01/23/2013 03:18 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

Downsizing the Military

Back in the mid-1980s, when I was ranking officer of the Signal Corps, the Congress undertook a sweeping reorganization of the Pentagon that many of us believed was long overdue. On one memorable day, I was walking with Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) to a meeting with some other senior brass as we observed countless junior officers scurrying to and fro with papers in their hands on their way to important meetings. I observed to Sen. Goldwater that if he could hand out pink slips to every other one of those junior officers -- just dismiss them from the military and send them off to do something else -- the nation would suffer no loss of security.

Sen. Goldwater knew I was just kidding (I think) but in truth I had little doubt in my mind at that time, and even less now, that our military establishment is bloated in the extreme. With so many extra hands at every position, it has become devilishly difficult to get even the smallest decisions made. All those lieutenant colonels eager to earn promotion have a way of creating confusion and bogging down the decision-making process.

One of my more interesting assignments when I was a freshly-minted colonel, given to me by a wonderful Brigadier General named Wes Ogden, was to identify unfunded and unauthorized projects on the shelf of the Signal Corps, and get rid of the ones that were not credible, either because they were unneeded or because we could not afford them. "Mac," he said, "get in there, clean out the engineers' drawers. I know they have lots of stuff tucked away."

Indeed they did and it was no great challenge to ferret it out. A simple invitation was enough to bring them forth. The junior officers had countless plans for improving the Signal Corps that they had been working on a long time. Arguably, all of them needed doing, at least in the eyes of the people who made the plans. The Signal Corps had commitments all across the globe and there was virtually no limit to things we could do -- if we had unlimited funds -- to improve our communications and security from Korea to North Dakota. I was obliged to explain to many colonels, to their dismay, that they wanted to spend way too much money on projects that were unlikely to pay off.

Then as now, the military brass is adept at evaluating specific projects on their own merits, but has trouble evaluating overall systems, considering available resources and making decisions for the long term. Like it or not, the Pentagon is headed for a prolonged period of austerity. It is vital that senior leadership make prudent decisions about where and what to cut. The challenge is made even more vexing by Congress which is forever demanding military spending on weapons systems we do not need and resisting closure of bases that have outlived their purpose. We have far too many people in uniform and they will all be defending their turf, not to mention their own military careers. In this battle, there will be many casualties and few heroes.