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Eliminating Bad Pentagon Habits

When the Ripon Society Forum contacted me to write an essay that identified five Defense Department programs to eliminate, I suppressed my immediate reaction:

Only five?

Sadly, America’s defenses are festooned with programs that should be eliminated; however, killing them all off – many more than just five – will do very little to solve our problems. To fix the problem, we must first understand its basic nature:

The U.S. today spends more in inflation adjusted dollars than it has since the end of World War II. For all this money, we get the smallest combat forces we have had at any time since 1946. The Army has fewer combat formations than at any time in this period. The Navy has fewer combatants, and the Air Force has a smaller number of fighter and attack aircraft. Our major weapons are – on average – older than at any time since 1946, and we routinely send units into combat with less training than we have in the past.

With all this considered, it is not enough to simply unload a few ultra high cost, underperforming mountains of unreliable complexity that the Pentagon, Congress, and defense manufacturers today palm off as weapon programs. To end the widespread decay within the Defense Department, what must first be eliminated are not bad programs, but bad habits. In keeping with the original editorial request, here are:

1. Underperforming, “white tower” weapons at unaffordable cost.

The “next generation” combat aircraft, the F-22 and the F-35, are classic examples. In terms of aerodynamic performance, both are huge disappointments, and in some respects even a step backwards.

For their reputation as “wonder weapons,” they rely on a hypothetical construct of air-to-air warfare (“beyond visual range” engagement with radar directed missiles) that has failed time and time again in real war. Even the so-called “affordable” F-35 is, in truth, completely unaffordable. Now at $121 million per copy, it is only beginning its flight testing – the stage where cost growth really starts to show up.

At $355 million per copy, the F-22 bypassed affordability about $300 million ago. Two peas in the same pod, both aircraft are an embarrassment. The thinking behind them, which ignores the lessons of combat history and the dictates of common sense, needs to be rooted out.

2. Unaccountable finances.

For decades, the Pentagon has not just failed audits; it has been unaccountable. Most DOD components literally cannot trace the billions appropriated to them. In response, the Department and Congress exempted DOD from the statutes, including the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, that seek to force compliance with the norms of financial accountability in the private sector and even the rest of government. Those exemptions must be repealed.

3. Whistleblower intimidation.

One of the effects of the new National Security Personnel System established under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been to make it easier for Pentagon managers to fire employees. While there is surely bureaucratic deadwood to unload, this new system also facilitates the firing of people exposing stupid – and worse – behavior by DOD managers.

Whistleblowing is essential to keep the building honest. Such people who help identify crooked and wasteful decisions should be encouraged, not intimidated – which is why this personnel system should be heavily modified, if not eliminated.

4. Bad managers.

Exemptions from accountability, approval of unrealistic cost and performance promises, harassment of informed dissent, and more do not happen on their own; they require bad managers. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates set an excellent example when he fired the Secretaries of the Army and the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force for cause. He needs to greatly expand that practice. For example, any program manager running a program that cannot pass an audit should be relieved.

5. Decimate the FYDP.

The Pentagon’s long range plan, the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), anticipates today’s spending levels to continue indefinitely. More money has made us smaller, older, and weaker, and the expectation of continued riches only defers the hard decisions we need to reform.

Budget reductions on the order of 10 percent per year for several years into the future can make us stronger, not weaker, but we need to observe the principles addressed here.

Finally, in their original editorial request, The Ripon Forum also asked for one program or one thing that we needed more of at the Defense Department. Without question, that one thing would be “oversight.” Right now, the advocates of business as usual lack any sense that others are looking over their shoulder, will catch the screw ups and the corruption, and will react accordingly.

Any sense of informed, scrupulous, truth-telling – Harry Truman style – is completely missing in Congress and all too rare inside the Pentagon. Adult supervision, and a sense that it is everywhere, can work wonders.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He is author of The Wastrels of Defense and the editor of a new anthology: ‘America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress’.

This article was originally published by the Ripon Society.

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Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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