Eliminating all manner of inefficiencies in the U.S. Defense Department—not to mention forcing the defense industry to exercise more discipline in how it manages weapons programs—are not exactly new concepts. Defense secretaries, members of Congress and denizens of think tanks have been paying lip service to these imperatives forever, it seems.
The difference between then and now is that the current SecDef’s very public commitment to making real progress on both fronts is more than empty talk, as we explain in the Aug. 16 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology (subscription required). Robert Gates demonstrated as much with the program cuts he imposed last year and the underperforming programs he has vowed to terminate in the next budget cycle.
Indeed, what Gates is attempting to accomplish is nothing short of a cultural transformation. Whether it takes permanent hold in industry and the Defense Department bureaucracy remains to be seen. But the likelihood that he will remain in his current post beyond the previously rumored departure of December 2010, as some national security community insiders had been intimating, suggests that at least some of his efforts will have a lasting effect. (A piece in the September/October issue of Foreign Policy magazine quotes Gates as saying he will leave some time in 2011; his comment comes at the end of the piece).
Perhaps the most heartening aspect of Gates’ latest initiative—a one-third, three-year cut in services support contracting—is his concern that the contraction in defense funding could be seen by some observers as a kind of peace dividend. “I have seen this first-hand twice, following Vietnam and the Cold War, and I can smell it coming,” he told a small gathering of thought leaders at a private meeting recently at the Pentagon.
While Gates is targeting fat, underperformance and poor business practices, some shortsighted members of Congress and the Obama administration are simply targeting the Defense Department for deficit-reduction purposes. Never mind that little is being done to bring the explosive growth in domestic entitlements under control.
Particularly galling was the reaction by some lawmakers to Gates’s recently proposed cuts to overhead costs. Among the most vocal were the Virginia delegation and governor. Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) declared, “The American people will see this decision for what it is: a long string in national defense cuts that will systematically and intentionally gut the institutions that protect and defend the freedoms and liberties upon which our nation was founded—and they will not stand for it.”
My hope is that the American people will see such members of Congress – those unwilling or incapable of looking beyond their state or district’s own parochial interests and making decisions for the greater good -- for who they really are. And then I hope they ask what those lawmakers personally have done to root out inefficiencies to help bolster and sustain defense modernization.