WASHINGTON — When U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper launched a review this summer of the departmentwide offices known as the “fourth estate,” he made it clear that everything, including cuts to programs and personnel, were on the table.
Two months into that review, clear themes have emerged, according to Pentagon acquisition head Ellen Lord: Esper isn’t looking to cut just to cut, and if offices aren’t tied directly into war-fighting needs, they may no longer belong in the Department of Defense.
Speaking on a panel at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference on Monday, Lord said several of her offices, including the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Defense Acquisition University, have gone through the review process.
“What we’ve seen there is more, perhaps, a pushing back of certain functions to either services or to intel,” Lord said. “Where I’ve seen a question of actually cutting the workforce is non-true DoD missions. As we’ve gone through a lot of the different areas, if it isn’t war fighting, if it’s something that one of the other agencies or the other departments across government has asked us to do, or if it’s something that should be a function of another department because it’s not about lethality, it will get cut.”
Lord does not expect to see major cuts to the acquisition workforce working in her under secretariat of acquisition and sustainment, in part because of how thin that workforce already is. Of the 175,380 individuals who work on acquisition inside the Pentagon, only 16 percent come from the fourth estate, and there are a number of open billets that Lord is struggling to fill with qualified people.
Instead, look for cuts to “nonessential” benefits or programs, Lord told Defense News after the panel’s conclusion.
“Nothing is finalized, but for instance we don’t think it’s a good use of acquisition funds to have facility engineers having programs at DAU. At DTRA, we are looking at some of the functions that might better be within the intel group. We’re also looking at some of the R&D that might be better placed back at the Army research labs, for instance,” Lord said.
“Overall what we keep coming back to in the department is when we have non-war-fighting functions, when states are asking us to support them or we’ve been asked to [do] some counter-drug activities, things like that. We’re just trying to make sure we do war fighting and we let other organizations do support functions.”
The so-called fourth estate of the department includes 27 agencies, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Defense Information Systems Agency and the Missile Defense Agency. A September 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office estimated those agencies collectively have an annual budget of at least $106 billion.
Notably, Lord said that some of the efficiencies bubbling up in the review process will require Congress to change legal requirements placed on the department.
“I think one of the greatest outcomes of this process is finding out where we are being held by statute to do things that might not, today, be in our best interest, where they were five, 10, 15 years ago,” Lord said. “So we will go back to Congress and ask them for relief in certain areas where we think if we do things differently, we can gain some efficiencies.”
Changes from the night court process are expected to be rolled out as they are completed, and Lord said that it is possible some moves could begin for her office by November. But, at least so far, “there’s nothing dramatic” in A&S coming, in part because Lord’s team had already begun finding the low-hanging fruit for savings before Esper’s process began.
“We have effectively [before the review] been working on efficiencies to get as many dollars to actual war fighting as possible, and to look at economies of scale in terms of overhead functions like HR and IT, so forth, trying to automate as much as we can, being more efficient with databases,” Lord said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.