Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Framing a Defense Reform Agenda for 2017

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Framing a Defense Reform Agenda for 2017

Article excerpt

Framing a Defense Reform Agenda for 2017

Defense reform has been a primary focus for Congress over the last two years, and 2016 is no different. The combination of sustained advocacy for change and a defense budget drawdown has driven higher interest in ongoing structural repair at the Pentagon. In Congress, the House and Senate Armed Services committees have embarked on a comprehensive agenda spearheaded by the most ambitious defense acquisition revamp since the late Clinton era, an unprecedented transformation of the military retirement system, and the first reconsideration of Goldwater-Nichols since its passage in 1986.

The latest efforts at reform, however, did not begin with Congress. In 2010, the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission, called for a comprehensive overhaul of the all-volunteer force, including a presidential commission to review the pay and benefits of US military personnel and revise the arcane career system for those in uniform. In 2011, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates launched a limited set of "efficiency initiatives" aimed at reducing overhead in back-end offices and management. (1) Then in 2014, the National Defense Panel wholly endorsed structural defense reform, stating that "the Secretary [of Defense] cannot be expected to reform the Department without cooperation and support from the political authorities to whom he answers." (2) Presidential candidates soon joined in. Former presidential candidate Jeb Bush penned op-eds in prominent defense outlets supporting robust defense reform, (3) and the plurality of the Republican field--including Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Carly Fiorina--has expressed a desire to rebuild the military while also changing the way the Pentagon does business. (4)

Given this frenzy of activity and the likelihood that defense reform will top the next secretary of defense's agenda, it is important to take stock of current reform efforts and redirect policymakers' attention to equally important but underappreciated areas in need of reform: (1) the two unchecked defense civilian workforces--one in-house and the other contracted out; (2) defense contracting for services (not weapons systems); and (3) the military health care system.

Particularly in the areas this report addresses, improvements in efficacy are the most important goal, even more so than cost stabilization. This report is intended to sketch out the challenges and opportunities of achieving both in each of the aforementioned areas, not to provide detailed or precise solutions. Understanding and agreeing on the scope of change required (or not) is a prerequisite to identifying specific recommendations for change in the future.

These areas are complex, opaque, and prone to inertia--even in comparison to the labyrinthine weapons acquisition system. Providing clarity about the trade-offs inherent in various options and redirecting efforts toward lasting and sustainable reform will sharpen the debate about improving cost and effectiveness at the Pentagon.

None of these reforms will be politically or bureaucratically easy. Leaders can continue on the current path, paying attention to only weapons acquisition--even though the Pentagon now spends more on services contracting than on equipment each year. Policymakers can avoid addressing military health care, privileging our sacred contract to support America's service members even at the expense of our second sacrosanct contract--providing them with cutting-edge equipment so they will never be in a fair fight. (5) The Pentagon can continue down the "groundhog day" approach to the two defense civilian workforces, paying lip service to change with minimal across-the-board reductions every few years that mysteriously evaporate over time and fail to unleash the power of decentralized management.

Or, Congress and Pentagon officials can begin the hard work of the next era of defense reform. …

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