The sheer size, scope, reach and budget of the U.S. military is startling. Therefore it makes sense the Pentagon is a most tempting target for constant reform. But change for change’s sake is not helpful, nor is defense-reform theater. Serious crusaders must chart a different course for modernizing defense bureaucracy — one fit for the information age where urgency, flexibility, transparency and action are the watchwords.

Over the past eight sessions of Congress, there have been no fewer than 14 different Pentagon efficiency drills. The names are familiar to budget watchers: Better Buying Power 1.0 (and 2.0 … and 3.0), the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act, night court, fourth-estate reform, and others. Some of these efforts were successful; others not so much.

While well-intentioned, a common theme was that these were short-term, budget-bogey exercises that yielded few new dollars for reinvestment into higher priorities. This is due in part to defense reform being over-focused on the acquisition of things. However, the majority of what the military purchases is no longer weapons systems but rather services and technology. Zealous reformers continue to over-focus on weapons buys when hardware is increasingly the commodity.

Moreover, the U.S. military is no longer a monopsony buyer able to move markets due to smaller bets, nor is the organization an original inventor changing the American economy. Rather, the military must increasingly innovate with mostly commercial products and give them a unique defense application.

In addition, the Pentagon finds itself in a new and uncomfortable position: that of needing to work to attract and entice new companies to want to do business with the armed forces. Tech and commercial companies know of the Defense Department’s low appetite for risk-taking and long timelines to take ideas from the lab to the field when compared to the private sector.

Change and modernization are needed, but not simply the rinse-and-repeat acquisition reforms of the past. Instead reform should fall into two categories:

  1. Change with respect to reduction — whether of mission, rules, head count, regulations, laws, provisions, workload and more.
  2. Modifications that increase accountability for passing appropriations on time and highlighting the true costs of running the U.S. military.

That means accountability, like sequestering congressional paychecks until appropriations are enacted each day after the start of the fiscal year. Appropriators must also revise rules established at a time when the defense budget was a fraction of its size today, and let the Defense Department move more money around after being approved to react in real time to changing technology.

It also means greater transparency on the costs of doing business. As former Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., highlighted — but few seem to be aware — Washington spends “$1 billion more on Medicare in the defense budget than we do on new tactical vehicles. We spend more on the Defense Health Program than we do on new ships. In total, some $200 billion in the defense budget are essentially for nondefense purposes — from salaries to health care to basic research.”

Congress should focus on combining the pay and benefits of defense workforces — uniformed and civilian — and their health care into one new account. Such a change should launch a broader discussion of moving certain costs, primarily people and paychecks, out of discretionary and into mandatory federal spending. That will energize a needed debate on how much the United States is spending on direct military capability, compared to expenses beyond the scope of the Defense Department that have little impact on warfighting or belong in the domain of another agency.

When it comes to slashing the barnacles of bureaucracy and taking away mission and work, Pentagon contracting is overdue for a refresh. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Bill Greenwalt has highlighted, federal acquisition regulation clauses mandate companies doing business with the Defense Department must operate in ways that they may not otherwise have to in their commercial operations.

Some of these regulations, such as those in the Truth in Negotiations Act, are undoubtedly necessary as they prevent the taxpayer from being ripped off. Others, while well-intentioned, are simply onerous and drive up compliance costs. Paring back regulations would start updating our Soviet-style acquisition system and allow greater speed and urgency in bolstering deterrence.

In addition to regulatory refresh, the Pentagon should also review whether the work of Space Command is now duplicative or redundant given that the U.S. Space Force has stood up. Congress is poised to debate the future of Space Command as an organization that has potentially outlived its usefulness and should be sunsetted if appropriate — and then statutory work reassigned if needed.

Change doesn’t come overnight at the Pentagon. Rather, defense reform is the patient, hard work of many years, which both requires leadership and doggedness of implementation.

By pursuing these reforms (and straying away from harmful ideas like capping spending at arbitrary levels disconnected from the real world), Congress can begin this essential but difficult job of reform through reduction rather than the addition of new laws and rules that further slow down an already glacial organization. Moreover, policymakers will demonstrate their seriousness about needed defense rehabilitation, while skipping the defense-reform theater that has plagued the military for too long.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. She also serves on the U.S. Army Science Board.

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