Porsche or Maserati? What to Drive?

Let’s see…..What do I drive to work this morning?  My Porsche or my Maserati?  Gosh, it’s such a tough choice.   When I read all the rhetoric coming out of the Pentagon theses days about the tough choices they are making over there, I tend to think that’s their definition of  a “tough choice.” Maserati or PorcheGranted they do make a few hard choices, but none of them are the budget choices they are making for the FY15 budget that’s on the Hill right now.  They have so much money to deal with that the normal ways in which you or I would deal with problems is not possible.  There are several reasons why I believe the tough  choices are not possible.  In fact, in the Pentagon the toughest choices are actually the easiest.  Take for example the luxury of scale.  Because of the vast quantity of money the Pentagon has, scale makes things easy.  Let’s just say for the sake of argument that the total Pentagon budget for 2015 will be around $550 Billion.  I’m  working on the budget and I need to come up with $5oo million to pay for my “widget ” program because it’s two years behind schedule and Congressional support is waning.  I dare not go to the Hill and ask for more money.  What tough choices can I make?  How about I assume the inflation rate for next year will be 0.1% less than it currently is….Guess what?  Instant $550 Million in my pocket.   Problem solved!

Another factor which prevents the tough decisions is the herd mentality.  It’s much safer to stay with the herd than to break away.  Suppose one senior leader in DoD, uniformed or civilian had said, “I value people over weapons.  The margin of superiority that we enjoy over our adversaries is so great that I don’t mind shaving a few dollars off my massive budget to ensure I fulfill the promises we made to our Number One weapons system, our people.” What do you think would happen?  That person would be dragged to the River Entrance and publicly flogged and made to walk the plank into the Pentagon Lagoon.  So it’s much easier and safer to stay with the herd.  The tough decision is to break away from the herd and stand on principle.

Yet another problem in the way of making tough decisions is the limited line of sight of senior people.  They only know what their staffs want them to know.  And if you have ever been a staffer, you know that staffs tend to seek out the solution of least resistance in order to move on to the next problem.  Solving the problem is more important than how the problem was solved.   If everyone tells SECDEF that the only way to balance the Pentagon budget is to make the tough choice to continue to fund (and actually add more money to) the worst performing acquisition program in history, the F-35, and to pull money from Commissaries, up TRICARE fees and fiddle around with the retirement system, he believes them.  Somehow that seems like a no-brainer to me.  A few billion dollars is not going to make a difference in the JSF.  It’s already over $160 Billion over budget and 7 years behind schedule.  Does anyone think the money saved by cutting Commissary subsidies by $1 Billion is really going to make a difference? Well, not to the JSF, but it will certainly make a difference to a young E-2 Marine who is already on food stamps and struggling to make ends meet!

There’s also the Irreversibility Principle.  I saw this time and time again when I was in the building.  In fact, I admit guilt in actually using the Irreversibility Principle to my advantage.  It goes something like this:  The DoD budget is so complex and large that once it’s put together, it’s impossible to start over.  If you don’t get your oar in the water at the very beginning, then you will be unable to make a change.  If you want to have any hope of making a tough decision with major impacts, it must be made very early.  What do you think the DoD budget would look like if in the very beginning SECDEF had said, “Whatever we do to balance the budget, it must not be on the backs of our people.” I guarantee you there’s plenty of wiggle room to develop the budget without monkeying with people programs.  Just take a look at my previous article, Food Stamps and Decisions, and you will see what other things might be done besides chopping people programs.  The tough decision is to declare the Irreversibility Principle null and void and demand a change.  Heck, there’s so much churn in the development of the budget these days a little more chaos isn’t going to make much of a difference.

Finally, there’s the Fixation problem. Ralph Waldo Emerson said ” A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”  For example, over the past few years there has been attempt after attempt to raise TRICARE fees again and again and again…(sorry , I got carried away!).  Each time it’s shot down by the Congress and public opinion.  But it’s their baby now, and to back down would admit defeat.  There’s a “pay any price, bear any burden” mentality now associated with the TRICARE issue to the detriment of looking for alternate solutions.  This is what happened with Asiana Airlines Flight 214.  The pilots got so focused on the landing threshold and altitude they forgot to monitor airspeed and engine power.  The same thing happens in the budget process.  People get so focused on a single solution that they forget to look for others.

So it’s hard to make tough choices in the Pentagon.  If there’s any hope of actually getting to the tough choices that NEED to be made, the following “Tough” decision barriers must be addressed:

  1. Luxury of Scale
  2. Herd Mentality
  3. Limited Line of Sight
  4. Irreversibility Principle
  5. Fixation

How will we know when “tough” decisions are being made?  I think there are a few signs:

  • Service budget allocations will no longer be roughly equal
  • Under and Poorly performing programs will be cancelled
  • Majority-based decisions are made instead of consensus decisions (In other words, someone is going to be unhappy, or at least more unhappy that the rest)
  • Decisions being made early in the process
  • The number of Decision Making bodies in DoD will decrease (let’s see, they have the Joint Chiefs, the JROC, the DAWG, the Small Group, the Large Group, the SCAMR, the DBC, ……….sigh!)

If the Five Barriers to tough decision making are removed, we just might see some of those signs in our lifetime.

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Meatball, Lineup & Angle of Attack

The House Intelligence Committee is looking into the apparently surprising Russian response to the crisis in the Ukraine.  I’m only a junior assistant policy wonk (one tour on Joint Staff as a policy guy) but as I heard this news on the radio this morning, a few random thoughts popped into my head which I thought I would share.

The first thought that came to mind is the similarly between intelligence analysts and meteorologists.  In the end their forecasts are just a guess…albeit an educated one.  It seems as though regardless of the accuracy of their reports, they seem to get a pass because, after all, “It’s just a guess.”  I grew up on a farm and I remember my father hanging on every word the weather guy on TV had to say because he had to make  some big decisions based on their forecast. If the weatherman said it was going to happen, my father believed him.  If it turned out he was wrong, my dad shrugged his shoulders and said “You can’t control the weather.” As a Battle Group Commander at sea, the first thing I wanted to hear in my morning briefing was the weather forecast so I could keep my ships and crews out of harm’s way and still accomplish the mission we were assigned.  I think the same thing is true in the intelligence world.  We can only make educated guesses into what may or may not happen, because in the end, we just don’t know. Given that we spend lots more money on intelligence (probably over $80 Billion a year) than on meteorology (NOAA’s FY 14 budget request was around $4 Billion), I would expect a higher degree of accuracy and more “education” (and coherence)  in the intelligence community’s guesses.  I expected my weather guesser to begin his briefing each morning with what he predicted yesterday and to give himself a grade on how he did.  Guess what?  The quality of his forecasts improved.  I would expect the Intelligence Oversight  Committees to do the same thing.  Otherwise the intelligence community is an “out of control” system with no accountability.  To be fair, Intel community leaders say they provided lots of information on the situation to the leadership, albeit conflicting in some cases.  I don’t know what I would have done if I had two meteorologists giving me conflicting information.  It’s gonna rain!….No, it’s gonna be sunny!    NO, it might be a hurricane!   Isn’t that part of the problem though?….Too many people with too much information, presenting confusing and often conflicting analysis?    My one take-away is that given the amount of money we spend on intel, it seems that we have more surprises than we should:  9/11,  Arab Spring, Russian intervention in Ukraine, etc.

So the big question on the Hill relates to the previous paragraph: How is it that given our vast intelligence resources, we are still surprised?  Despite the unpredictability of world events, I think it comes down to what we would refer to in the aviation community as a “breakdown in the scan pattern.”  The week I reported to my initial training in the A-6 Intruder at Oceana Naval Air Station in 1975 an A-6 crashed right next to the airfield in an area now known as Lynnhaven Mall.  It seems that they ran out of gas while trying to get their landing gear UP!   The gear worked fine in the “down-and-locked” position and they could have landed anytime. But they ran out of gas, orbiting 2000 feet overhead the field and all the while taking to the Skipper, OPs Officer and the Safety Officer.  How did that happen?  The crew, both airborne and in the Ready Room, were so focused on the gear problem, they forgot to check the gas….despite warning lights and alarms… and they flamed out.  I would suggest that the Intelligence Community also had just  a bit of a “breakdown in scan.”  We have become so focused on al Qaeda and the strategic “Swing to the Asia-Pacific” that we lost focus on other potential hot spots. Intelligence is all about expecting the unexpected…….the expected information comes from open sources.  I would hope that we use this latest surprise as an opportunity to re-examine our intelligence scan to make sure we don’t focus excessively on any one area.  Ask any carrier-based Naval Aviator and they will say a successful carrier landing is all about scan: “Meatball, line-up and angle of attack!” (and a little luck doesn’t hurt).

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I saw a nice article in Politico’s Morning Defense this morning about the upcoming DoD Quadrennial Defense Review, commonly referred to as the QDR.  I fondly remember my days in the Pentagon wrestling with the QDR gurus, the best and brightest thinkers of all the Services, getting together to figure out how their Service was going to get more money.  The knives were out as the behind-the-scenes point papers on the vulnerability of aircraft carriers, the shear madness of fleets of supersonic, stealth airplanes, and the end of the need for “Boots on the Ground”  proliferated like rabbits in a viagra factory.  I suppose it was a useful exercise because it is good to sit back and evaluate future threats and the capabilities needed to counter them.  The QDR overseen by Secretary Gates was a bit different in that the QDR was essentially written before the whole process began.  The result was a QDR which didn’t make too much of a wake, maintained the status quo for the most part, and kept most everybody happy.  For those interested in the upcoming QDR issues I recommend  an outstanding report by CSIS on the results of a recent conference on the subject.

I predict this next QDR is likely to be more of the same.  The biggest reason is that while the QDR is not supposed to be constrained by budgets and the taxpayers ability to continue to fund DoD at ever increasing levels, it is impossible to de-link strategy and money.  The cute buzz word which gets around this issue is “informed.”  We say that while the QDR is not budget constrained, it is “informed” by it.  Informed is one of those words or phrases I call Pentagonisms.  They emerge from time to time in an attempt to “be truthful without telling the truth.”  Those of you who have spent anytime in the Pentagon can probably come up with several Pentagonisms.  Some that come to mind are robust, littoral,operationalize, detainees, etc.  There is a nice article by Kate Bateman in USNI Proceedings on this subject that I commend to your reading.

Back to QDR.  The big debate is rather or not to be constrained by budgets.  I’m not quite sure what difference there is between a QDR that “fiscally informed” and one that’s constrained by budgets.  It’s all the same in my book.  DoD should admit that and get on with it.  But in developing a strategy that is either “constrained” or “informed” by  budgetary realities, DoD must be careful to not develop a strategy against an unconstrained future.  By that I mean that there has to be a dose of reality in the vision of the future security environment.  There is a tendency to make the enemy ten feet tall, to give more credit than is due and generally overestimate the threat.  Given the uncertainty of the future, that’s understandable and perhaps even necessary in some cases.  But the Congress and American public should realize that in many cases our strategy is based on the worst case scenario.  That’s good business in some areas, cyber security of instance, but not in all areas.  In order to make the budgetary compromises necessary to adequately defend America there must be some wiggle room.  If everything is important and absolutely critical to national defense how can one make compromises?  So I hope the QDR avoids the  end-fighting and back biting  of past QDRs and focuses on a realistic threat environment with capabilities best suited to meet the threats.  Given the past history however, I can’t help but thinking…… Q•D• arrrgh. I’ll be glad when it’s over!

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