The Pentagon's Greatest Challenge (And It's Not ISIS or China)

Rightsizing the staff: "Paying for all these paper-pushers while shedding military capabilities like troops, planes and ships aside—excessive bureaucracy slows the capacity of the services to respond." 

Before the arms race with the Soviet Union came the hiring race among U.S. military bureaucracies.

It started not long after the National Security Act of 1947 established what became the Department of Defense (DoD). The Secretariat added staff and functions to ride roughshod over the services. In turn, the services added staff to meet all the department’s demands, as well as defend its own prerogatives. The cycle of adding staffs has never stopped. Even as defense downsizes, the massive oversight at the top stubbornly holds on. Despite numerous recommendations and attempts to tame the Pentagon bureaucracy—it remains largely unscathed. It is past time for serious strategy that rightsizes and realigns all the people telling the armed forces what to do and how to do it.

Washington, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Build an office building three times bigger than the Empire State Building, and you’re bound to run out of room. Today, staffers working for the defense department, the Joint Staff, the staffs of the military services and the supporting agencies spill over from the Pentagon to fill offices throughout the DC metropolitan area and beyond. There are about 800,000 defense civilian employees—about half as many men and women as there are wearing on active duty (i.e. not counting National Guard and Reserve military personnel).

Every time the Pentagon promises to rightsize the staff, it looks mostly like an effort to reshape a balloon. For example, in 2010, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates announced with great fanfare plans to shutter the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia as a “budget saving” measure. But after that decision, the size of the Joint Staff in Washington, DC more than doubled. According to an investigation by Defense News, “[b]etween 2010 and 2012, OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense], the Joint Staff and COCOMs [Combatant Commands] added about 4,500 positions…[m]ore than 65 percent of the staff size growth was within the Joint Staff….”

After taking office, Gates’ successor, Chuck Hagel, announced his intention to cut the bureaucracy by at least 20 percent. That hasn’t happened yet.

The Pentagon’s failure to rightsize is especially frustrating. Paying for all these paper-pushers while shedding military capabilities like troops, planes and ships aside—excessive bureaucracy slows the capacity of the services to respond.

Clarion calls to take on this challenge are common. For instance, former Navy secretary John Lehman in the Wall Street Journal called for stopping “our unilateral disarmament by making deep cuts in bureaucratic overhead throughout the Pentagon, uniformed and civilian.”

But the Pentagon needs more than rallying rhetoric. It needs a plan that just might work. Here is one such plan that is based on some pretty solid lessons learned from an effort tried by the British Ministry of Defence in 2010.

Step #1:

Lay out the Defense Department’s top priorities—the strategic capabilities and efficiencies that are most important. Far more efficient management of the department’s vast infrastructure, for example, ought to be on the list. Tap an independent review board to make recommendations on rightsizing staffs and functions. Give them a short deadline to deliver their recommendations. Tell them to work with existing budgets and statutory guidelines. Plus, don’t firewall them from the secretary, the services and the Congress. On the contrary, tell them to make engagement and transparency a priority.

Step #2:

At the same time, set up a transition strike force within the DoD and service staffs. The task: be prepared to help mobilize the department to make personnel adjustments as efficiently as possible. This would send a powerful message to Congress and the military workforce that taking care of people is and will remain a priority throughout the process. Assign someone in the department responsibility for making the strike force a real force for human capital management—not just more bureaucracy.

Step #3.