Reducing the DOD Bureaucracy: less is more

Ed Ross Contributor
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Secretary Robert Gates wants to make sweeping budget cuts in overhead at the Department of Defense (DOD). For starters, he has proposed eliminating Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) in Norfolk, Virginia, a 10 percent cut in contractors, the reduction of at least 50 generals and admirals, and the elimination of 150 Senior Executive Service (SES) civilians. I applaud Gates for his initiative. Not only will it save money for the needed modernization of weapons and equipment necessary to maintain our military capabilities, but it will make the DOD more efficient and effective.

With the United States government racking up unprecedented deficits that defy comprehension and burden future generations, no arm of government, not even Defense, can escape budget cuts. The United States can ill afford, however, to go the way of our European allies that have gutted their defense capabilities to pay for social programs. They have us to bear the principal burden of fighting wars and deterring aggression. We have no one to perform that role for us. To sustain our military capabilities the DOD must optimize expenditures for procurement, personnel, and overhead.

Despite perennial U.S. defense-acquisition reform, the cost of weapons and equipment continues to rise at a rapid pace. Never mind that one stealthy bomber with precision-guided munitions can now do what it took hundreds of bombers to do in World War II. Ships and aircraft that once cost millions now cost billions. Weapon systems invariably become more expensive with inflation and as they become more sophisticated and lethal.

Personnel costs represent approximately one-third of the defense budget—$244 billion of the $636 billion in FY2010. Just like in the civilian world, entitlements (retirement pay) and health care expenditures are growing faster than the rate of inflation. In a May 8 speech at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, Gates noted that health care costs have risen from $19 billion a decade ago to $50 billion today.

Battles over procurement and personnel costs will go on indefinitely. More people in uniform and more weapons mean more military capability. Finding the balance between what we need and what we can afford is difficult and always controversial. Commitments to veterans and military retirees are solemn obligations; but they are increasingly costly.

When it comes to the DOD bureaucracy, however, less can be more. Secretary Gates, after his 26 years at the CIA and the National Security Council, and his nearly four years as secretary of defense, understands better than most the inefficiencies of the DOD military and civilian bureaucracies. As Gates acknowledged in a speech at the Marines’ Memorial Association in San Francisco last week, “Our headquarters and support bureaucracies—military and civilian alike—have swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportions.” The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) itself has grown by 1,000 positions over the past 10 years.

Parkinson’s Law—“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”—and the bureaucratic politics of national defense are a dangerous combination. The more people at the top, the more people needed to support them and the more work hours per individual available. The more officials and offices with overlapping responsibilities, the more political infighting among them to advance their policy preferences and the longer it takes to sort out the right policy choices.

Another phenomenon endemic to the DOD bureaucracy is frequent reorganization. Almost invariably, when missions change or when senior DOD leaders become frustrated with the inefficiency of the bureaucracy, or segments of it, rather than streamlining, redirecting, and fine-tuning it, they reorganize. Too frequently, they create additional missions and functions that are neither efficient nor effective but require more people.

The unified commands that report directly to the Secretary of Defense have increased since the end of the Cold War when the U.S. had substantially more forces in Europe and Asia. In 1999, JFCON was created to lead the transformation of the US armed forces through experimentation and education. In 2008, Africa Command (AFRICOM) was created to cope with protracted conflicts and instability in the Horn of Africa. JFCOM’s missions can be subsumed elsewhere. Time will tell if creating AFRICOM was a wise idea.

Hand in hand with frequent reorganization and personnel expansion come the migration of responsibility to higher pay grades and grade creep. What was done in OSD by GS-14s and 15’s and lieutenant colonels and colonels in the Reagan administration is now done by SESs, generals, and admirals. They require subordinates that generate ever increasing mounds of paperwork. Limits on the number of career employees and military personnel are circumvented by hiring contractors that end up performing duties and exercising authority they shouldn’t have. Time in grade for the promotion of military personnel has remained relatively constant, but it has shrunk dramatically for DOD civilians.

This is not a criticism of the overwhelming majority of civilian and military people who work in the DOD. You won’t find a more dedicated, professional, and hard-working group of men and women anywhere. They work 12- and 14-hour days and weekends. They understand that what they do supports our men and women on the battlefield fighting and dying for America, and their own contributions help keep America safe. There are limits, however, to what they can do about bureaucracy imposed on them from above.

It’s never easy to cut bureaucracy. Jobs are lost, promotion opportunities are reduced, and complaints that people are overworked proliferate—until everyone focuses on what’s really important and eliminates what isn’t. The usual suspects, state officials, members of Congress, and advocacy groups, already are lining up in opposition to Secretary Gate’s proposals. Stand fast Mr. Secretary; you’re doing what’s right and necessary.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.