Academic journal article Military Review

A More Agile Pentagon

Academic journal article Military Review

A More Agile Pentagon

Article excerpt


FORMER SECRETARY OF Defense Robert Gates departed office this year leaving behind a transformed Pentagon. Even before the latest round of budget cuts, he eliminated more than $450 billion of overhead, unneeded staffs, and underperforming programs, including the DDG-1000 destroyer, the VH-71 Presidential Helicopter, Future Combat Systems, the Multiple Kill Vehicle, the Airborne Laser, the Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System, and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. (1) Cost overruns and schedule slippages were factors for placing many of these programs in the secretary's crosshairs, but ultimately, most simply were not relevant to today's security environment. They were conceived in the 1980s for a different threat, and as the security environment changed, they failed to change with it. The inflexibility of these programs, ultimately leading to their irrelevance, is a symptom of a broader problem: the Pentagon bureaucracy is not agile enough to adapt to a rapidly changing and uncertain future.

Under Department of Defense (DOD) current acquisition and programming processes, it may take 10 to 20 years to bring a major defense program from concept to initial operational capability, which may then stay in the inventory for another 30 to 50 years. Meanwhile, the security environment the U.S. military faces can change dramatically in only a few years. In 1996, when the Taliban took Afghanistan in a whirlwind of extremism, it was inconceivable that the United States would embark on a decade-long war to stabilize the country just five years later. In 1988, the Soviet Union seemed strong enough to last another 60-plus years, yet just five years later, the United States was taking a 20 percent peace dividend. Even between 2003 and 2008, as the wars U.S. troops were engaged in remained the same, the threats they faced on the ground changed radically, forcing a shift from fast and light "shock and awe" campaigns to heavily armored vehicles and increased troop levels. That

DOD will be able to reliably predict the character of warfare 70 years from now is implausible when the types of threats U.S. troops face overseas change on a month-to-month basis. Yet when DOD invests in a major defense program, such as a next-generation carrier, the United States is making a multi-billion dollar bet that a certain mode of warfare will be dominant half a century from now.

The Department of Defense must become more agile, flexible, and adaptable. In an era of budget austerity, a smaller DOD may not be able to prepare for every possible contingency, placing a premium on agility. Elements of reform include--

* "Good enough" requirements for acceptable performance at an affordable cost and within a realistic timeframe to meet warfighter needs.

* Modular designs and incremental upgrades to reduce costs and improve flexibility.

* Flexible programming mechanisms, including rapid acquisition processes and allowing the services to compete for funding and ownership of joint missions.

* Humility about predicting future military needs and the wisdom to terminate irrelevant programs.


Agility requires more than just the ability to rapidly develop capabilities or procure off-the-shelf solutions quickly. We must consider when we need a capability and then plan backwards to ensure that we acquire the best tool in the time available to do so. The right tool is not helpful if it arrives after the war ends. An 80 percent solution on time is much better than a 100 percent solution late.

Developing and fielding capabilities move on two tracks in DOD, both with relatively rigid timelines. The default track is a deliberate and time-consuming process that can take close to a decade or more to produce an initial operational capability. Taking time to develop the best possible system was prudent when facing an adversary with an inefficient, centrally planned economy who also developed weapons over 10 to 20 years. …

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