The U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) has decided to conduct so-called "front-end assessments" of some 20 capability areas that drive operational, force structure and investment needs - such as long-range strike, shipbuilding, electronic attack, satellites and end strength - to better shape Pentagon spending decisions starting with the 2012 budget, officials said.
Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, described the front-end assessment work as "an attempt to structure people's thinking," rebuffing criticism that Pentagon leaders are seeking too much control over budgeting.
DoD officials have "a legitimate place articulating what their expectations are," Schwartz said April 6. "There is some merit on narrowing the options on what we might come forward with to [OSD] so that in the program review, we're not rebuilding these [plans] out of whole cloth."
The assessments are being drawn up by the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, to allow DoD leaders to affect spending plans earlier in the process. Currently, the services complete their out-year budgets in mid-year, while DoD leaders issue their guidance in the fall, often wasting time and effort as plans are redone.
"OSD is exploring how to drive the POM [Program Objective Memorandum] process at the beginning, not the end," one source said.
The new assessments also aim to improve what some senior Pentagon leaders view as poor-quality programmatic and budgetary data submitted by the military services during their annual budget builds.
So far, CAPE's preliminary list includes 21 topics, including aircraft carrier versatility, cruise missiles, education, electronic attack, electronic protection, end strength, global force management, language and culture, satellites, schools, shipbuilding, space and U.S. Strategic Command, the source added.
Officials were to discuss the preliminary list in an April 9 meeting, but at press time, the outcome remained unknown.
Schwartz said the assessments will be "phased, and it remains to be seen exactly which ones will be first delivered."
Some assessments may be put off until the 2013 defense budget cycle "because there isn't enough capacity in the building to do 15 or 18 or 20 of these at the level of detail that's required," he said.
He said the final list could have fewer than 20 items, while the Pentagon source said history indicated that "typically, on something like this, you get a list of about six or eight things."
The list is to be finalized in coming weeks and sent for approval to Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, Schwartz said.
CAPE officials declined requests for an interview.
In an April 9 statement, Pentagon spokeswoman Wendy Snyder said, "Each fall, we analyze and review a set of issues to inform our budget submission for the following year. This year, we are trying to get ahead of those reviews by starting earlier."
Snyder said, "We are currently refining the content and timing of the specific assessments that we will address for the FY 2012-2016 program/budget review cycle."
CAPE, Plus Help
The front-end assessments are the latest move in Defense Secretary Robert Gates' effort to inject greater discipline into the Pentagon budgeting and weapons-buying processes.
"There clearly is a move afoot to increase the role of CAPE and OSD because [Pentagon leaders] believe there is a need to shift force structure, and a heavy hand is required to do that," said Charles Wald, a retired Air Force general now with Deloitte, an auditing and consulting firm.
Wald said CAPE will not be able to take more control alone.
"This will require an AT&L [the office of the deputy defense secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics] piece, a comptroller piece - and service involvement, too," he said.
Wald said Gates and his lieutenants "are doing just what one would expect after a Quadrennial Defense Review": prioritize DoD acquisition programs and budgets according to the strategy laid out in the QDR.
Wald worked on QDRs and budgets while serving in senior Air Force and Joint Staff posts.
Several Pentagon officials past and present said the move continues Gates' efforts to consolidate budgetary and major program decision-making within OSD.
Some saw danger in giving OSD more control, while others said the services' spotty performance on budgeting and program management gave Gates no other option.
"There is ample empirical evidence that one political appointee at the top doesn't know everything," said Barry Watts, a former director of the department's Program Analysis and Evaluation (PA&E) office, CAPE's former name. "But I also can appreciate OSD's frustration with the resistance of the military services to making programmatic choices that may disadvantage their institutions - even if those choices advantage national defense as a whole."
Other defense sources said CAPE is populated by the best analytic talent in the department, saying the office consistently wins facts-based programmatic arguments with the services.
Several former officials say strengthening CAPE would return some power the office lost in the 1990s and early 2000s.
But Watts, now an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, wondered whether the centralization "bumps up against Title 10," the U.S. law that tasks the military services with organizing, training and equipping their forces.
Other analysts and former officials said this kind of management structure is well within a defense secretary's statutory bounds.
Still, "any time you consolidate power in a single government entity, it's not a good thing because it stifles the debate," one former military official said.
But Wald said, "By nature, it is very difficult to consolidate power within the Department of Defense."
Beyond the budget power struggle, the Pentagon source questioned the contents of the preliminary list.
"There are things on here that don't have a dollar toward them right now in POM-12," the source said. "Language and culture? We've supposedly been chasing that one for five years. And I bet the Air Force thinks it has a better sentence to put beside the 'satellites' question." å