Defense Reform for the Long Haul

Noah Schachtman writes about an intriguing element of yesterday’s Pentagon conference call that hinted at the logic of deeper future reforms:

Marine General [and] Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright says the Review will handle all kinds of tradeoffs. For instance: “If you have bombers in the Pacific, do you also have to have aircraft carriers?” he asks. “Do we always have to have every thing in every service? How much of this do we really need, especially given the situation we face which is a much broader spectrum of conflict over a much great geographic dispersal than we’ve had in the past?”

Essentially everyone agrees that this is a problem. At the margin, each service prefers to have more capacity inside its own bureaucratic boxes rather than be dependent on other services. Consequently, around the margins there’s a lot of overlap, even though “jointness” has allegedly been the main strategic concept of the military for a while now. Spencer Ackerman observes that the implications of taking this idea more seriously could be large “if the services and Congress don’t like the fiscal 2010 budget, they’ll absolutely hate the QDR and the fiscal 2011 budget that the QDR informs. Reform is starting to seem like the new normal at the Pentagon under Gates.”

I think that’s right. Early in his remarks, Gates specifically linked the reform-oriented 2010 budget request to a larger process. He said that what he’s doing in this budget flows from the 2008 National Defense Strategy and that the drive to change will continue in both the next Quadrennial Defense Review, the next Nuclear Posture Review, and then the 2011 budget request.

This is important because it’s in the nature of military procurement programs that there are necessarily large lag times. Consequently, over the short run the only way to realize really major savings would be to just abandon existing expensive equipment in a way that’s not very efficient. But the move to curtail the F-22 in favor of increased orders of the F-35, which is both cheaper and “jointer” (i.e., used by more than one service) points in the direction of the possibility of substantial long-term potential savings. That’s not only because you can have direct efficiency gains through more joint procurement, it’s because by moving the services to a more homogeneous set of tools you do much more to lay bare redundancy and overcapacity. In Gates’ example, we’re thinking about the general presence of strategic air power in the Pacific rather than so many carrier-based craft and so many bombers. The presumption that you need “some of everything” in any important region winds up setting an unreasonably high floor for capabilities.