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Commentary: Efficiency vs. Service Cultures

The Right Lesson To Learn From the 2005 BRAC

Dec. 19, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
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Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition and logistics chief, recently tried an unconventional argument to persuade Congress that saving money depends in part on authorizing another round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC): He disowned the last one.

It’s sure to be a popular move after that BRAC went way over budget, but the details leave Kendall cross-wise with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and too deferential to the military services. The Defense Department’s civilian leaders need to learn different lessons from the 2005 BRAC.

Here’s Kendall’s take-away: “The key factor that drove the cost of the last BRAC round was the willingness to accept recommendations that were not designed to save money but to reorganize the department.”

He labels these recommendations “the Transformation BRAC” because they were part of Donald Rumsfeld’s effort to transform the military by breaking down service barriers and requiring them to embrace jointness on the homefront.

Yet that same sentiment of challenging service culture and driving efficiency by favoring some services over others has inspired part of Hagel’s savings plan. The Pentagon has a longstanding tradition of divvying its budget evenly among the Army, Navy and Air Force. Hagel is explicitly questioning it, including in an early-November interview with the New York Times.

“I don’t think you can just make easy, simple assertions based on simple formulas — a third, a third, a third,” Hagel told the Times.

At a superficial level, shifting the services’ budget ratios saves no more money than reorganizing their installations. Money spent differently is still spent. But that neglects the reason for taking these steps.

There is inefficiency in indulgences made to service culture. Hagel challenged one part of that culture, the dogma that all services are equally central at all times. Rumsfeld confronted another: The sensibility that people wearing one uniform shouldn’t have to work on an installation belonging to a different uniform.

The record is clear about the intentions of the Transformation BRAC. Rumsfeld wrote in a 2002 memo to DoD’s leadership, “I am confident we can pro­d­uce BRAC recommendations that will advance transformation, combat effectiveness, and the efficient use of the taxpayer’s money.” And Congress authorized that BRAC in part to consider “any efficiencies that may be gained from joint tenancy by more than one branch of the Armed Forces at a military installation.”

Kendall’s goal is to walk away from 2005 BRAC recommendations that have come up short to justify the Pentagon’s new request for BRAC authority, but he’s wrong on his facts. The Transformation BRAC was meant to save money, even though it failed to meet those projections in practice.

The better lesson to learn pertains to the difficulty of overcoming service cultures. The services layered transformation on top of their existing institutions but successfully stonewalled Rumsfeld’s attempts to claim the related efficiencies.

Things will be no easier for Hagel if he is serious about saving money by cutting some services more than others. There is efficiency to be gained there, contrary to Kendall’s insinuation, but Hagel is going to need help claiming it.

The Army — and let’s be honest, it’s Army money we’re talking about — has bayonets out. Secretary John McHugh provided notice two years ago that “I’m operating under one-third, one-third, one-third.” Meanwhile Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno tried reverse psychology at this October’s AUSA convention.

“This is not at all about any kind of competition,” he insisted. “I just don’t want to get out of balance in our joint force.” Balance, of course, means treating the Army similarly to the Navy and Air Force.

Rumsfeld’s strategy was to steamroll this sort of resistance. It didn’t work. Kendall mischaracterized the reasons for the Transformation BRAC, but the data he provided shows that these BRAC recommendations underperformed. Co-opting Army leaders is another option, but that would only delegitimize them with­in the institution they represent.

Instead, the lesson for Hagel is that he needs to counterbalance service cultures to achieve this efficiency. Rumsfeld made his push almost totally alone. But Hagel has natural allies: state governors. Shifting ground forces into the National Guard is a way to save money, especially from the Army, and the benefit to state governors may be enough that they would ally with Hagel.

Efficiency remains a central element of department planning, but senior civilian leaders must be willing to challenge service cultures. Kendall’s disavowal of the 2005 BRAC sounds like surrender on that front. Hagel seems more committed, fortunately, and time will tell whether he’s able. Learning a different lesson from the 2005 BRAC would be a helpful first step.

Matthew Leatherman, lead author of “Managing the Military More Efficiently,” a May 2013 report published by the Stimson Center, and a freelance writer.

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