WASHINGTON and JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — As the chairmen of the US House and Senate Armed Services committees plan to legislate potentially sweeping reforms at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Ash Carter is leaning in with proposals due in “just a few weeks’ time,” he said Friday.
Carter’s announcement comes as Congress begins to draft its vehicle for reforms, the 2017 defense policy bill. At least some of the Pentagon’s proposals, expected to appear piecemeal over the coming weeks, are aimed at improving its use of cyber capabilities and a giving the services more say in the acquisition system — an area in common with lawmakers.
“We’ll propose things as we conclude our studies of them,” Carter said. “Some of these things will require legislation and therefore we will be asking the Congress to consider them. I hope they will be persuasive, and therefore accepted by the Congress. In other cases they will be things that don’t require legislation at all.”
Thirty years after Congress passed its largest reform in Defense Department history, the Goldwater-Nichols Act, Congress has been revisiting the way the military is organized with an aim to streamline.
“There is widespread agreement, including among people who served in the Obama administration, that the Pentagon is too top-heavy,” said House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. “I don’t know if it makes sense to make drastic cuts all of a sudden. We made some progress last year, and I’m interested in making more progress, so more taxpayer dollars can go to the front lines and the people defending our freedom.”
Under the umbrella of Goldwater-Nichols reform, SASC held a broad two-month inquiry late last year. That inquiry delved into the acquisitions system, the personnel system and the 1986 law itself. which underpins the roles and responsibilities of the defense secretary, the Joint Chiefs chairman, the service secretaries and service chiefs, as well as DoD's unified commands around the globe.
Amid the widely shared view that the law unintentionally fueled a runaway, outmoded bureaucracy, Thornberry and his Senate counterpart, John McCain, R-Ariz., have said they want to help the Pentagon keep up with fast-moving powers like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and violent extremist groups.
Arnold Punaro, a former Marine Corps major general and SASC staff director when the law was passed, said it was intended to balance the interests of OSD against the parochially focused armed services. The goal was to ensure civilian control of the military, empower the Joint Chiefs to provide the president with stronger military advice and streamline the chain of command from the president to the combatant commanders.
“Thirty years later, any legislation has to be reviewed,” said Punaro, now a key advocate for reforms. “It’s been very effective, but now its out of balance on the OSD and joint side, whereas before it was out of balance on the service side. So what we need to do now is get it back in balance.”
Punaro, who has testified before the SASC, recommends the role of the ballooning joint and OSD staffs could be pared back to focus on war fighting. He also recommends lengthening and staggering tours for the Senate-approved Joint Chiefs chairman and vice-chairman, from two years to four, to bolster their independence.
Building on a shift of certain acquisition roles to the service chiefs in last year's defense policy bill, this year's policy bill should place the chiefs in charge of requirements, with their own acquisitions cells, Punaro said. The 2016 law required the chiefs to report to Congress this month on any additional authorities they think they need, and separately how they would link and streamline the requirements, acquisitions and budget processes.
In contrast to staunch Pentagon opposition in 1986, Carter and other leaders are open-minded on reform efforts. On Friday, Carter reiterated past support for the services to have greater say in the acquisition system.
“In respect to the acquisition system, for example, something I am very much in favor of, we have some ways of doing this and are doing it, which is to involve the armed services more heavily in the acquisition process,” Carter said. “I’m strongly in favor of that.”
Up next for Congress is a standalone piece of acquisition-reform legislation that Thornberry plans to unveil within weeks. He said he will use the legislation to vet ideas before incorporating them into the 2017 defense policy bill — with the ultimate goal of dismantling bureaucracy, not making more of it.
In the shadow of a 15-year-old F-35 joint strike fighter program that has devoured $400 billion of taxpayer money and is still beset by delays and technical problems, Thornberry's acquisition reform plans involve promoting experimentation and uncoupling the technology development phase from the production process.
“Programs of record should be for when the technology’s mature, so we know how it will work, we know how much it costs, and then we can go out and buy a thousand or two or three,” he said. “At the same time we need to experiment and prototype, and we don’t do enough of that.”
Thornberry said he plans to examine decision-making and accountability within the acquisition system for both the services and OSD, without adding more bureaucracy.
On the Senate side, McCain brought his reform agenda into greater focus at a Feb. 25 breakfast with reporters in Washington, D.C. He plans to examine the makeup of DoD’s geographic combatant commands and whether any of them might be redundant, as well as the roles of the service secretaries and OSD — “and how big it’s grown.”
“Its amazing when you look at the thousands and thousands [of personnel] that have been added onto these bureaucracies,” McCain said. “The DoD cannot tell us how many civilian contractors they employ, no one knows how many people work for the Department of Defense.”
McCain also asked whether the headquarters of US Africa Command is in Stuttgart, Germany, should be relocated. (Liberia was the only African nation willing to host the command at its inception, amid fears on the continent of the militarization of American foreign policy.)
McCain questioned whether US Northern Command and US Southern Command might be consolidated, a view that has been voiced at the SASC reform hearings.
“Why should their be an arbitrary line at the Mexico/Guatemala border?” he said.
Though the SASC's efforts are largely being driven by McCain, he said he expects them to continue under the SASC’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, should the Republicans lose Congress in this fall’s elections.
“Jack Reed, we work hand-in-glove,” McCain said. “We work very closely together, and I admire him a great deal.”