Secretary Hillary Clinton recently authored an insightful article on the reckoning that is coming within the National Security establishment for the United States. With her decades of expertise in both domestic and foreign policy, her vision on the path ahead could shape our Nation for the next decade. Citing the “over-militarization of U.S. foreign policy,” Clinton calls for a reorientation of U.S. national security priorities including racial justice, economic inequality, disparities in health care, pandemics, climate change, and lastly China and Russia. These worthy pursuits can be achieved alongside a modernized military; not at its expense. The solutions however must be the product of a bipartisan consensus that has to emerge quickly after this upcoming election. A “night court” like process across that has been used by the Army and Marine Corps, should be used across the entire defense department.
Clinton proposes cutting “obsolete” aircraft carriers, the Joint Strike Fighter, active-duty Army soldiers, armored units and tank production, and ground-based nuclear missiles. She would reshuffle defense investments under a smaller topline to spend more on submarines, long-range bombers, cyber, biotechnology, cutting carbon emissions, countering online propaganda, and rebuilding American supply chains. These difficult decisions are worthy of consideration. However, she also recommends “cutting hundreds of billions in military spending over the next decade” to fund federal research and development investments in climate change and clean energy; pharmaceuticals; 5G; and artificial intelligence. While these investments are worthy, they should not be at the expense of defense because this reduction would decimate current readiness.
Framing traditional defense spending as a decision between legacy weapon systems that are needed today versus modernization for the future has not turned out well for America in the past. In essence, it has, and will again, dare our current competitors to strike us while we are mid-stride.
America has consistently been caught mid-stride by our competitors at the start of every war because the previous periods of budget stringency caused poor decisions in the tradeoff between the current force and future force. From Kasserine Pass to Task Force Smith, from Desert One to the 2003 March to Baghdad, while America eventually prevailed, our young women and men in these initial battels bore the price of unpreparedness. We cannot expect Russia or China to sit around for eight years while we accept risk in our current readiness in order to enable us to be stronger the next decade.
Still, investing in better defense outcomes that Clinton so clearly articulates can be achieved under a flat defense budget, but not a smaller one. It is possible, within current resources, to have both a ready force today and to transform for tomorrow. The path forward has been illustrated in recent years by first the Army and then the Marine Corps, and now the Navy, through a process dubbed “Night Court.” While the bureaucratic review process has been applied to the services, what is really needed now is a Night Court-like process across the entire Department of Defense.
For those unfamiliar with the Night Court process, it is a series of resource decisions that set out with the goal of balancing near term readiness and future readiness with ruthless cost cutting, requirements adjustments, and congressional buy-in. Within the larger DoD enterprise, this has never been done on the scale that is needed to generate the savings needed, within current budgets, to both ensure our security in this decade and the next.
One clear area emerged where savings can be found in the “back office” of all of DoD, including the services. While many have tried, few have achieved the scale and scope of transformation needed across the fields of logistics, medicine, finance, transportation, personnel, information technology, and other support functions. What makes this task achievable in the near term, where others have failed, is that the U.S. civilian economy has already undergone this back-office transformation; DoD just has to follow. Some examples are in merging the Transportation Command and the Defense Logistics Agency similar to what Amazon is doing; creating a single unified joint personnel and finance command; outsourcing the U.S.-based information technology network and infrastructure to the commercial sector; and creating a single unified acquisition support system. These examples, along with a ruthless thinning of current weapon systems through internal night court sessions in the Navy, Air Force, Space Force, Special Operation Forces, and Intelligence Communities, similar to what was done in the Army and Marine Corps, will enable DoD to maintain a high state of current readiness and modernize for the next decade, within current resources.
Clinton suggests Congress agree to take an “up-or-down vote on a comprehensive package of defense reforms—a process that has been used in the past for closing military bases—rather than haggling over each adjustment.” Given the scale and scope of this effort, Secretary Clinton’s recommendation of a BRAC-like committee should be leveraged but changed to resemble the Army’s Night Court process.
This effort has to be quick so as to not waste the momentum of the first year after this national election. The next Congress could “enlist” Secretary Clinton to lead this effort, which would immediately give the effort the stature and expertise it deserves. The outcome of this effort would be a bipartisan path to produce a ready military for this decade, a modernized military for the next decade, and a predictable, stable funding level to achieve that outcome. We cannot expect Russia or China to “wait eight years because we need to modernize.” They may not wait and if they decide to act, then our young women and men on the front lines will pay the price. “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you wish you had” is not a statement that a Secretary of Defense should ever have to repeat again. Certainly, as a great Nation, we can afford both the defense we need and the federal R&D investments that Secretary Clinton proposes. Of the three choices, a ready force this decade, a ready force next decade, and reduced defense spending, we can only achieve two. A decision of this scope requires clear bi-partisan agreement.
Major General John Ferrari (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and concurrently the chief administrative officer at QOMPLX, a data analytics and cybersecurity firm. Until last year at the Pentagon, General Ferrari served as the Army’s director of program analysis and evaluation.