The Skeptics

A Leaner Pentagon? Part Two

I wrote here yesterday that the best way for the Secretary of Defense to heighten administrative efficiency in the Pentagon is to force the military services to compete for shrinking budgets. That was part one of three posts giving the Pentagon suggestions on how to get leaner. Part two, below, includes two more suggestions.

Close or consolidate geographic combatant commands

The geographic combatant commands—Pacific, Northern, Southern, Central, European, and Africa commands are unnecessary. They rely heavily on contractors, a cost that is relatively easy to quickly reduce (see slide 30 of this Defense Business Board report on each commands' cost and reliance on contractors). In peacetime, they perform redundant or unnecessary functions. Even during wars, we tend to stand up local joint commands (as in Iraq and Afghanistan), making the role of the geographic command unclear. The commands also generate waste because they further the divide between requirement drivers and requirement buyers. They request capability that someone else buys.

The commands have ill effects beyond wasted money. They hype threats in their region, skewing priorities. They have become alternatives to embassies, taking power from the State Department and confusing communications channels. With the exception of CENTCOM, which should be preserved for the duration of the wars, the commands should be closed. Some of their functions could be performed by far smaller Pentagon offices.

A less bold alternative is to consolidate the commands. Southern and Northern command could be combined because they serve contiguous lands in the peaceful western hemisphere and perform missions that largely concern domestic security and border issues. The other four could be reduced into two.

Pressure industry to close production lines

Excess production capacity causes waste in two ways. The first is redundant overhead. For example, because industry has more ship-building capacity than the nation needs for the Navy and Coast Guard, our acquisition bills are burdened by the need to pay for the administration of shipyards that could be consolidated and run at a lower cost. Industry has incentive to maintain duplicative production facilities because they create political support for programs. That is the second form of waste. Production lines are like hungry mouths that the taxpayer must feed with work. Congressmen and Senators fight for programs that feed the lines, pressuring the military to buy more platforms than it needs, as with the C-17, or to buy something new and unnecessary to keep the line open.

The Pentagon should have the ability to consider this second problem when it makes acquisition decisions. It should be able to penalize bids that would create new lines, as with the proposed EADS refueling tanker. We can limit excess defense costs by limiting the number of actors that benefit from them.

By the way, as anyone that clicked through the links in these two posts will quickly realize, these ideas are mostly borrowed from Harvey Sapolsky.