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.
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."
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.
"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."
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.
Thornberry said he plans to examine decision-making and accountability within the acquisition system for both the services and OSD, without adding more bureaucracy.
"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."
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.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.