Advice for the SecDef (or, What You Won't Hear at a Brookings Seminar)

By Harvey M. Sapolsky

On the contrary, inter-service competition has been the source of much of our strength. The Navy's determination to get into the nuclear weapons game gave us solid-fueled rockets and the submarine-launched ballistic missile. Our four—or is it five ?— air forces ensure that we have theater air dominance, the best helicopters, the longest logistical reach, and the constant urge to improve performance. Navy aircraft and tactics saved the day over North Vietnam, and Air Force technology allowed us to penetrate defenses in the Balkans and Iraq.

The services, of course, are happy to collude if given the chance. The string of vacuous Quadrennial Defense Reviews stands as testimony to that. Secretary Gates ought not to let the services continue to log-roll on important matters. If he wants to cut back on shipbuilding or buy fewer fighter aircraft, he ought to get the Army to believe there is some direct advantage—like a share of the savings—to telling us why there may be better ways to spend scarce defense dollars.

The Secretary then has an important and motivated ally, as the affected interests try to block action. Similarly, if the nation really wants a more effective counterinsurgency strategy, the Army and the Marines ought not to be writing joint manuals. The spur to be the leader is the spur to innovate and to excel. Competition works in business, sports, and higher education. Why not in the serious work of providing national defense ?  

Don't Be a Micromanager

No doubt Secretary Gates will be pressed at some point to cut the defense budget. The war in Iraq may be ending, and the current period of economic stress may require that more attention be paid to domestic needs. Rather than micro-manage the services' priorities, the SecDef ought to let the internal coalitions that govern the services follow their visions of how warfare is evolving and where their own opportunities lie.

Cuts involve bureaucratic pain. The services will resist and resent less if they get to choose how the pain is distributed internally. A cap is much more acceptable than a dictate that cruisers are to be less preferred than destroyers or this fighter is the Air Force's future, not that one. Unless Secretary Gates wants to be dealing with sets of very unhappy generals and admirals, he ought to let them design their own future Army or Navy within a DOD-determined budget.

There is no contradiction between valuing inter-service rivalry and letting the services set their own priorities. Basically, the best advice is to leave the services alone most of the time. The exceptions should be when unsolved or poorly solved security problems arise. Then the SecDef should intervene largely to have the services compete to provide solutions. Unlike the definition former SecDef Robert McNamara preferred for the job, the Secretary should be a judge, not a manager. The services should compete for missions, but the mission assignments should not be permanent. The service with the best idea gets a hearing and perhaps the mission.

Even in the hardest of times there are ways for the services to get a bigger budget that Presidents will not always challenge. As the sage political scientist James Q. Wilson reminded us, "Pork is kosher in American politics." Legislators blessed with good committee assignments and strong district interests can find ways to add extra aircraft for the Guard or another amphibious ship for the Marines in a tight budget environment. All these lawmakers will be there for DOD when they are needed, so their budget initiatives should be accepted as their political due.

Complaining about such self-serving gifts is not only unwise politically, but also strategically. The future is indeed uncertain. As has often been the case, that additional brigade living uncomfortably in the snow in Alaska or that squadron of aircraft based on the wrong coast may find unexpected use. And none of the numbers that become so worshipped in DOD—313 ships or 183 F-22s—is scientifically calculated. A few more of one platform or another may come in handy. Certainly they will not cause us to lose the next war, and they may even help us win it.

Attach Strings to Support for Allies

The SecDef, new or old, would be wise to stop berating our allies for failing to burden share. They know where their own interests lie. The United States provides them with free security. It is no wonder that they free-ride. With the U.S. Navy patrolling the global sea lanes, the U.S. Air Force ready to provide global strike, and the U.S. Army and Marine Corps braced to put boots on the ground wherever serous trouble lies, it is not surprising our allies find it difficult to pry themselves out of the cafes and into uniforms. SecDefs look foolish when they stand before NATO and other allied audiences pleading for their nations' politicians to be dumb enough to give up the subsidy that we so willingly provide and tax their people instead. It must be only good manners that prevent these assemblages from bursting out in laughter.

There are ways to get more help. If the United States were to stop offering regional security to our rich allies, those allies might build larger, more deployable militaries. If we offered our valued security support with more strings attached, fewer Americans would be needed to stand watch in unpleasant places. Japan has the second biggest economy in the world and Germany the third biggest. Both are apparently still on parole for their World War II behavior. When does their time expire ? Europe has more people and a bigger GDP than the United States. Why does it need any American protection ? South Korea has twice the population of the North and is many, many times richer. Why are any American forces based there ? And how much help has South Korea given us in Iraq and Afghanistan ? A secretary who mixes these numbers into speeches might attract more attention. Better yet, just press for troop withdrawals and see how much assistance might be forthcoming from those and other allies who just cannot seem to find the money for their own or our common defense.

Secretary Gates has been an advocate for improving the expeditionary capabilities of other federal agencies to restore the balance in our international effort, noting that there are more Sailors in a single carrier strike group than the State Department has Foreign Service Officers. But promoting a bigger State Department or a more deployable Commerce Department will do less to restore the balance in our civilian and military efforts than would curtailing the growth of DOD's own regional commands. With the regional commands we have created powerful viceroys who dominate U.S. representation around much of the globe. Rein in the viceroys and the civilian agencies may begin to find their voice. Leave the viceroys out there shaping the environment—as their work is often described—and nothing much will change.

No More Management Fads

Finally, it is important that Secretary Gates call a moratorium on changing management systems. DOD does not need more of this kind of change, but less. Military commanders and SecDefs have relatively short tenures. Each commander and each Secretary apparently feels compelled to leave his or her mark in the form of a reorganization or management scheme. It is TQM or Lean Six Sigma or privatization or base consolidation, and on and on. One new scheme is announced before the other is fully fielded. Civilian servants, contractors, and service personnel are constantly in organizational turmoil, attending training sessions, learning new buzzwords and acronyms, and being assessed on their adherence to newly mandated procedures and standards.

The war might be just the needed excuse for Secretary Gates to call a long halt to this wasteful obsession with management fads and reorganizations. Most of the change imposed produces little of observable value. DOD under any imaginable scheme will surely remain a huge, complex, hard-to-fathom, nearly impossible-to-run organization.

The acquisition process will never be fixed. Why not just admit it ? How can it be fixed when DOD is always seeking the most exotic systems capable of performing under the most demanding conditions ? The change obsession diverts attention from necessary military operations and support tasks because it absorbs so much of the organization's time. The SecDef should not allow the understandable penchant of bosses at all levels within DOD to hide anxieties about their ability to do their jobs behind a fa c ade of the latest business craze. What DOD needs is a management-fad timeout.

Secretary Gates does not need any on-the-job training to be the SecDef in the new administration. He already knows what it means to lead the world's biggest and most confusing organization. By being an old hand he may also be able to prevent the hyper-activity and the relabeling of everything that marks new administrations and makes everything more confusing.

A war-stressed organization that nearly doubled in budget during the George W. Bush administration likely will benefit greatly from not having to undergo yet another set of acquisition reforms, yet another renaming of its strategic concepts and objectives, yet another big reorganization, and more and more OSD mandates.

Successful secretaries sometimes are remembered with the great honor of having a warship named after them. As Secretary Gates knows, DOD is an organization filled with many dedicated, talented, and patriotic civil servants and service members who want to do their jobs for the nation. If he is less distracting of their efforts than many who have held this post, they may someday be petitioning to get a ship named for him.

Dr. Sapolsky is professor emeritus of Public Policy and Organization at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was recently director of the MIT Security Studies program. His books include The Telecommunications Revolution: Past, Present, and Future , edited with Rhonda Crane, W. Russel Neuman, and Eli Noam (Routledge, 1992) and U.S. Defense Politics: The Origins of Security Policy , with Eugene Gholz and Caitlin Talmadge (Routledge, 2008).

Dr. Sapolsky is professor emeritus of Public Policy and Organization at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was recently director of the MIT Security Studies program. His books include The Telecommunications Revolution: Past, Present, and Future, edited with Rhonda Crane, W. Russel Neuman, and Eli Noam (Routledge, 1992) and U.S. Defense Politics: The Origins of Security Policy, with Eugene Gholz and Caitlin Talmadge (Routledge, 2008).

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