The debate between the Obama administration and Congress over how to keep defense spending within the confines set by the Budget Control Act has fallen into a familiar ritual. The administration proposes a mix of cuts to “tooth” in the form of smaller force structure and retirements of older platforms, and cuts in the “tail” of excessive base infrastructure.
Congress balks, for a mix of principled and parochial motives, and instead finds savings in the hidden corners of the operations and maintenance accounts. This seems a fine solution, but inevitably it compromises force readiness.
As the debate rages over how much tooth to cut, and whether to weight cuts toward current readiness or future modernization, the Leviathan lumbers on, unchallenged.
To get past the endless spiral of cutting America’s core military capacity, I propose an ambitious but overdue proposal: Consolidate the services’ redundant weapons acquisition agencies.
DoD maintains three agencies that oversee aircraft acquisition. Four agencies run the buying of C4ISR systems, including the Defense Information Systems Agency. At least three conduct facilities management. There is just one DoD agency in charge of developing satellites (Air Force Space & Missile Systems Center), but the National Reconnaissance Office performs this function also. The list goes on.
Take aviation: The Army’s Aviation & Missile Lifecycle Management Command (AMCOM) is staffed by over 9,000 civilian employees. The Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command is even larger, with more than 24,000 civilians. The Air Force estimated that civilian employment at the Aeronautical Systems Center (ASC) was 10,600 before the Air Force shifted that activity under Air Force Lifecycle Management Command (AFLCMC) in late 2012. (While ASC is no longer an independent entity, that agency essentially remains in place as-is under AFLCMC.)
These agencies also issue redundant contracts for overhead-related support services and maintain redundant laboratory, testing and other infrastructure. This creates a national footprint that deters Congress from looking at the problem too closely.
America’s allies take a different approach. By and large, their procurement activities fall under a single agency to gain efficiencies and weapon commonality. The UK moved in 2007 to merge its procurement and logistics functions into a single agency, Defence Equipment and Support. France has long housed all of its procurement functions within the Direction Générale de l’Armement. And Spain announced earlier this year its plan to unify defense procurement activities under the Directorate General of Armament and Materiel.
A push to gain efficiencies within their procurement functions is part of the rationale behind recent US organizational shifts on a service-by-service basis. It was true in the case of the Air Force’s 2012 formation of the AFLCMC, which, among other goals, sought to reduce redundancies between the former ASC, Air Armaments Center and Electronic Systems Center.
But these moves have always taken place in the context of the individual service. Within DoD and Congress, protection of institutional prerogatives has limited how deeply the Pentagon can cut overhead costs.
For years, DoD debated combining US Transportation Command and the Defense Logistics Agency, which have closely aligned global supply and logistics roles. Instead, these agencies build cumbersome processes and information systems to yield synergies.
To the services, losing primacy over system acquisition is anathema. A proposal to merge AMCOM, NAVAIR and the erstwhile ASC would be perceived as a dagger to the heart of their Title X responsibilities to “organize, train and equip” military forces. And yet shedding actual military capability is viewed as an undesirable, but acceptable outcome.
It is unfortunate Congress is set to deny DoD’s request to close bases and reform military compensation. This reluctance is driven by longstanding parochial concerns and a more current mistrust of the Obama administration. But a new presidential administration in 2017 could present a fresh opportunity.
If Congress allows a new round of base closures, DoD should use that process to radically reshape its internal structures, starting with a sweeping consolidation of the acquisition bureaucracy. The alternative? Progressively smaller force structure, lower readiness and chronic pressure on weapons modernization that has already been stretched thin. ■
Berenson is managing director with Avascent, a management consultancy that works with defense and aerospace firms. These views represent only those of the author.