08/13/2010 12:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

No Double Standards in Cutting Defense Fat

If Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wants to ensure that the reductions he proposed on August 10, 2010 are meaningful, he can set a good example by trimming his own bureaucracy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, or OSD, and eliminating the civilian secretaries of the military departments.

Although the Department of Defense was created in 1947, it was not until 1948 that the office of the secretary (OSD) was established. In addition to the secretary of defense and the deputy, OSD had three presidential appointees at the assistant secretary level who supervised a staff of 50 people. Although the number grew to 15 in the 1970s, it stayed at or about that level until the mid-1980s. Today, in Gates' office, there are 26 presidential appointees: the deputy secretary, 5 under secretaries, 12 deputy under secretaries, and 8 assistant secretaries of defense, who have a total staff of about 3,000 people.

To take just two examples of how things have changed, the manpower position, one of the original three assistants, has morphed from one assistant secretary into an office that has four presidential appointees, an undersecretary, a principal deputy, and two assistant secretaries. But the office actually has less responsibility than the position did in the 1980s when one person at the assistant secretary level handled not just manpower, but installations and logistics as well (full disclosure: I was the assistant secretary). The policy shop, which did not even exist until the 1960s when it was manned by one assistant secretary, now has eight presidential appointees: an undersecretary, a principal deputy undersecretary and six assistant secretary level positions.

Ironically much of the growth in OSD occurred as the size of the Armed Forces shrunk. For example, in the 1950s when the active duty force consisted of nearly 3 million people, there were only 10 presidential appointees. Today, when the force has shrunk to 1.4 million, there are 26 presidential appointees.

There were several reasons for this growth. Some positions were forced on DOD by Congress to ensure that certain interests were protected, for example reserve forces and Special Forces. Others were created to deal with areas of particular concern to the secretary, for example, intelligence.

While we should not return to the original design, it does provide a good starting point. To do his job effectively, the secretary needs four principal assistants for: policy, readiness, finance, and acquisition. Each of these should be presidential appointees and each should have an appropriate number of deputies, but they do not need to be presidential appointees. Personal assistants like public affairs, legislative affairs, and legal, should be just that -- special assistants.

Not only would this reduce overhead and save money, because each of these high-level appointees has to have his or her own staff, but it would speed up the decision-making process. No longer would the secretary have 26 people reporting directly to him. Instead, reducing the number of presidential appointees would enable him to get his staff in place more quickly, since many people would not have to go through the increasingly tedious confirmation process. Moreover, the paperwork for the decision making process within the Pentagon would be sped up, since there would be many fewer people necessary to coordinate before a paper would reach the secretary.

Eliminating the service secretaries and their staffs would also streamline the decision-making process and save money. With the empowerment of the combatant commanders and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the service chiefs' main function is to manage their services, making the service secretaries and their large staffs, which now compose several hundred people, redundant. And civilian control can be exercised by the secretary of defense and his staff.

Taking these steps will meet resistance from some entrenched interests, but by proposing them the secretary will set an example for the rest of our bloated military establishment and get them to take the necessary steps to help bring defense spending under control.

Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.