The House and Senate armed services committees are committed to improving defense acquisition, boosting military readiness funding and breaking down Pentagon bureaucracy through their annual defense bills, even if these goals are at times causing friction with the Defense Department, the two committees’ staff directors said today.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, Bob Simmons said the House Armed Services Committee “looked narrowly at acquisition” and came to the realization “we’re not getting the warfighter what he needs when he needs it.” Through its defense bill, Simmons said the committee promotes the “Apollo approach” of incremental change to reach a larger goal, such as landing on the moon before the Soviet Union. He cited the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer (DDG-51) program as one that used an incremental approach to modernization as a success.
“We wanted to kill transformation” that encouraged major leaps forward without proven hardware and software, which puts at risk the ability to stay on time and budget and end up with a product that works, he said, referring to the “transformational” mantra popular during former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s time leading the Pentagon.
In addition, because there is only one winner in these large programs, “transformation kills the defense industrial base,” Simmons said.
Simmons also spoke of a readiness crisis in the military services that HASC and SASC attempted to address in their bills. While readiness remains high for deploying units, members of units that are not immediately heading overseas are flying less and, in the Army and Marine Corps, not exercising much for high-end ground combat. He added that readiness for platform maintainers is complicated by force size limits the U.S. faces in sending military units to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. To get around the caps, the department hires contractors, leaving uniformed personnel behind with no aircraft to work on to keep skill levels high.
Noting that this has been going on since the end of the Cold War, Simmons said he believed “it’s truly a crisis” in readiness that prevents the U.S. military from being adequately prepared to deter high-end threats. Simmons defined readiness as manpower, procurement, and operations and maintenance spending, but he noted that the Fiscal Year 2017 NDAA relies on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account money – which is not subject to congressionally mandated cost caps the way the base budget is – to fully fund readiness.
This reliance on OCO has caused concern at the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, in an address at the Navy League’s 2016 Sea-Air-Space Exposition last month, said, “if a final version of the NDAA that reaches the president this year includes a raid on war funding that risks stability and gambles with war funding, jeopardizes readiness, and rejects key judgments of the Department, I will be compelled to recommend that he veto the bill.”
Pentagon structure also caused a rift this year between Congress and the executive branch. Among these ideas is one that would take the powerful position of Pentagon acquisition chief – formally called assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics (ASD AT&L) – and split the duties among the ASD for research and engineering and a renamed undersecretary of management and support.
In describing the rationale, SASC staff director Chris Brose said that “innovation too often becomes a sidecar” to other department priorities. The result is “a series of small-scale insurgencies … to get around the problem” of stove-piping.
Carter described this portion of the Senate bill at Sea-Air-Space Exposition as congressional micromanagement with a “high potential for negative second- and third-order effects.” He implied if that provision remained in the bill approved by Congress it could draw a presidential veto.
Brose said the SASC bill would also explore how other agencies and private businesses break up stove-piped organizations. He said DoD should instead make use of integrated task forces “to stay ahead of threats” that cross Pentagon functions, commands and domains – an idea that will be the topic of a hearing next week.
“This is a remarkably old idea” but is meeting some resistance in the Pentagon, Brose said. “Right now, there isn’t a mechanism” to integrate the department’s efforts to address wide-ranging and fast-moving issues.
Cutting the size of the National Security Council staff, reducing the number of four-star flag officers and trimming the size of the defense civilian employee and contractor force also drew objections from the Pentagon, he added.
Simmons said that, even if the Pentagon took all these organizational steps and made major changes in the way it develops and buys weapons – thereby reducing spending and freeing up room to fund training, spares, facilities and other items frequently used as bill-payers – it would “take a decade to fix the problem” of military readiness. He put the cost of restoring readiness levels for all possible conflicts – high-end, low-end, counterterrorism – at “$100 billion or more.”
Brose said there is a lack of understanding on both Capitol Hill and inside the executive branch of what the other is supposed to be doing. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there was a swing of the pendulum towards action from the executive branch, and now that pendulum is swinging back toward Congress and its oversight of Pentagon actions.
“Goldwater- Nichols [was] pretty intrusive” in reshaping the way the Defense Department did business 30 years ago,” Brose said.
“We need to make the organization better. Congress really is a critical stakeholder in this.”