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Esper Starts Setting Up DoD-Wide ‘Night Court’

Posted by Paul McLeary on

Esper and nominee to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs at Arlington National Cemetery.

PENTAGON: If you’ve been waiting for a big rollout of some of the savings Defense Secretary Mark Esper has been finding in the Pentagon, you’ll have to keep waiting.

Esper is implementing changes in how the Pentagon spends money on a rolling basis, a Pentagon spokesman told reporters today, and not packaging them as part of a single, large savings plan. “It’s going to be an ongoing process. If he makes a decision, it’s not going to be ‘I have to look through everything and then make some decisions,’” spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said. “If he sees a program that needs to end or be moved, he’ll make that decision as quickly as he can.”

Over the past several weeks Esper has held a series of internal reviews at the Pentagon, in which offices outline programs they’re working on. Those are cross-checked with other parts of the Defense Department to see if there’s duplication of effort. When potential savings are found the SecDef then “holds a review with all the parties that may have equities and go through it,” Hoffman explained. “He really digs in to what are the appropriate roles, what are the appropriate missions, is there someone better or capable to hold this than the equity that has it now, is there better cost savings.”

Hoffman didn’t have any details about specific programs that have been, or may be, trimmed. But Esper said late last month that he was running a review of how to trim the Pentagon’s back-end business practices, known as the “Fourth Estate.” Any cuts or effencicies found there would be pumped into new and emerging technologies the Pentagon has been pushing to develop. In many ways, Esper’s efforts look to be a continuation of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ work to run a tighter ship.

But those efforts ran into some headwinds — as do almost all well-intentioned efforts to find “efficiencies” in the Pentagon — and Mattis fired his Chief Management Officer John Gibson after only nine months on the job. Gibson had originally advocated moving out on recommendations put forth in a Defense Business Board Study that found the DoD could harvest as much as $125 billion in savings through reform and cuts. That number would be quickly pared down to $46 billion over a five-year period. Just months after that smaller goal was announced, Gibson was fired by Mattis for “lack of performance.” 

Esper’s team appears be trying to putting in place something similar to the Night Courts he ran while Army Secretary in 2018 and early 2019, which has saved the service some $33 billion that will be pumped into new weapons development programs.

“My commitment is to look throughout the DoD enterprise, beginning with the fourth estate, and look for ways to find money to invest in those technologies,” Esper said last month.  “I’m looking for programs that don’t have as much value relative to another critical war-fighting capability, absolutely.” He declined to put a dollar amount on what he hoped to save, a wise move as Congress is watching the effort closely. 

The so-called “fourth estate” is a massive spider web of 27 agencies, including sprawling bureaucracies like the Missile Defense Agency, which together spend more than $100 billion a year, according to a 2018 GAO report.

While Esper is trying to move quickly, and for now is forgoing any big public rollouts concerning the effort, Hoffman was quick to note that he is working closely with Congress to keep lawmakers “fully informed.”

Esper has only had the job running the Pentagon for a little over a month, so any new effort to reform business practices are still in their infancy. Time will tell how much Esper can find to save in the massive bureaucracy of the Defense Department, and what Capitol Hill, with its local interests, has to say about the effort. Of course, finding what you think is waste or duplication and actually moving that money or trimming your budget require commitment, vigorous leadership and support from the White House.

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