The cost of failure

By Daniel L. Davis

A recent report from The Washington Post exposed how an internally-ordered Pentagon study reported that $125 billion could be saved over a five-year period if inefficiencies and waste were eliminated. But as is now standard operating procedure at the Pentagon, senior leaders dismissed the claims, disparaged those doing the study, and continued pursuing business as usual. This should not be ignore, because the status quo of wasteful business practices has demonstrably weakens our national defense. 

For years, Service Chiefs sat before Congress and testified that sequestration and reduced defense budgets have compromised their ability to defend the nation. They have claimed that combat forces are at a low state of readiness due to smaller Service budgets. But as the Pentagon’s own study exposed, much of the financial hits are the result of their own bureaucratic bloat and their inability to even account for the money they do have.

In response to the Post story, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work derisively quipped that, “This meme that we’re some bloated, giant organization,” is simply not true.  “Although there is a little bit of truth in that,” he nevertheless admitted, “I think it vastly overstates what’s really going on.” Instead, as he has often said, the way to fix what’s wrong with the DoD is to increase its funding.

At a speech two years ago at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Work first said he was, “working on our financial auditing statement, so we can prove to Congress and the American people that we know how we're spending every one of their hard-earned dollars.” Not only has such an audit still not materialized, when given the chance to make the process transparent for the American people, Work quashed the report, classifying the data to ensure it could not be seen.    

This same senior-leader behavior has become standard practice in DoD over many years: resist any substantive efforts aimed at reform while demanding the lifting of sequestration allowing for larger budgets. Yet as the suppressed report demonstrates, piling billions of dollars on top of an unaccountable, bloated infrastructure will only make it less responsive, not more productive.   

The result of this twin focus has been to weaken America’s ability to conduct combat operations were it to become necessary against our most potent foes. In a few key categories this disregard for financial responsibility and institutional arrogance has physically tilted the tactical scales in the favor or our potential enemies. 

After the U.S. Army failed over two decades to produce a new class of American armored vehicles to replace the 1970s and 80s era Abrams tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, Moscow succeeded.   After losing more than $20 billion, the Future Combat Systems were canceled by the Secretary of Defense in 2009.  Numerous follow-on programs in the seven years since have all likewise failed to produce even a single operational prototype. The rest of the Armed Forces have had equally disastrous acquisition failures, as scores more billions have been squandered on canceled programs. 

The Russians, however, have not been nearly so ineffective.  Moscow now has a whole new family of interconnected armored vehicles, the Armata, in production, featuring the new T-14 tank, which experts claim is competitive with the US Abrams tank.  The US Air Force has pushed ahead relentlessly on the development of the F35 despite that fact it still has not completed operationally testing and has experienced major shortfalls that may never be resolved.  The Chinese, however, have fielded new generations of fighter jets that may pose a serious threat to US aircraft in a future fight. 

Instead of maintaining what has been an unchallenged U.S. superiority in the field and in the skies since World War II, we are sinking closer and closer to parity.  If trends aren’t checked, we may soon discover that our potential enemies have overtaken us in key battlefield capabilities. As important, our senior military leaders and popular theorists have the unshaken belief that no opponent of the U.S. will ever discover a new class of super-weapon on par with the emergence of the machine gun, the submarine, or the jet fighter. Such attitudes gamble with America’s national security.

There are highly educated and creative minds in Russia, China and elsewhere. We deceive ourselves if we continue to believe that no adversary will ever discover the next disruptive technology at our expense. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that such a discovery could leave us staggering on a future battlefield, desperately struggling to absorb a blow we don’t know how to parry.

Tinkering around the edges won’t accomplish reform within the DoD. Playing musical chairs among leaders vested in the system won’t result in positive change, as they have a vested interest in ensuring the maintenance of the status quo. Substantial reform of the system must be concurrent with the elevation of a cohort of new leaders. 

This group must be empowered and supported by the President. It should be led by key visionary leaders. The cohort would ideally be composed of some experienced DoD civilian and uniformed leaders, business leaders who know how to manage the development of technology and handle large bureaucratic organizations, but also include a few key visionary leaders, young women and men who are not tied to the old ways and whose minds are alert and open to discovering new methods and capabilities. 

Keeping the DoD machine of the past 20 years in place and unchanged will virtually assure the current dismal state of affairs will continue into the foreseeable future.  Without such reform, our qualitative edge in the world will continue to crumble and one day the nation’s military may not be able to safeguard our citizens when a crisis arises.  On that day we’ll have to pray the damage is “only” severe and not catastrophic.

Daniel L. Davis served multiple tours in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army and works as a fellow and military analyst for Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The American Conservative on December 15, 2016. Read more HERE