. The department should conduct a rapid and thorough review of the entire enterprise for conspiracy theorists, extremists, and seditionists, with a focus on personnel holding security clearances. This may seem daunting, but given their outspoken views and active social media profiles, the most egregious offenders will likely be easy to identify. Depending on their level of engagement, these personnel should be subject to administrative punishment, loss of clearances, involuntary separation, or, if warranted, prosecution under relevant authorities.

The second issue is veterans’ susceptibility to conspiracy theories, extremism, and participation in armed anti-government groups. Many veterans may have been familiarized with or recruited into extremist groups while still on active duty. Many more likely join for the sense of belonging, common purpose, and pride that these groups provide to veterans struggling to find their way in civilian society. These groups also seem to appeal to veterans’ sense of separation from and superiority to civilians, which in turn feeds on American society’s post-9/11 fetishization of all things military. Mix this with the toxicity and gridlock of our politics, the decline of the social organizations that in decades past would have provided a sense of purpose and belonging to these (predominantly male) veterans, and replace these organizations with online forums spewing hate and misinformation and suddenly the heavy presence of veterans on Jan. 6 seems almost overdetermined.

While not responsible for veterans’ affairs, there is much more the department and the armed services could be doing to deal with this problem prior to personnel separating from service. The first thing the armed services can do is identify high-risk separations. Most units already have a good idea whom these folks are — but do they have a plan to help them manage the transition? They need a means to stay in contact, bring their peer group in to assist, or connect them with outside help if needed. The second fix could be providing servicemembers with the critical thinking skills to see through misinformation and social manipulation. Service indoctrination often intentionally short-circuits critical thinking skills in the name of rote obedience — some separating servicemembers may need a program to unwind this process when they move back into civilian life.

The third fix should be the “de-fetishization” of the armed forces and military personnel. As long as the United States has an all-volunteer force, there will be some degree of separation between servicemembers and civilian society. The department should work to minimize this divide and emphasize the equality of the two groups. Unfortunately, current policies and tendencies widen the separation and reinforce servicemembers’ self-perception as superior to civilians. There is a healthy middle ground between the vitriolic anti-militarism of the Vietnam era and the current exaltation of all things military. The department needs to help find it or events like Jan. 6 will continue.

The final issue is the continuing pervasiveness of bigotry, and especially racism and misogyny, in the armed services. The Fort Hood report starkly exposed that decades of public statements about diversity and inclusion and countless sexual harassment and assault response prevention briefs have done little to eliminate these problems or shift the culture of the armed forces. These issues have been left to fester for decades through a mixture of inertia, willful ignorance, or a misguided belief that addressing them would somehow detract from combat effectiveness. In reality, dealing with these problems is both a moral and strategic imperative. Women make up 17 percent of active-duty personnel and minorities make up 31 percent. The 2018 National Defense Strategy identified China as America’s primary strategic competitor, and Austin and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks reiterated this point during their confirmation testimony. The armed services, with around 1.35 million active-duty personnel, might find competing with China’s 2 million-strong People’s Liberation Army easier if they didn’t treat huge swaths of their personnel as inferior, thereby sapping morale, retention, and recruitment.

Military chains of command should identify virulent racists and misogynists and separate them from service. Those who have translated their bigotry into harassment or acts of violence should be punished appropriately. However, this would address only the most extreme manifestation of these problems. Rooting out the culture of bigotry and exclusion will require leveraging carrots as well as sticks, and the tastiest carrots are promotions, plum assignments, and access to the best schools and training. Toward this end, fitness reports, promotion boards, and career milestones should include 360-degree “unit-cohesion reviews.” Through these reviews, fellow servicemembers could provide commanders and boards with an independent assessment of whether personnel embody military values or whether they are perpetuating toxic environments, in much the same way that “peer reviews” provide insight into the character of candidates in courses like the Army’s Ranger School.

Budget, Budget, Budget

After dealing with these crises, the most pressing priority for the incoming team should be the Fiscal Year 2022 budget submission. The outgoing administration has handed over a budget that’s 95 percent baked, and the incoming team has likely had little visibility into the substance and process behind the numbers, given the contentious transition. It will be absolutely critical for the new team to advance its priorities to the greatest extent possible in this budget cycle, as there only four chances to do so in a presidential term. Moreover, given the trend toward “dollar-for-dollar” connections between defense/national security and domestic spending in recent budget deals, the defense budget submission — and particularly the top-line budget number — will likely reverberate across the entirety of the Biden administration’s fiscal priorities in coming years.

The budget is already mostly complete, and any perturbations to major programs like aircraft procurement or shipbuilding at this stage in the process are often inefficient (because they’ll upset the intricately interconnected plans of systems integrators, subcontractors, and suppliers) or meaningless (because they’ll take place in the fantasy realm of the “out years”). This doesn’t mean that the incoming team can’t make a mark, but it’ll have to focus on areas where relatively small investments can have outsized impacts.

The first such area is munitions production. Every wargame and analysis shows the same thing: The U.S. military can never have enough key munitions like long-range anti-ship weapons. Given manufacturing bottlenecks, putting more money toward munitions in this budget might not change numbers immediately, but if the Pentagon clearly signaled a long-term willingness to buy more critical munitions, it might prompt some suppliers and sub-suppliers to increase their capacity, thereby giving the department more flexibility in the future. More radically, the Pentagon could put a down payment on building a dedicated U.S. government-owned arsenal for precision-guided weapons.

The second area is posture investments, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. During the late Obama and early Trump administrations, posture investments in Europe through the European Reassurance/Deterrence Initiative were a great way to allocate the portion of the budget over which the Office of the Secretary of Defense exercises greater control. These investments supported a critical strategic priority and were relatively popular with Congress while being very popular with European allies and partners. Moreover, because they were captured in the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, they didn’t need to comport with Budget Control Act caps (even though the caps were largely observed in the breach). Investments in building a more combat-credible posture in the Indo-Pacific region would likely have many of the same positive characteristics today. Accelerating or increasing military construction on Guam, Wake Island, Tinian, Saipan, Palau, and other basing sites; hardening critical facilities like munitions storage, maintenance, and fuel infrastructure; acquiring more aircraft shelters; and purchasing additional cruise missile defenses would be relatively affordable (by Defense Department standards) and would go a long way toward improving U.S. deterrence versus China.

The third area is research, development, and prototyping. This is an area where relatively small investments can have enormous long-term impacts. The new team could use these investments to clearly signal —to both the department and industry — where its future priorities lie, and potentially prompt further cycles of innovation as established prime contractors and startups alike try to pounce on the next big thing. Given the Biden administration’s focus on climate change and the strategic necessity of projecting and sustaining military power globally, research and development into energy efficiency would seem a perfect fit. The Defense Department consumes vast quantities of energy, and particularly fossil fuels. Beyond contributing to climate change, this consumption is a strategic liability in the event of a crisis or conflict with China or Russia. Wargaming and analysis has suggested that either opponent could use a variety of means, including cyber attacks or long-range missiles, to interfere with brittle U.S. fuel distribution systems, thereby bringing U.S. operations to a screeching halt. Reducing military energy consumption and investing in novel means of energy distribution such as beamed power could limit this vulnerability while also curbing the department’s carbon footprint.

Issue a “Skinny” National Defense Strategy Update and Guidance Documents

After the budget, the biggest tools in the hands of the incoming administration are the National Defense Strategy and subordinate guidance like the Guidance for Employment of the Force and the Defense Planning Guidance. Respectively, these documents set overall priorities, guide daily operations, and provide a plan for building the future force. The processes that these documents impact have enormous lag times. For example, the service program objective memorandums — a fancy way of saying “the stuff they want to buy” — for FY2023 are already nearing completion. Because of this lag, good-enough guidance tomorrow is much more impactful than a “perfect” solution a year from now.

The new team should therefore issue rapid updates — both unclassified and classified — to the 2018 strategy along the lines of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance that updated the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. These updates should be short (about 10 to 15 pages for the classified version and five pages for the unclassified version), and clearly convey how the new team’s priorities differ from the last team’s. Alongside this, the Office of the Secretary of Defense should issue updates to its primary guidance documents, so that the new strategic priorities can influence key processes, like the Secretary of Defense Orders Book (i.e., force-deployment orders) and the service programs for the FY2023 and FY2024 budget cycles. Issuing this guidance early will allow the Biden administration to avoid the pitfall that befell the last team, in which guidance documents repeatedly lagged the processes they were meant to shape, much like a dog chasing its tail.

Guidance updates should focus on issues that can’t wait for the next strategy. First, the strategy update and the Defense Planning Guidance should commit to maintaining and modernizing the nuclear triad. This modernization is long overdue and should be insulated from uncertainty surrounding the next Nuclear Posture Review. Second, the secretary’s staff should update the Guidance for Employment of the Force to curtail deployments — particularly to U.S. Central Command — to rebuild Navy and Air Force readiness. This was a core tenet of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, but it’s fallen by the wayside as Central Command has been running its own defense strategy. Third, the Pentagon’s leadership should finally submit to congressional desires for a real, substantive review of “roles and missions” including possible changes to the Unified Command Plan. The department is trying to prepare for 21st-century conflicts using roles and missions laid down in the Key West Agreement of 1947 and an organizational structure largely defined by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. Finally, the strategy update should commit to secretary-level review of the analytic capabilities of the department and the broader defense enterprise. Echoing and building on the reinvigoration of wargaming begun by then-Deputy Secretary Bob Work and Vice Chairman Paul Selva, this effort could begin with a joint analysis “summit” to begin identifying immediate gaps and near-term solutions to prepare for the next National Defense Strategy, while also laying the groundwork for a multiyear overhaul of joint analysis.

Reinvigorate Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy

The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy is the collection of Pentagon offices responsible for translating the goals of the White House and the secretary into policy outcomes. This organization is the crucial link between the administration’s political appointees and the bureaucracy that they’re supposed to guide and oversee. If this organization isn’t strong and functioning properly, the administration will struggle to implement its vision. Unfortunately, after a decade of personnel cuts, hiring freezes, talent exoduses, and, more recently, Joint Staff ascendancy in policy processes, the office is a shadow of its former self. If the new team is to have any hope of taming the bureaucratic behemoth, it’ll need to start fixing it quickly.

The first step Austin and Colin Kahl, the presumptive nominee for under secretary, and their staffs can take is to reinstate and re-empower the “special assistant mafia” that withered under former Secretary Jim Mattis. One of the Office of the Under Secretary for Policy’s most powerful organizational assets is its role as personal staff for the secretary, the deputy secretary, and a variety of other Senate-confirmed leaders. These positions give its action officers power as conduits and gatekeepers while also serving to put its most capable personnel front and center with senior members of the administration. These jobs can also catapult people to key positions on the National Security Council or higher office — just examine the resumes of the Biden appointees.

Next, leaders and managers across the under secretariat should move aggressively to bring in non-career government service employees. These are useful sources of specific expertise and “fresh blood” to provide a quick shot in the arm to the workforce. At the same time, the secretary and the next under secretary for policy should work with Congress to increase the office’s allocation of civilian billets. Due to budget cuts, the offices of the under secretariat have been under either a de jure or de facto hiring freeze for full-time employees since 2011. As a result, the organization’s workforce has become extremely top-heavy and has struggled to bring in new ideas and perspectives on a long-term basis. Without removing this impediment, the organization is in danger of a sudden exodus of experience in the next five to 10 years without a sufficient backfill of younger talent.

Reach Out to the American People

To say that the last year has been tumultuous for our nation would be the understatement of this century. Within this tumult, and fear, and uncertainty have been some clear signals for the department. Some issues, like the significant presence of white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and extremists within the ranks and the veteran community will require long-overdue inward examination and reform. Other issues, such as the mismatch between the enormous size of the defense budget and the deep feelings of insecurity among the American people, require reaching outward. Trust between the American people and the Pentagon and the armed services is fraying. People and politicians from across the political spectrum are increasingly questioning some of the bedrock principles of U.S. defense strategy, such as the need for large, forward-stationed forces in key regions.

The Pentagon and the surrounding defense enterprise comprise an insular community that speaks mostly to itself. This tendency cannot continue if the defense community wishes to continue drawing on the goodwill and earnings of the taxpayer. If the department truly wants to compete with and deter China and Russia (which it should), it will need to clearly explain to people across the country and across the political spectrum why the cost of this effort merits their sacrifices. At the same time, the department and the armed services will need to work to reintegrate themselves, their personnel, and their veterans into the fabric of American society, beyond cliched displays of military power such as flyovers at sporting events.

The first step the Pentagon can take in this direction is to take direction from the president and speak to the American people in a way they can understand. The department’s language is generally a mix of arcane vernacular and acronyms written for a Beltway audience. The secretary and his team should commit to making their core public documents — like the National Defense Strategy — comprehensible by people not steeped in national security. Beyond this, the president, the secretary, the chairman, and congressional leaders need to speak directly and transparently to the public using a variety of media about why defense budgets are what they are, and how that money is spent.

Conclusion

Every new administration arriving in the Pentagon faces difficult challenges, and this one is no exception. What makes this transition so daunting is the backdrop. Austin and his team need to set a new path for the department while dealing with the aftereffects of a hostile transition and an insurrection at the Capitol, strained civil-military relations, ongoing impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, rampant disinformation, and hyperpartisan gridlock in our body politic and institutions. It is difficult enough to overcome the department’s elephantine inertia, but it becomes harder still if the ground beneath your feet feels like it’s shifting as longstanding assumptions give way and institutions show their cracks. At the same time, disorienting and disruptive moments create opportunities for change. The silver lining to the disturbing events of the last year is that they have shed light on issues that have been allowed to fester in the dark for too long. These opportunities are likely to be fleeting, however, and while four years may seem like an eternity, it is a blip in the institutional memory of the Pentagon. Austin, Hicks, and the rest of the Biden team will need to move with all deliberate haste to address both urgent issues like the budget, and urgently needed but long-overdue concerns like bigotry and extremism in the ranks.

 

 

Chris Dougherty is a senior fellow in the Defense Program and co-lead of the Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Prior to joining CNAS, Mr. Dougherty served as senior adviser to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development at the Department of Defense.

Image: Department of Defense (Photo by Lisa Ferdinando)