Reforming Defense Decisionmaking

Taking Responsibility and Making Meaningful Plans

The formal challenge of this conference is to transform the way the Department of Defense does its business. The danger I find in this title is that it implies that what is needed is yet another new approach to organization or process, and not a return to first principles.

In the last half century I have seen one attempt after another to solve the department’s problems by reorganizing, by changing the way it does business, and by layering yet anotgher new process or level of review over the existing ones. At the end of it all, I believe we now have the worst run department in our history.

All of our services face a crisis in their force plans and procurement plans. We are killing force structure to try to buy new weapons. We face critical problems in terms of manpower numbers, the balancing of our active and reserve forces, and our deployment cycles. We talk about civilian partners as if this was something new, rather than something we had in Vietnam and lost in the decades that followed. And, we still are not funding them in our budget.

We talk of “jointness,” but the reality is that each service is involved in an existential battle for resources against the others. We have gone into two wars with no clear plan for conflict termination or for stability operations. We have then tried to manage wars through supplementals in the absence of long-term plans, tried to decouple military operations from nation building, and been so slow to react to the growth of the threat in Afghanistan that we are now losing a war we once thought we had decisively won.

Some of this can be blamed on what may have been the worst national security team of the postwar era. As someone who thought Robert McNamara represented the nadir in defense leadership, I have to give Donald Rumsfeld credit for being the epitome of a micromanaging bully who scattered snowflakes like dandruff, and with about as much effect. I also have a horrifying sense of déjà vu when I compare McGeorge Bundy and the Rostows to Cheney and our recent national security advisers. There is far too little difference between the “neoconservatives” of Iraq and Afghanistan and the “neoliberals” of Vietnam.

The truth is, however, that the problems we face are part of a defense culture that has been building for a long, long time. No one administration or party is responsible, nor is any one group of leaders—civilian or military. It is partly the legacy of cutting too rapidly in reaction to the end of the Cold War; and it is partly the result of a culture of accommodation, process, and consensus that buries decisions and issues in endless studies and reviews.

Let me suggest that we do not need more reviewers, task forces, contractors, processes, or paperwork. What we do need is to create a level of accountability that forces the civilian and military leaders of the Department to take personal responsibility, and that this should be based a return to three key principles:

•    The first is that there are no good intentions, only successful actions.

•    The second is that no improvement in process can compensate for decisive and timely leadership.

•    The third is that any meaningful strategy must be based on detailed force plans, procurement plans, program budgets, and measures of effectiveness.

The simplest of these principles is that there are no good intentions, only successful actions.

When I first came to the Pentagon almost exactly half a century ago, it was obvious that nothing we did by way of excuses or good intentions would compensate for another Korea, for a failure to compete in the Cold War, or for what already promised to be a high-risk venture in Vietnam.

It did not matter what rank a civilian had or how many starts an officer had achieved. It did not matter how nice they were or how good they were to their staff or their troops. We had plenty of failures, and plenty of inadequate leaders, but the cost was clear and so was the standard of performance for anyone with serious rank or authority. Only one thing you do counts: the success of your actions during your tour of duty.

Let me put this simply. It does not matter a damn what Secretary Gates or Admiral Mullen try to do. It does not matter how difficult the circumstances were, are, and will be. The same is true of every civilian from director and deputy assistant secretary up, and -- devalued as military rank is becoming -- of every officer with the rank of major general and above. There is only one test: what did you do that served the broader national interest of the U.S. successfully during your tour of duty. Not your party, not your ideology, not your service, and not your program.

We have virtually forgotten this standard; to the extent we ever set it or tried to enforce it. No one writes a merciless epitaph for a Secretary or Chief of Staff who failed; no one compares their actions to the list of key tasks they had to perform.

This brings me to the second principle: no improvement in process can compensate for decisive and timely leadership.

When I first came to the Pentagon, one of the more charming maxims of what then were called “iron majors,” was that, “a fish rots from the head down.” Their biology was faulty, but the principle was clear. Nothing happens without decisive and timely leadership.

In the decades that have followed, we have come to operate on a different principle. If you have the perfect process, you do not need to take hard decisions as early as possible—in fact, you can defer them indefinitely by having more studies, review boards, contractors, and then accepting every problem as an exercise in creative accounting or claims about improved performance or unpredictable problems. You “go along to get along.” You defend your program, your service, your area of turf. Analysis is more a tool for advocacy than making hard choices—often to the point where it becomes what Mark Twain used to call a liar’s contest.

The worst example is procurement. It did not take vision to see that each service was headed for a situation where defense planning had become the equivalent of a fight for resources where the service that died with the most toys “won.” I have no idea as to whether Steve Kosiak was right when he estimated last summer that the cumulative overrun of military procurement and RDT&E was reaching $25 billion a year. Work by the GAO and CBO make this seem all too credible based on the procurement plans in FY2007, and it is now clear that the only option is either major delays, major cuts in procurement goals, major cuts in forces—or some awkward combination of the three.

The fact is, however, that the warnings were being sounded more than a decade ago. In fact, the problem was clear by the mid-1990s. It was also clear that budgets essentially were “no war” or “no major contingency” budgets and that force cuts were already being made that raised major questions about the adequacy of the all-volunteer force. We claimed to have two major regional contingency strategies, and it was clear that we would have problems with one—unless it could be as quick and decisive as the first Gulf War in 1990–1991.

There was—and is—a school of thought that believed we could solve these problems through technology: through the most extreme versions of the “revolution in military affairs.” There was another school who saw the solution in terms of greater efficiency through better processes; a school whose thesis seems to be that with the right process you can do more and more with less and less until you can do everything with nothing. What there was not, however, was hard, timely decisionmaking and honest efforts at cost projection and cost containment.

Year after year, our top civilian and military decisionmakers came and went letting the underbudgeting of procurement, force plans, and manpower grow. We then found ourselves fighting “long” wars that we took years to fully deploy and budget for, each year asking for supplementals that tacitly assumed we would win in the next year. We were slow to react in Iraq, and took until FY2007 to seriously budget for Afghanistan. In fact, we used the totally predictable inability to precisely predict the cost of war to create a nightmare of unrealistic annual baseline budgets, half thought-out supplementals, and pointless Future Year Defense Plans (FYDPs).

And, if this sounds like hyperbole, let me remind you of what our current secretary of defense said about defense acquisition—just one of the major challenges we face—in testimony to the Senate Armed Service Committee on January 27, 2009:

There are a host of issues that have led us to where we are, starting with long-standing systemic problems:

—Entrenched attitudes throughout the government are particularly pronounced in the area of acquisition: a risk-averse culture, a litigious process, parochial interests, excessive and changing requirements, budget churn and instability, and sometimes adversarial relationships within the Department of Defense and between DoD and other parts of the government.

—At the same time, acquisition priorities have changed from defense secretary to defense secretary, Administration to Administration, and Congress to Congress - making any sort of long-term procurement strategy on which we can accurately base costs next to impossible.

…Thus the situation we face today, where a small set of expensive weapons programs has had repeated - and unacceptable - problems with requirements, schedule, cost, and performance.

…Since the end of World War II, there have been nearly 130 studies on these problems - to little avail. I mention all this because I do not believe there is a silver bullet, and I do not think the system can be reformed in a short period of time - especially since the kinds of problems we face date all the way back to our first Secretary of War, whose navy took three times longer to build than was originally planned at more than double the cost.

We gave weak enemies time and the initiative, we pretended there were no major out-year implications, that reset would not result in much of the equipment having to be fully replaced or abandoned, and that we could let the real cost of military pay and benefits rise by 45% between 1998 and 2009 without jeopardizing our existing strength levels—much less our ability to increase them to the levels we really need.

Let me give those here at NDU a challenge. Once this conference is over, take a list of senior civilians and military officers over the last 16 years. Examine each as a case study, and write a list of how many hard, timely decisions each made. How many really difficult trade-offs? How many courageous exercises in timely, hard decisions? How many study groups, reviews, etc., that actually led to a clear, decisive decision made in the national interest and not that of politics, ideology, or a given service. Ask then, is the problem process or leadership?

This brings me to the last of my three principles: Any meaningful strategy must be based on detailed force plans, procurement plans, program budgets, and measure of effectiveness.

If God really hates you, you may end up working on a Quadrennial Defense Review: The most pointless and destructive planning effort imaginable. You will waste two years on a document decoupled from a real world force plan, from an honest set of decisions about manpower or procurement, with no clear budget or FYDP, and with no metrics to measure or determine its success.

If God merely dislikes you, you may end up helping your service chief or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs draft one of those vague, anodyne strategy documents that is all concepts and no plans or execution. If God is totally indifferent, you will end up working on our national strategy and simply be irrelevant.

Quite seriously, I have no idea where we lost sight of the fact that policy planning, concepts, and good intentions are not a strategy. The secretary used to issue an annual posture statement that justified the budget request in terms of detailed force plans, procurement plans, and at least some tangible measures of progress. The chairman issued his own statement and views—sometimes explaining and sometimes dissenting. For a while, there were even crude attempts at an annual net assessment.

Now, strategy seems to at best be the conceptual underpinning of our defense posture and at worst a series of phrases and buzzwords that often seem to contribute nothing. The United States simply cannot afford this, particularly at a time when a domestic and global economic crisis may last for at least several years, and when it faces another future crisis in paying for entitlements like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.

Is $533.7 billion in FY2010 and 4.2% of the GNP enough? Enough for what? Our most recent QDR is a morass of half thought-out ideas—many calling for further study or otherwise deferring tangible action. We don’t have a force plan. We don’t have a clearly defined, defenser-wide procurement plan. We don’t tie the QDR to end strength goals that are clearly defined and costed. We haven’t provided meaningful budget figures because the QDR is not tied to the FYDP. We haven’t set clear goals to be achieved. We have no metrics.

As for service strategies, it is nice to know that the Army still intends to fight on land, the Air Force is concerned with the air, and the Navy and Marine Corps still have something to do with water. At the end, however, our service strategies are little more than badly written, service-specific pleading, and the “strategy” advanced by the Chairman is simply a badly written request for more. They do not include a force plan, manpower plan, or procurement plan. There is no public program budget. There is no standard for measuring success. Like the QDRs, they come and go and fade into pointless oblivion.

Worse, there is no clear alternative. When a series of panels were set up to actually review key issues in the last QDR, they seemed to produce nothing. We could write a FYDP with less than 20 people in systems analysis in the early 1960s. Now we still have a FYDP that is little more than a crude input budget that is not tied to any key mission area that is not directly relevant to our strategy documents to truly challenging trade-off analysis by PA&E or OSD comptroller. We are fighting two demanding wars—which we call “long wars.” None are in the FYDP, whose details remain classified for reasons that simply do not exist except to cover up its lack of meaning and content.

Would we be where we are today if we forced the department to tie its strategy to plans and budget, if we demanded metrics, if we required a public annual accounting, and if we held our top leadership fully accountable? Can any change in process or business practices make up for this failure? The answer is no.

Putting Pressure Where Pressure is Due

Every military audience has heard the cliché in military instruction that, “First, we are going to tell you what we are going to tell you. Second, we will tell you. And third, we will tell you what we have told you.” I will spare you at least the last third of that formula. I think, however, the punch line is clear. We can’t afford to go on the way we have been operating. We can’t afford to waste the world’s best military on the world’s most mediocre leadership and try to keep solving our problems by throwing money at them. Every man and woman in uniform deserves better, and for that matter so do all of our allies and every American taxpayer.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy