Three years ago as Defense Department spending was poised for a downturn, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched a broad efficiencies drive to cut staffs and stretch each dollar to cover higher-priority needs.
But despite Gates’ high-profile effort that included cutting tens of billions in defense programs, including the F-22 fighter and others, staffs at the Pentagon and regional combatant commands increased by 15 percent between 2010 and 2012, a Defense News analysis shows. The staffs added about 4,500 personnel as the military cut tens of thousands of combat troops and reduced training that undermined readiness.
Given that manpower constitutes DoD’s fastest-growing expense category — and staffs on average cost three times what troops do — it’s time to cut those not meaningfully contributing to war fighting and national security.
Before becoming defense secretary, Chuck Hagel drew fire for calling the Pentagon “bloated” and overdue for reform. On taking the top job, he highlighted the dire need to cut overhead and infrastructure that were draining resources for more important needs, and launched a defense review.
But his Strategic Choices and Management Review focuses on the capabilities DoD will lose if it must cut $100 billion, $300 billion or $500 billion over the coming decade. This review will shape the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who defends the administration’s budget request that disregards sequestration, last week also directed the military services to consider two other alternatives: a cut of 10 percent from each appropriation level in the 2014 budget request, and a cut of 10 percent from the proposed 2014 topline with the ability to move money among appropriations. He added he may ask for an additional 5 percent topline cut in the future.
None of that changes fiscal reality: 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.
But political dysfunction in Washington strongly suggests the cuts may be here to stay.
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 what’s needed and what isn’t, bearing in mind the US military exists to defend the nation and project power to protect and shape its interests.
First, just as it authorizes the end strength for each of the military services and their reserve components, Congress must also cap military, civilian and contractor staff sizes across DoD. (Underscoring the problem, DoD admits it does not know how many contractors it’s paying for, estimated at more than 700,000.)
Second, it is time for a new version of the Goldwater-Nichols legislation, which improved US joint war-fighting capabilities, to streamline DoD’s 31 layers of management and correct flaws in the original 1986 law that have fueled ever larger staffs, and higher education and overhead costs. The personnel system must also be revamped, scrapping the current “up-or-out” promotion system.
Third, military leaders have to cut their overhead structures. Leading by example is a classic military principle. As the saying goes, if the commanding officer plays tennis, his officers tend to do so as well. But if the Joint Staff neither controls its growth nor cuts head count, it’s unlikely others will follow suit.
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 by slashing tail, not the other way around.
Hagel must succeed where Gates fell short to arrest growth, fight institutional resistance and make cuts that free resources to ensure as many war fighters as needed remain in uniform, are properly trained and equipped with the best gear.