In a recent post at AOL Defense, I examine Congress’s role in the problem of excessive overhead within the Department of Defense. Because of a series of legislative actions dating back to 1947, the bureaucracy within the Department of Defense has grown unwieldy and draws scare resources away from the warfighter. Given the current fiscal problems facing the nation and the American public’s waning support for defense spending, now is the time to reconsider some fundamental issues pertaining to the organization and management of the military forces of the United States.

From the start, a goal of the National Security Act of 1947 was to make the military more efficient and effective. The first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, wrote to President Truman after the Key West Conference in 1948 stressing the need to integrate policy and procedures throughout the military in order to produce an effective, economical, harmonious businesslike organization.

Subsequent amendments to the NSA ’47 continued to assign more responsibility to the SECDEF and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and each iteration provided justification to increase the staff size within their organizations. Of course, this was in addition to the staffs of the service secretaries, who were still responsible for managing their respective services.

The NSA ’47 failed to accomplish its original objectives and in 1982 the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff conceded the military was broken and beyond his ability to fix. This claim was the stimulus behind the Goldwater-Nichols Reorganization Act of 1986. The effectiveness of Goldwater-Nichols is debatable but the fact that it significantly increased overhead is not.

These two pieces of legislation were actually at odds with one another. A 1997 study prepared for DoD identified that before Goldwater-Nichols the OSD staff did many of the integrating functions among the services and unified commands. The contentious debates that preceded the final version of Goldwater- Nichols forced the authors to clearly define roles and missions of the Joint Staff and unified commands. This left the OSD with no clear direction as to its roles and responsibilities and as a result, OSD assumed new functions. This shift in authority should have resulted in a decrease in staff but instead its numbers grew.

In the mid-1990s, Congress and the SECDEF recognized that while the number of military personnel was reduced, Major Headquarters Activities (MHA) within the DoD were still disproportionally large. Congress legislated sweeping reductions (up to 33% in some organizations) of MHA staffs from FY97 to FY02. Unfortunately, managing two wars derailed this effort. The NDAA of FY08 repealed the limitation of MHA and staff sizes quickly swelled – often in response to Congressional legislation intended to make the DoD more efficient!

In 2010, the DoD acknowledged that its enormous overhead had grown to the equivalent of the GDP of a small nation – somewhere between Portugal and Israel for comparison. Consider the tradeoff of military capabilities occurring just to maintain these organizations. It is difficult to maintain public support for a strong military given that such a significant portion of their taxpayer dollars is being diverted to overhead expenses.

In response to the 2008 “too big to fail” controversies, the problem of ”too big to manage” was identified. Large organizations often become too big and too complex to manage. Four types of organizational complexity could affect a large organization: dysfunctional, designed, inherent and imposed. Unfortunately, the DoD suffers from all four types.

The concept of bureaucratic accretion, that is, adding organizations, oversight, regulations and processes onto existing ones over time, further explains how the massive defense enterprise has evolved into its current state. DoD has simply become too big to manage the military effectively or efficiently.

Since the Blue Ribbon Defense Panel released its findings in 1970, countless studies were conducted within the DoD, War Colleges and at influential think tanks on ways to make the DoD more efficient by improving the organizational relationships between civilian leadership and military services. However, the fundamental premises stated by Forrestal have rarely been challenged. Do the benefits of DoD-wide policies, processes and organizations outweigh the costs?

To illustrate how complex and costly a DoD-wide “good idea” is, one needs to look no further than DIMHRS, “After $1 billion and 12 years of effort, Defense officials have pulled the plug on a hapless plan to bring the four military branches under a single, modern payroll and personnel records system.” There are also numerous examples of joint acquisition programs and processes that clearly demonstrate why these overly complex initiatives are neither efficient nor effective.

These are complicated issues and I certainly do not have the solutions. However, it is time to start asking some tough questions and challenge how we currently manage the DoD. One approach that must be considered almost appears to be an oxymoron: bureaucratic simplicity – removing overly complex bureaucratic processes and non-essential organizations to reform the entire defense enterprise.

Fixing the problem of excessive overhead is critical in austere times but it is often considered too difficult to attempt. Marginal across the board staff reductions are not the solution. As we have witnessed, staffs will only grow back over time or tenuous work will be outsourced to costly contract support personnel.

Reconsidering how to best organize and manage the US Defense Department is even more important today than it was in 1947. In recent days, DoD and Congress have each formed internal working groups to address the future of national defense. Neither group should leave the problem of excessive overhead unaddressed. Reform through simplification is an essential part of the solution.

Robert Kozloski is a program analyst for the Department of the Navy. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Navy or Defense.




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  • RightCowLeftCoast

    With more and more of the federal budget going towards entitlement programs, and a smaller percentage of the total federal budget going to the nation’s defenses we need to be smarter with where these funds are spent, if large overhead takes away from basic operations the general and flag officers only have themselves to blame.

    Do we need as large of a standing active Army? Could those saved funds re-establish a credible strategic war reserve? Could the Navy find a way of decrease the cost of each new hull while maintaining capabilities? Is the per plane cost of new aircraft match the foreseen capabilities needed in future conflicts?

    We need to look at everything, and be honest with ourselves. This is often the hardest part of all, like getting a lifetime smoker to kick their habit.

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