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WASHINGTON — As Congress presses ahead with potentially historic and overarching bureaucratic reforms at the Defense Department, the Pentagon – — which recently had acquisitions and retirement system overhauls foisted on it — – is working to get ahead of the wave, and plans to introduce its own slate of proposals by early next year.
It is unclear what shape Congress' next tranche of reforms will assume because the Senate Armed Services Committee's exhaustive two-month inquiry has been been so broad and far-reaching, tackling among other targets: the acquisitions system, the personnel system and the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which underpins the roles and responsibilities of no less than the defense secretary, the Joint Chiefs chairman, the service secretaries and service chiefs as well as DoD’s unified commands around the globe.
The ambitious nature of the hearings is clear. In a Dec. 10 hearing, which capped the series of Senate hearings, SASC chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., elicited a recommendation from two retired general officers of significant stature — retired Adm. James Stavridis, former commander of US European Command and US Southern Command, and retired Gen. Norton Schwartz, the former Air Force chief of staff — that US Northern Command and US Southern Command be merged, and that US Africa Command, based in Germany, be folded into US European Command be merged.
"I absolutely think we should merge Northcom and Southcom, not only for the efficiencies, but I think there's cultural connections, to get Canada and Mexico, two of the largest economies in the Americas, into the flow of our work to the south," Stavridis said. "Africom was a good experiment, but I think it's time to admit merging it back together — the forces are all back in Europe. I think those connections in Europe and Africa would be very positive and well received in the African world."
Goldwater-Nichols emphasized unity of command as a means to correct inter-service rivalries blamed for the failed Iran hostage rescue of 1980, but the hearings have aired a widely shared view that the emphasis on "jointness" unintentionally created excessive duplication in high-level staffs. The hearings reflect a desire by McCain and others to make the Pentagon more agile and less reactive in the face of fast-moving powers like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and violent extremist groups.
Over two months, McCain, R-Ariz., has listened to and voiced many criticisms on the DoD as an organization: The acquisitions system wastes billions of dollars and struggles to incorporate advanced commercial technologies. Its "archaic military personnel system" is "losing and misusing talent." The military health care system needs to be streamlined. DoD’s overhead elements, "especially its contracted workforce, have exploded," yielding a "tooth-to-tail ratio" that is "below the global average."
The concern on the committee is bipartisan. Sen. Jack Reed, the Senate Armed Services' ranking Democrat, has been perhaps less stinging in his criticism, but raised questions and encouraged reforms in a similar vein.
In a recent hearing on the DoD's faltering technological edge, Reed lauded the Pentagon's own efforts to incorporate more advanced technologies, the Better Buying Power 3.0 initiative and the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, a Silicon Valley outpost meant to help companies navigate defense acquisition rules.
"We have begun to make an impact, but we cannot sit back on our laurels, we have to do more," Reed said.
Goldwater-Nichols streamlined the military chain of command so that it runs from the president through the defense secretary to joint combatant commanders, bypassing the service chiefs — – whose focus became training and equipping personnel. Today there are nine unified combatant commands, six aligned geographically, plus US Strategic Command, US Special Operations Command and US Transportation Command.
While the staffs of these "cocoms" collectively number 38,000 people, the geographic combatant commands have been supplanted by ad hoc joint task forces in one of the roles for which they were created, running contingency operations.
"Many of our prior witnesses have observed that combatant commands no longer directly fight wars as Goldwater-Nichols originally envisioned. This makes the dramatic growth of the headquarters staffs at the combatant commands all the more difficult to justify," McCain said at a Dec. 3 hearing. "I would be eager to hear from our witnesses whether 30 years after Goldwater-Nichols, we should consider reimagining, reorganizing or consolidating our combatant commands."
In a Dec. 8 hearing, witnesses testified that the Pentagon is struggling to create dynamic strategic plans. Former DoD policy chief Michele Flournoy testified that duplicative staffs have fueled a paralyzing "tyranny of consensus" or "watering down solutions to the lowest common denominator." Pervasive in the Pentagon, particularly in Joint Staff decision-making, the gridlock gets worse as the services and combatant commands are included in decisions, Flournoy said.
Underpinning the concerns about the Pentagon's runaway bureaucracy, Flournoy lamented the department's many "bloated headquarters." The Office of the Secretary of Defense has roughly 5,000 people, and the Joint Staff 4,000, while headquarters of various defense agencies add up to 240,000 people, excluding contractors, who — at a cost of $113 billion — make up nearly 20 percent of the DoD budget.
Flournoy's prescription was to have the defense secretary "de-layer" headquarters staffs, commission an outside efficiency study, and grant the defense secretary new powers to cut forces, through reduction force authority, retirement and separation payments, and base closures.
Amid weeks of House and Senate hearings with current and former senior civilian and military leaders, Defense Secretary Ash Carter convened a meeting at the Pentagon in November that included several of the witnesses who testified before McCain's committee. The DoD inquiry, which includes senior members of Carter's staff, the service chiefs and outside experts, is expected to yield a proposal in early 2016. Defense News spoke with four sources who had knowledge of the meeting, two who attended.
Former Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, who attended Carter's meeting, said the goal is to create a "collaborative agenda for next year, to focus on a few important things in 2016 and set the table for further work to be done after that." Yet for a department already grappling with major initiatives like Better Buying Power 3.0 and Force of the Future, matching scope of the McCain's agenda, and setting near-term priorities presents a "challenge."
A former senior Pentagon official who attended Carter's meeting told Defense News much the same thing, that both the SASC and DoD, "are just trying to define what the big problems are."
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said Carter's review examines "a host of things," including "the department and the structure … to make sure that we're doing things as efficiently as possible." He said the defense secretary welcomes the interest of Congress.
"This is something that he's initiated here within the department itself, to take a hard look at … whether or not things could be done differently in the spirit of Goldwater-Nichols and the changes that resulted from that many years ago," Cook said at a news briefing.
Flournoy told Defense News she believes the committee and Defense Department have differing views on acquisitions reform but agree on the need to streamline DoD's bloated headquarters. Asked how the committee might feel about DoD-driven changes, like Force of the Future, Flournoy suggested DoD seek the Hill's buy-in.
"It's possible that there's some very good reform ideas that come out of the department," Flournoy said, "and the key is engaging the committee deeply to explain what it is they're trying to do, and try to find allies to support things like Force of the Future."
McCain, for his part, said he does not view his efforts and Carter's as conflicting.
"There's institutional bias and resistance but we try very hard to work with them," McCain said. "Ash Carter and I have a lot of conversations. This is something we both realized that working together we can accomplish a lot more."
Yet outside observers said they do not expect DoD and the committee to agree on much. One source familiar with the meeting last month characterized it as "very disorganized, and they were focused on some narrow issues."
Mackenzie Eaglen, an American Enterprise Institute analyst and former congressional defense aide, said that despite parallel Goldwater-Nichols reviews and health care reform efforts in both the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, the Hill expects both DoD efforts to be "small ball."
"To me, this all signals that Pentagon leaders are afraid of the Senate's ambitious reform efforts and want to be seen as getting in front of it so as to dilute it or make it irrelevant altogether—neither of which will work," Eaglen said in an email. "I expect little common ground on the outcomes of Goldwater-Nichols and health care reform."
Goldwater-Nichols reform is "equally frightening" to the department because it could alter the reach and authorities of combatant commanders, Joint Staff operations and, most important, the purview and power of the Office of the Secretary of Defense — none of it palatable to DoD leaders.
"DoD is likely to double down on its headquarters reductions and call it 'Goldwater-Nichols reform,'" Eaglen said.