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Should the US Remilitarize Military Procurement?

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Photo Credit: Trish Harris/Wikimedia Commons

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The US military is facing potentially catastrophic funding cuts due to last year’s so-called “sequestration” deal between the President and the Republicans in Congress. If Congress and the President fail to agree on future tax and spending policy, on January 1, 2013 automatic cuts will automatically begin, which will result in an almost $50 billion dollar cut from the 2013 defense budget. It is also estimated that over the course of the next ten years the act will, in theory, cut as much as $492 billion from the defense budget.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has described these cuts as “catastrophic.” Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa (D Hawaii) has agreed with Panetta, calling them “devastating and disastrous.”

Pressure has never been greater to ensure that the defense procurement system works at maximum efficiency. Ideally, this means that the procurement system should provide the armed services with high quality, reliable and affordable weapons and equipment, on schedule and without unplanned cost increases.

Unfortunately, at present there is little sign that either the Obama administration or Congress are ready to make the dramatic, comprehensive reforms that are needed for America’s complex and confusing Federal Acquisition Regulations which govern the procurement system. Today’s economic problems, however, are serious enough so that they might open the way for reforms that would make a significant difference to the way the system works.

Ever since the early days of the Reagan build-up in the early 1980′s, there has been a lively and, at times, nasty debate over military procurement reform. The bureaucratic system, which the US Department of Defense uses to design, develop and produce the seemingly infinite number of military weapons and equipment required, is widely recognized as broken. Almost all new weapons and new equipment are delivered to our troops late, and these items almost always seem to end up costing far more than originally planned. Often, a new weapon which had been in development for years, is cancelled because the leadership of the Defense Department decides that it has grown too expensive, as shown below. The cancellation then results in wasted billions that have already been spent .

In the 1950′s, the Pentagon may have had some significant problems, but the procurement system itself was not one of them. As one former Air Force General said, “Procurement decisions were made by the highest ranking officer technically qualified to make the decision.”

In the early 1960′s, under then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a new management system was put into place. McNamara removed authority for major procurement decisions from the Army, Air Force and Navy and gave it to senior political appointees in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). Essentially, the decision-making power was given to a group of civilian political appointees and analysts who owed their positions to McNamara and no one else. These civilians were known as the “Whiz Kids.” Their ideas were neatly summed up by Charles Hitch, McNamara’s Comptroller of the Defense Department when he said, “We regard all military problems … as economic problems in the efficient allocation and use of resources.”

By reducing the role of the men and women in the military to the mere fulfilling of a set of economic, statistical requirements, Secretary of Defense McNamara not only eliminated the role of traditional warrior virtues in the conduct of US military operations, he also removed officers with real-world experience from the procurement process. Many of the failures experienced by the US military since the McNamara era have been due to the excessive use of business management principles and techniques instead of reliance on strategy and doctrine based on military experience.

The McNamara system has undergone several minor reforms since the early 1960′s, notably the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. This legislation strengthened the role of the nation’s senior military officer, namely, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It made him the principal military advisor to the President and thus no longer just the “first among equals.” Regrettably, the Goldwater-Nichols Act Act failed to give the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs solid authority over the procurement process. Even worse, as former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman put it, “The intention of the legislation was to get uniformed people completely out of procurement.”

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About the Author: Taylor Dinerman is an expert on the Military and National Security affairs.


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