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It’s official. Former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel is our new Secretary of Defense. What challenges does he face as he takes over the Defense Department? Here's the truth: a broken Pentagon is in desperate need of an overhaul.
Let’s start with the draconian budget reductions facing DoD as the “sequester” looms. If the sequester happens this week it will, for better or worse, have a direct impact on a full spectrum of Pentagon operations. For starters, the sequester will cut about $1 trillion dollars out of the Pentagon budget. That money will disappear without any considerations regarding either national security threats or defense strategy.
Former Secretary of Defense Panetta, despite having had more than a year to plan for a possible sequester, has admitted that he conducted no study nor gave any serious thought to how to manage the cuts until several weeks ago.
As recently as December 18, 2012 he said, "For more than a year, this department has been operating under the shadow of sequestration." Instead of complying with the law, Panetta pretended that the sequestration did not apply and therefore did nothing to identify and target cuts that could be taken without inflicting damage to our national security. Now Secretary of Defense Hagel will be left holding the proverbial bag of “sequestration” – and it ain’t a pretty bag.
Faced with this challenge what should Hagel do from day one? His strategy should be to begin with the end in mind. Here are 7 things Hagel should put at the top of his "to do" list:
1. Establish a strategy grounded in 21st Century reality. Our new secretary of defense needs to harness and shape the U.S. national security infrastructure so that it is based on the real threats we face -- today. It can't be self-referential. It can't constantly look back to the legacy and structure that was established to fight (and win) the Cold War. He must act now, with an eye on the horizon to shape, attenuate and create an effective force structure.
2. Bring in a fresh set of eyes. Washington has become an echo chamber for mindless Pentagon spending. SecDef Hagel’s advisers should be a mix of operational experts, planners and budget experts – pragmatic and, ideally, unattached to the current “stakeholders” of defense contractors and lobbyists.
3. Create the National Security Act of 2013 to replace the National Security Act of 1947 and the Goldwater/Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. The entire national security infrastructure has remained unchanged except for Goldwater/Nichols which, arguably, created even more bureaucracy and bloat at the Department of Defense. We can and should re-think the foundation of the Pentagon. We need to do a thorough assessment of its structure and function. And it must be streamlined to eliminate bureaucracy and redundancy.
4. The Pentagon must be prepared to adapt to the 21st century threats. The current DoD budget is loaded with spending on items that have more to do with the Cold War than modern security challenges like cyber war or terrorism. Spending hundreds of billions on an overly large and totally redundant nuclear force and billions more defending Europe from the Soviets adds nothing to our bottom line security.
5. Change the way the Pentagon spends money. This is a tall order but many defense programs have “use or lose” incentives; if you don’t spend all your money, you may get less money to spend next year. This system creates incentives for waste. Instead, Hagel and his team should create incentives for thrift and innovation and implement the same best practices that work in the private sector.
6. Reform defense contracting practices to prioritize “effectiveness” over “fairness.” One egregious example of "fairness" run amok is the USMC’s acquisition of new Rugged All Terrain (RAT) boots for its marines. USMC split the initial production between two vendors – Bates and Danner. One manufacture has a superior record of quality, the other a less than stellar track record. In the end, 8,000 of the Bates manufactured boots were recalled based on their failures in combat conditions in Afghanistan. By attempting to be “fair” the lives of marines were put in jeopardy, also resulting in a huge expense for the U.S. government to fix the problem.
7. Implement “smart” spending. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) uses a smart system for paying its officers when they travel -- they receive a flat fee. Everyone gets the same amount – and they can use it to stay in a nice hotel, or pick a cheaper hotel and pocket the difference – it eliminates fraud and the “nickel and diming” of employees under the current system. It's no secret that excessive bureaucracy leads to unnecessary waste.
There are additional steps we need to take to reinforce our national defense while eliminating bloat, but these 7 initial, structural changes could ensure Pentagon stability and strength at the same time.
Our new Secretary of Defense can and should use his influence to make the Pentagon into what it can and should be: the pinnacle of strength for protecting the American people and our interests, not a bottomless pit of spending that, like a muscle bound giant, is unable to act with agility and effectiveness.