Obama’s Pentagon Reforms

President Barack Obama recently announced a bold new initiative to save up to $40 billion per year by reforming defense procurement. Like the Pentagon, I greeted his proclamation with a yawn.

If there is one game the Pentagon knows how to play, it is “reforming defense procurement.” It has gone through the drill more times than it or I can remember. The script is always the same. A “reform” program is announced with great fanfare. Experts are convened (all from or on their way to defense industry), commissions and panels meet, reports are issued and recommendations are offered. Then it all peters out, and nothing changes. The whole game is just another form of “rounding up the usual suspects.”

How do I know this time won’t be different? By the Obama administration’s defense appointments. With the exception of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who seems to have some inclinations toward genuine reform, they are hacks. All either served in Pentagon jobs in the Clinton administration or come from defense industry, or both. They have demonstrated for years that they are custodians of business as usual.

A further clue to the meaninglessness of President Obama’s “reform” initiative is its focus on “waste, fraud and abuse” in defense budgeting. There is no shortage of all three, in the Pentagon as in all government departments. But the only “reforms” this focus will elicit are changes in procedures, which are not the heart of the problem. More “reviews,” more layers of bureaucracy and more powerpoint briefings will do nothing to reduce waste, fraud and abuse. The system will have dozens of work-arounds for any changes that might actually threaten rice bowls. Again, we’ve seen it all before, with virtually every new administration.

What would real reform of defense procurement entail? First, we would reform what is being procured. Most current and projected major defense programs are buying weapons and other “systems” that are outdated or simply represent a false understanding of war. We spend tens of billions of dollars on computerized command and control systems that encourage more and more centralization of decision-making. But sound military doctrine calls for decentralized decision-making. The Army’s Future Contract System, the most expensive current Pentagon program, is a Rube Goldbergian, semi-portable Maginot Line that in combat would collapse of its own internal complexity. The J-35 fighter-bomber is another F-111, a flying piano that is useless for the one attack aviation function that really works, supporting ground troops. Only a handful of the ships the Navy wants are useful in coastal waters, where future naval actions are likely to be fought. These and many similar “legacy” systems are military museum pieces, designed for wars with the armies, navies and air forces of other states. Serious defense procurement reform would start by canning all of them.

Once we figured out what to buy for real wars, another reform would help us buy it at reasonable prices. It is a common tool in private business, called “should cost.” Based on marketplace prices for similar systems and components, we would determine what a given system should cost. Bids would not only be compared with each other but with the “should cost” figure. If all the bids were over the “should cost” figure, we would re-bid or decide to do without the system. Prices would soon come down, especially if at the same time we made it easier for companies that now do no defense work to get into the business.

Another simple procurement reform that would turn from state capitalism to the free market is buying off the shelf. When a service identified a need, it would look around the world to see what is available to fill that need. Then we would build it here, under license if it were a foreign design. At present, DOD buys virtually everything by coming up with a wish list, then finding someone to build it. It is as if when you wanted a new car, you came up with a list of everything you wanted in that car, then went to an automobile company and asked them to build it for you. You can imagine what it would cost.

This is just a small sample of real defense procurement reforms. Among the long-time military reformers are people who have studied defense procurement for decades. They have identified many other similar reforms that would make a genuine difference. Of course, that is why none of the reforms they recommend have ever been enacted.

John Boyd used to say, “It is not true the Pentagon has no strategy. It has a strategy, and once you understand what that strategy is, everything it does makes sense. The strategy is, don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it.” That was true before the Obama administration, it will be true while it is in office, and it will still be true when it ends. The people it has appointed to the Pentagon – again, Secretary Gates excepted – know the strategy, benefit from it and will continue it. They will defend it as if their future incomes depended on it, which, of course, they do.

The one wild card that could change everything is the growing probability of national financial collapse. If that happens – or perhaps when it happens – defense procurement will be on the chopping block along with everything else. At that point, reformers’ slogan should be, “Keep the combat units, cut everything else.” If we have a Secretary of Defense strong enough to do that (the bureaucracy will want to do the opposite), we will find that almost everything above the battalion level was waste, fraud and abuse of one sort or another.

WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.