This week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is expected to announce a strategy for cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from the defense budget. Civilian and military leaders have reacted with apocalyptic warnings, decrying the disastrous impact such cuts will have. They claim that without proper resources the United States will not be able to protect its interests around the globe.
But the Pentagon does not have a resource problem. As even the Pentagon's strongest supporters agree, it has a management problem. Norbert Ryan, the president of the Military Officers Association, summed it up well in a recent Washington Times op-ed: "Almost weekly we see reports of gross mismanagement and cost overruns in expensive programs, few of which have any relevance to the wars our troops are fighting today," he wrote. "The level of mismanagement is so severe that the Pentagon's books have been deemed 'unauditable,' and Pentagon leaders have said they won't be able to pass the test before 2017."
Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), a career naval officer and war hero, went further. In a December 15, 2011 speech on the Senate floor, he unleashed a blistering attack on virtually every weapon system under development. He called the F-35 program a mess, lamented significant problems with the Marines' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, criticized the Army's Future Combat Systems as worse than a "spectacular, shameful failure," and said that the F-22 may well be the most "expensive corroding hangar queen" ever.
The Pentagon was not always so poorly run. It has had fewer management problems whenever the administration has brought in a strong deputy secretary as the chief operations officer (the secretary usually being too busy to manage the department). For example, President Dwight Eisenhower had Charles Wilson from General Motors, Richard Nixon had David Packard from Hewlett-Packard, Jimmy Carter had Charles Duncan from Coca-Cola, and George H.W. Bush had Donald Atwood, also from General Motors.
Under each of these administrations, defense spending dramatically declined. Even so, security improved, thanks to the deputies'