Three years ago as Defense Department spending was poised for a downturn, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched a broad efficiency drive to cut staffs and stretch dollars.
Despite his high-profile effort that included cutting tens of billions in defense programs, staffs at the Pentagon and regional combatant commands did not shrink. Instead, they grew by 15 percent from 2010 and 2012, according to an analysis by Defense News, a sister publication of Federal Times.
The staffs added about 4,500 personnel, even as the military cut tens of thousands of combat troops and reduced training that undermined readiness.
It is past time to make significant cuts in the department’s excessive overhead in the form of infrastructure, management layers, contractors, and, yes, personnel that does not meaningfully contribute to war fighting and national security.
Before becoming defense secretary, Chuck Hagel drew fire for calling the Pentagon “bloated” and saying it was overdue for reform. He was right — as almost anyone knowledgable about the department can attest. It is encouraging that since taking the top job, Hagel has highlighted the dire need to cut overhead and infrastructure that are draining resources for more important needs.
DoD must cut $37 billion this year from planned spending, and another $52 billion next year, unless Congress changes legislation that forces automatic defense cuts. And more cuts are sure to come after that.
That the ponderous infrastructure may end up protected at the cost of additional capabilities, war fighters, modern equipment and readiness is beyond irresponsible.
It’s time to take a much harder view of essential requirements, bearing in mind the military exists to defend the nation and project power to protect and shape its interests, not to preserve its bureaucracy.
There are three ways to do this:
First, Congress must cap military, civilian and contractor staff sizes across DoD, just as it limits military end strength for each of the military services. Shamefully, DoD admits it does not know how many contractors it pays for (though the figure has been estimated at more than 700,000), so the Pentagon must get a grip on that number.
Second, Congress must overhaul the military’s up-or-out promotion system, and amend the Goldwater-Nichols legislation to streamline DoD’s 31 layers of management and correct flaws in the original 1986 law that have fueled ever larger staffs, education costs and overhead growth.
Last, military leaders have to cut their own overhead structures first to set the example for others to follow.
Everyone in Washington is fond of saying hard choices must be made. The time for those decisions is now to protect as much tooth as possible and by slashing tail, not the other way around.
Hagel must succeed where Gates fell short. In doing this, however, he is sure to face intense resistance on Capitol Hill. Last week, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., a top House Armed Services Committee member, told a Washington gathering that lawmakers “are more beholden to parochial interests than the national interest, even when it comes to national security.”
But resistance must be fought head-on and with all political might. The effectiveness and readiness of our military — and America’s national security — is at stake.