THE BLOG
01/03/2013 11:27 am ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

Maybe We Should Have Kept Sequestration for Defense

Sequestration, meaning the budget cuts that would have been required had no fiscal cliff legislation passed, was not something advocated by a significant number of people. But would it have been the sort of cleanse that the body politic occasionally needs? With the nation not under existential threat, this might have been an ideal time to put Congress and the Department of Defense (DoD) under the gun (so to speak) to re-examine how we spend our defense dollars.

Whom can we trust in the debate over defense spending? Certainly not Congress, which utters mealy-mouthed platitudes about national defense being the government's number one priority; what is really meant is that legislator job protection through the maintenance of defense industry jobs is the real priority. Dig into the tedious debates surrounding any procurement program. Men and women who have no insight into the connection of military operations and national interest gloss over strategy, and then the real issues surface: buy American; and buy in my state. Troubled programs abound and, despite numerous hearings and much clucking, nothing happens beyond calls for accountability. Once people from DoD promise the necessary remedies, the tumult dies down until the next round of problems.

DoD does nothing to improve matters. The uniformed services talk about joint operations, but cling to individual requirements that stovepipe procurement dollars insufficient to cover everyone's wish list. The problem is often exacerbated by the inability of services to play nicely together. The Navy won't use anything that the Coast Guard wants, even if need is similar. The Marine Corps and Army struggle to find common ground even though their missions have steadily converged in recent years. The Navy and Marine Corps constantly feud over how many vessels dedicated to landing operations should come out of the Navy's tight shipbuilding budget. And all the services battle over money for missions like logistics, air-to-air refueling, and control of unmanned aerial vehicle operations.

Whatever high marks Defense Secretaries Gates and Panetta might deserve, neither are weapons experts. Some of the Pentagon's most expensive and troubled programs, such as the F-35 fighter and the Littoral Combat Ship, proceed relatively unchecked despite serious implications for future strategy and spending. Nor has any secretary in recent memory been adept at handling senior officer appointments or discipline, with Secretary Panetta having as sloppy a record as anyone. In a little-noticed recent episode, he allowed a three-star general to retire at rank despite that officer's serious chastisement in a Defense Inspector General report about the way the general handled his last billet. Other senior officers have also retired recently without deserved chastisement.

The downsides of sequestration are that it would have sliced 10 percent off the top of all programs, good or bad, and caused serious job disruption. The associated difficulties cannot be downplayed, but if one believes in the "you don't make omelets without breaking eggs" theory of management, sequestration might have been viewed as a necessary evil.

The first step in a national security reassessment might have been a meaningful examination of national priorities, matching strategies, and whether there are necessary resources to fulfill either.

Take, for example, the Navy's situation. Historically, its primary mission is the defense of sea-lanes. This remains a problem as piracy persists into the 21st century, and nations insist on spreading out the reach of their territorial waters. However, there are competing interests. The so-called pivot of national strategy to the western Pacific, the need to project power into the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf, and the availability of assets for humanitarian assistance and other non-war missions stretch the Navy nearly to the breaking point. Add to this the recent increase in the tempo of Russian naval operations.

Part of the problem is the way the Navy procures ships. Requirements are often added after the planning phase. This is like adding doors to your house after the contractor has framed everything out. Another issue, common to all the services and not just the Navy, is the desire to field systems that do everything, often resulting in incredible complexity and production delays, as well as the inability to do anything as well as dedicated platforms. The result is a smaller number of overly complex vessels that can't be everywhere they're needed.

The Air Force will face a similar procurement problem with the F-35 program. It is so far over budget, and the Air Force is probably buying so many more aircraft than it needs, that the serious issue of developing a new bomber fleet to replace the highly capable, but incredibly old and dwindling, B-52 fleet will be caught in the budget squeeze.

The second step would be the even more difficult one of reforming the procurement process. Unfortunately, there aren't enough talented professionals to fix things at once. The government should undertake a multi-pronged approach that involves removing entrenched civil service employees who rely on inertia to retain their jobs rather than ability; competition for talent with the private sector, with the realization that higher salaries will be repaid through huge savings; and training programs that grab talented college graduates and raise them as procurement specialists.

The tedious cliché about changing government bureaucracies being like turning supertankers is the excuse for why nothing ever seems to get done. But the fact is that supertankers do change course, or they'd never get anywhere. The first step is for someone with ability to take the wheel. Let's try to get that far, perhaps by appointing a procurement expert as the next secretary of defense.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?