Just about every year, it seems, Foreign Affairs publishes at least one essay by a current or former senior leader of the U.S. Department of Defense with a narrative that goes something like this: “The Pentagon was a broken, inflexible bureaucracy when I came into office. There was a problem with [insert specific problem here]. I created/encouraged/supported a nifty solution, and it worked great. If only the solution stays/had stayed in place after I leave/left, the Pentagon would work once again.”
Ashton Carter’s latest missive (“Running the Pentagon Right,” January/February 2014) is but one more addition to this narrative series. What Carter apparently does not realize, along with his predecessors, is that in becoming a leader in the Pentagon, he became a member of its bureaucracy and can no longer stand apart from it.
Carter’s mistaken self-conception as a guerrilla in the inflexible Pentagon bureaucracy seemingly enabled him to encourage structural reforms to loosen up that bureaucracy, including the so-called Joint Urgent Operational Needs process. Such reforms were meant to bypass a sclerotic acquisition process to get needed equipment to troops quickly. Indeed, Carter presents evidence that they worked.
What Carter ignores is the larger legacy of such structural reforms, which invariably end up complicating existing Pentagon processes and systems, making them even more inflexible than they were before the introduction of the reforms. The truth is that supposedly straightforward solutions often create larger problems.
The real underlying problem for such a complex system as the Department of Defense is the mismatch between its fundamental methodology for accomplishing things and its twenty-first-century operating environment. The department’s decision cycle is too slow for its environment, and it is too slow to adapt when that environment changes. What amplifies the problem is that the environment is changing far quicker than in the reliably staid days of the Cold War.
Addressing this fundamental problem requires a persistent and determined leadership team that can focus on developing, implementing, and evaluating solutions. Having worked in the Pentagon for 14 years, I can state with some certainty that such an effort is very difficult to sustain. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his so-called whiz kids attempted to do so in the 1960s, and they created systems that his leadership descendants structurally altered. In his second term as defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld attempted to address this fundamental problem but ended up being distracted by the “global war on terror.”
JONATHAN E. CZARNECKI
Professor, Naval War College, Monterey