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Debt Plan Sparks Call For Stronger Joint Chiefs Chairman

Posted by Cedric Leighton on

The final debt plan being considered by Congress punts the issue of defense spending to a super-committee of legislators. Composed of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans from both houses, these members will be charged with hashing out the details. Not only will this new process circumvent existing congressional appropriations process, it will also rob the Pentagon of an incentive to truly structure itself in the most efficient way.

There’s a good chance this group will find it impossible to agree on the way forward. If that happens, then 50 percent of all reductions will come from the “security sector”, which includes DoD, as well as the Departments of State, Homeland Security and Veterans’ Affairs, among others. Whether this super-committee achieves agreement on future budget cuts may, in fact, be immaterial because, either way, the Defense Department will be caught in a fiscal vise. This measure will also be a back-door way for those opposed to our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to get us out of those wars without having the rigorous debate about our national strategy that we so desperately need.

The most likely scenario is that defense cuts will be made across-the-board, as the nation tries to “salami-slice” its way to fiscal sanity. That is not the way to go. Instead, the Congress should help the Pentagon take a hard look at what we need our military to do. This is a golden opportunity to create a new strategy that begets a lean but effective force structure, and enhances our military readiness.

For any budgetary reform of the Pentagon to really stick, Congress must help fix the acquisition and requirements processes. With our present-day weapons systems reaching the end of their useful lives and no replacements in sight, our military readiness could reach rock-bottom overnight. The prospect of a great power’s front-line combat aircraft falling out of the sky or its ships sinking or stuck in port because it became too hard to maintain them is simply outrageous. Military readiness assessments should go beyond immediate assessments of equipment availability or training adequacy. Above the unit level, consideration must be given to whether our forces are strategically ready to fight and prevail in whatever conflict they are engaged in. This means we must develop a better way to modernize our forces. The current fiscal measure before Congress does not even attempt to do this.

As part of its effort at fiscal reform, Congress must also reform the Department of Defense’s acquisition process just like they reformed Joint efforts through the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986.

Currently, a great deal of waste occurs because the Pentagon bureaucracy is ill-structured to quickly field combat-ready solutions for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The same would be true for any future conflict we might find ourselves in. In this system, the Combatant Commands, who have inefficient bureaucracies of their own, state their requirements and the Joint Staff and Office of the Secretary of Defense usually simply rubber stamp them. Little effort is made to prioritize between the Combatant Commanders, for the body charged with overseeing the requirements piece, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, never met a requirement it didn’t like.

No real effort is made to ensure these initiatives mesh with a coherent strategy. Because of this state of affairs, the Pentagon was fundamentally incapable of supporting the Iraq and Afghan surges. To make the surges work, Secretary Gates circumvented the existing bureaucratic structures and created bodies like the ISR Task Force, which quickly brought new collection and surveillance systems to the battlefield and served to vastly increase our forces’ combat effectiveness. The success of the ISR Task Force can serve as a model for the new acquisition and requirements processes…fast, efficient, and lethally effective.

In addition to reforming the acquisition and requirements processes, Congress must deal with the fundamental problem of the current military structure. In this era, we must overcome our aversion to investing the Joint Staff with real authority over the Combatant Commands. The chairman should be a five-star flag officer to make his status as the nation’s highest-ranking military officer visible to all and he should have the authority to make the tough resource calls that align with a well-thought-out national security strategy that he would help craft. Only when we make this significant reform to the Goldwater-Nichols Act can we dispense with archaic bureaucratic redundancies and achieve the efficiencies our fiscal realities demand and our nation deserves.

Congress is making a valiant effort to get our fiscal house in order, but in their zeal to achieve fiscal reform, they must not destroy our nation’s military infrastructure. They can achieve significant and lasting fiscal reforms if these are accompanied by new National Security and National Military strategies as well as meaningful structural reforms to our military bureaucracies, especially the Joint, Combatant Command and Service staffs. Such an effort requires a partnership between the Executive and the Legislative branches, but it can and must be done.

If we choose not to embark on this course we will permanently jeopardize our military readiness and our future will be a bleak one. The specter of a rising China taking a page out of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War playbook is not that far-fetched. They are quickly amassing the resources that will enable them to outspend us militarily. If that ever happens, our diplomatic and military options would be drastically curtailed, just like the Soviet Union’s were in the final stages of the Cold War – and we know how that turned out for them.

Cedric Leighton, a career Air Force intelligence officer, retired last year as a colonel. He is president of Cedric Leighton Associates, a Washington, D.C. strategic risk consultancy.

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