The Army JLENS blimp fiasco, the $43 million Afghan gas station, the fumbling F-35 program, the NDAA veto, government shutdowns, the Syrian train-and-equip program, etc. These are just some of the issues that have come up in recent times that highlight the desperate need to work towards defense reform in the United States. And the work should start now.
In some ways, it already has. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has scheduled a series of hearings designed to prompt conversation and action on the future of defense reform. The first of many hearings came on October 21, 2015, when former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified in front of the committee. His opinions on the state of the defense establishment have the potential to spring board the United States towards much needed bipartisan defense reforms.
Members of Congress must set aside their parochial interests in order to combat partisan gridlock and bring about real change. Gates mentioned several points that could be potential grounds for this bipartisan support.
Phase IV Military Strategy
One topic he mentioned is the need to improve Phase IV of U.S. military strategy. Phase IV is defined as “activities conducted after decisive combat operations to stabilize and reconstruct the area of operations.” The Global War on Terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the United States’ inability to properly perform post-combat tasks, exemplifies this need. Phase IV is frequently run by underfunded non-Department of Defense personnel. The U.S. Agency for International Development has gone from 16,000 employees in 1993 to only 3,000 employees in 2006 at the height of the reconstruction efforts in the Middle East. The service chiefs in Iraq and Afghanistan were aware of this inadequacy and were constantly complaining about the lack of civilian support. An increase in the budget for Phase IV operations performed by non-DoD personnel would go a long way in taking pressure off the Pentagon to perform these operations in the future should the need arise.
Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO)
A second topic that could lead to bipartisan cooperation is the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, a slush fund not subject to budget caps that allows the Pentagon to receive money off-budget. Both Republicans and Democrats alike agree that OCO is in fact a bad way to budget. Where they disagree, however, is over how to deal with it. Despite the intricacies of the situation, if both sides agree that it is a budget gimmick, there should be grounds for compromise.
Acquisitions, Technology, and Logistics
Another area for cooperation is the defense acquisitions process. All present at the hearing seemed to agree that there is a dire need to streamline and repair it. Senator McCain mentioned statistics that showed Pentagon programs to be, on average, two years late and 50% over budget. Gates states that, unfortunately, only the Secretary of Defense, with the support of the president, has the clout to influence the Acquisitions, Technology, and Logistics (AT&L) department. He suggests that the current system is too ambiguous and politicized and that AT&L needs a change towards a system of strong leaders who are held accountable for their actions.
He believes that the military has a stifling effect, in which people are afraid to point out inefficiencies for fear of being reprimanded, that is causing inefficient spending within the Pentagon. He concludes that within AT&L, leaders need to be disruptors. For example, Gates mentioned a method of reducing overhead costs in which leaders are tasked to find inefficiencies and to cut them. If they successfully cut them, then the Secretary of Defense will take that money and put it into efficient programs that truly need it. However, for this change to be successful, leaders will need to be bold and willing to go against the grain. Ways of doing things in the past can no longer be acceptable. As Secretary Gates has previously stated: “If the Department of Defense cannot figure out a way to defend the United States on a budget of more than half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by a few more ships and planes.”
Former Secretary Gates also mentioned that there are certain sectors of the defense industry where the private sector is ahead of the government sector, and that the DoD should not be afraid to occasionally buy items for their troops “off-the-shelf.” These items would be able to be obtained without the enormous costs of research and development and could be provided to the troops almost instantly.
Future Cooperation on Strategy
Beyond these changes, Gates also emphasized the need for a coherent, long-term, foreign policy strategy; something that is painfully lacking in today’s political climate and that requires bipartisan support to implement effectively. The lack of a comprehensive strategy is leading the U.S. to deal with conflicts individually and inefficiently on month-to-month terms. In turn, this is damaging the United States’ reputation as world leaders and brewing popular discontent throughout the country.
Gates emphasized throughout the hearing that, while there are changes that can be made within the Department of Defense, the real change needs to be made in Congress. Gates, while commending the committee for transcending headlines by calling the hearings, expressed great frustration with the legislative branch for their inaction. He mentioned that looming sequestration was “a completely mindless and cowardly mechanism for budget cutting” and that retaining inefficient programs for parochial congressional interests was “political cowardice.” He even goes on to state that “given the harm all of this politically driven madness inflicts on the U.S. military, the rhetoric coming from members of Congress about looking out for our men and women in uniform rings very hollow.”
There needs to be strong leadership from Congress on a permanent and stable strategy because without change the U.S. will continue to see a decrease in its military effectiveness. The uncertainty that plagues the budget process and defense establishment will continue to trickle down to the troops, breaking faith with our men and women in uniform, and causing low morale and retention rates.
At present, it might seem impossible to achieve change amidst Congressional inaction and Pentagon bureaucracy; but it is nevertheless something the U.S. needs to strive for. Without change, it will continue along the same path with potentially disastrous consequences. The United States needs to heed Mr. Gates’s advice, and begin to budget properly, fix the acquisitions process, set realistic strategies, and move the country forward. Gates finished his opening remarks with:
“Because as you know as well as I, our system of government, as designed by the founders who wrote and negotiated the provisions of the Constitution, is dependent on compromise to function. To do so is not selling out, it is called governing.”