The Devil is in the DoD-tails

A few weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Hagel published his list of six focus areas for the coming year. Here’s his list:focus

  1. Focus on institutional reform.
  2. Re-evaluate our military’s force planning construct.
  3. Prepare for a prolonged military readiness challenge.
  4. Protecting investments in emerging military capabilities
  5. Achieve balance
  6. Personnel and compensation policy

Really?  That’s what he’s focusing on?  You probably haven’t heard much about this list because it is sooooo uninspiring.  If this isn’t bureaucratic gobbledygook, I don’t know what is. Do you think these are his real priorities, or just the same type of feel-good rhetoric that his staff regularly generates. Ask yourself what the really big issues facing the DoD today are and see if this list scratches the itch. Let’s look at the priorities:

Focus on institutional reform.  The subheadings under this priority are reform and reshape our entire defense enterprise, direct more resources to military readiness and capabilities, and make organizations flatter and more responsive.  So what are the metrics to use to determine is progress is bring made?  As far as I can tell, this focus area should be part of the regular drumbeat of DoD, not some special focus area, implying that we will look at it, fix it and move on.  Does he serious think that he is going to reshape the entire defense enterprise?  Into what?  And does he really mean to direct  more resources into readiness, or just cut spending in other areas, only so they can become focus area next year?  This one just leaves me uninspired and wondering exactly what we are reforming?

Re-evaluate our military’s force planning construct. This one includes the classic example of Pentagon-speak, namely force planning construct.  In the interest of clarity, I believe he means develop a different way to decide how big the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps needs to be.  “Challenge assumptions” is a key part of this focus area.  When have you not been to some type of business course where they didn’t say “Challenge the Assumptions?”  Exactly what assumptions will we be challenging, who will challenge them and by what process will we evaluate the accuracy and efficacy of the assumptions? In my experience, DoD did a pretty good job translating the National Security Strategy into what wars and other missions we were supposed to be prepared for, turning that into war plans and then figuring out how many forces we needed to execute the plans.  The problem was always with the front end in defining what the military would be expected to do.  It always turned out to be too expensive.  When I first started paying attention to the war fighting expectations I was a policy wonk on the Joint Staff.  Back then we were supposed to fight and win two wars simultaneously.  That proved so expensive that we had to change it to win one war, while holding our own in another, swinging forces to the the second war once we triumphed in the first.  That, too, became too expensive, so we changed to win two wars, but one of them would be the war on terror.  Frankly, I’m just not sure what the overarching strategy is these days, but I think it can be found in the 2014 QDR (see QDArghhhhhh).  This is what it says:  “U.S. forces could defeat a regional adversary in a large-scale multi-phased campaign, and deny the objectives of – or impose unacceptable costs on – another aggressor in another region,” whatever that means.

Prepare for a prolonged military readiness challenge. This is Pentagon-speak for figure out how to do more with less.

Protecting investments in emerging military capabilities. Not sure why this requires the continued focus of SECDEF. Can’t he just say make sure we have enough money in R&D accounts?  By the way, here is where the grand plan is not to spend more DoD dollars in R&D, but push off the expense of R&D to industry.  That’s not going to work as long as DoD keeps putting pressure on industry to lower profit margins…..Let’s see.  I’m a Captain of industry; What’s my priority for where to put the profits I make? 1) Shareholders, 2) capital improvements, 3)cash reserves, 4) corporate jet 5)R&D.  Hmmmmm what am I going to cut first when my profits drop????

Achieve balance I guess this is the old “tooth-to-tail” argument that Secretary Rumsfeld was fond of.  How much redundancy do we need?  How much forcible entry capability do we need? HOw many forces do we station overseas?  How many fighters do we need and who gets them? and on and on.   We’ve tried this before and the Services resisted any balancing initiatives that left them with less.

Personnel and compensation policy The crux of this priority is to figure out how to have a world-class military force while implementing the lowest price, technically acceptable personnel and compensation schemes. That hasn’t worked so well in the acquisition world and I doubt it will work any better as a personnel policy. This is one I agree that’s needed, but not in its current fashion.

None of these priorities are necessarily bad or wrong, but they are lacking the detail necessary to figure out if they will really make a difference.  Is there someone tracking these priorities and providing monthly updates on progress.  None of these items are terribly original either.  We have all heard these things time and time again.  I can remember tackling the issue of balance way back in 1990 with the AC/RC study done by the Joint Staff.  I would rather see a list of 5 really vexing issues facing the department and put a concentrated effort into fixing them.  The current list has no sense of urgency and just seems like business as usual to me. They are so big, just about everything winds up in a focus area.  Why not focus on specific issues?

OK, Smart guy.  What would your priorities be?” you are asking.  Here is my list:

  1. Make JSF affordable (It’s costing us big time and we will never cut it!)
  2. Rightsize the force, paying attention to Army and Marine Corps (Admit that they are both too big and fix it and stop worrying about hurting feelings)
  3. Develop a sustainable personnel compensation and benefits system by 2017(put together a comprehensive package and stop focusing on the margins)
  4. Accelerate and complete Service transition to ERPs, institute direct treasury disbursement and eliminate DFAS (It’s the 21st Century! Why doesn’t DoD join it with the rest of us?)
  5. Eliminate Department dependence on OCO by 2017. (said another way, produce one budget……..incorporate sequestration and stop pounding people into the dirt developing budgets which are dead on arrival)
   Send article as PDF   

Bric-a-BRAC

birc-a-bracThere’s lots of hot air blowing about on the subject of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) inside the Beltway.  I thought I put a few points out there as food for thought.  First of all, a quick explanation of the BRAC process is in order (Here’s a link to the 2005 BRAC web page).  BRAC is the process by which the Defense Department determines what US bases and facilities are no longer needed or facilities which should be repurposed, obtains Congressional approval to close those bases and goes about closing the bases  The determination process is done secretly within each Service based on criteria set in advance by OSD and the Services.   The Service data is then forwarded to OSD where the lists are “modified” to accommodate the desires of the OSD staff and SECDEF.  This list is then presented to an independent BRAC Commission.  The commissioners are appointed by the President, in consultation with the Congress.  The BRAC staff reviews the recommendations, conducts field visits and hearings around the country, and then the Commission produces a list of base closures.  This list is given to the President for review and approval who then forwards the list to Congress.  Congress has 45 days to vote “all or none” (no modifications allowed) on the recommendations.  If they do nothing, the recommendations become law and DoD has six years to close or realign the bases on the list.  In past BRACs the DoD has done a variety of disposal actions, including Federal real property  made available by public benefit conveyances for airport, education, and homeless assistance; federal transfers to native American tribes; economic development conveyances to local redevelopment authorities; and public sales.

Communities spend vast amount of money and effort preparing for BRAC, making sure the contributions to the local economy from local bases are well known, lobbying the Hill and Pentagon and generally stirring up dust in an attempt to “BRAC-Proof” their bases. That’s a big reason why the process is kept under wraps until released to the Commission.

The Defense Department says it needs BRAC to rid itself of excess infrastructure in order to reduce costs.  The big question is rather or not BRAC closures actually achieve the projected savings.  That’s a tough question because there is a fair amount of conflicting data out there.  The DoD uses a model (critics say it’s flawed and inaccurate) called COBRA (Cost of Base Realignment Actions) that projects closure costs and the modeling results are generally used for racking and stacking the recommendations. To my knowledge, the model has never be compared to actual costs in order to validate its results (partly because I doubt if the real costs are known). I just don’t know enough about it to have an opinion either way, but given that determining costs is involved I tend to agree with the critics.

There have been several problems related to BRAC which have limited savings or increased costs:

  • Environmental Clean up costs are often underestimated negating the savings anticipated.
  • Turnover from DoD to the receiving locality or other governmental agency has not progressed smoothly.
  • Unsafe building must be demolished before turnover
  • Local communities not prepared to accept the property and ensure security.

I just read today that the Navy’s Treasure Island Facility, BRACed in 1993, is now scheduled for radiation testing because high levels of radioactivity have been detected in the housing areas. YIKES!

The CNO has said that the Navy does not need another round of BRAC , but the Army and the Air Force maintain that it’s needed.  The Army’s position is certainly understandable  given the  personnel reductions they are facing.

Although great pains were taken to “de-politicize” the BRAC process, politics inevitably creep in.  Take for instance the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard located in Defense Committee Heavy New England.  Its main purpose was to refuel nuclear submarines.  The Navy’s newest version, the Virginia-class is designed to last 30 years without refueling.  The last of the submarines requiring refueling are long gone, but when the Navy tried to close it, the fan was clogged by politics and it was removed from the list.

So keep an eye out in the  Defense Budget debate over the next few months.  To Bric-a-BRAC?  That is the question.

   Send article as PDF