Nine Seismic Shifts To Improve The Department of Defense

Posted: December 8, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Note: this article originally appeared in Air University’s The Wright Stuff

Nine Seismic Shifts To Improve The Department of Defense

By Mark Stout

Platitudes are a dime a dozen (that’s a metaphor and not a platitude) and at the top of my personal platitude hit chart is ‘The only constant is change.’  However, like many platitudes, there is so much obvious truth in that trite saying that we tend to ignore the real issue: we have a fundamental need to adapt to changing circumstances and ignoring this fact comes at great peril.  There are graduated choices regarding change: we can make the change, shape the change, influence the change, react to the change, or clean up after the change has occurred.  If you had to pick one of those, which would you choose?

The Department of Defense and the military services need to make bold changes because…well, because bold changes are needed, that’s why.  The services have become

overextended with two lengthy overseas conflicts where equipment and people are wearing out.  Here at home, we’ve become sclerotic with investment accounts that have to be raided to pay for operating costs.  Of course there are also other enduring DoD missions that include our presence in Europe and the seemingly unending tension on and around the Korean peninsula.  Lastly, how about the whole panoply of emerging challenges like an Iran that’s approaching a nuclear weapons capability, cyberwar, arms control, nuclear modernization, a possible DADT roll-back, or even dealing with WikiLeaks?  Responding to these all these efforts is priority one, and as the saying goes, when everything’s priority one, nothing’s priority one.  

Grimly, our overextension and task saturation is now set within a context of an emerging international austerity movement.  This is likely to mean the allied support the DoD has relied on will probably exist in a more veneered way.  This support is likely to be shiny and bright on the outside (consider a NATO General Summit) but hollow at its core (consider actual defense spending by NATO members) more than before.

While missions are consistently added to the DoD’s job jar, few (or perhaps none) have gone away even as a U.S. military drawdown in both funding and personnel is virtually inevitable.  Is the DoD’s job to fight and win the nation’s wars, to serve as a police force, or to serve as a Peace Corps?  The answer seems to fall somewhere along a continuum between ‘it depends’ and ‘certainly.’

So with that in-the-bank to ponder, what are the nine necessary and seismic shifts that will fundamentally improve the Department of Defense?

1. Focus more on desired outcomes and less on explicit missions.  As it is, the DoD is a candidate for a Hoarders episode: it’s all about missions–they must all be kept and nothing can be discarded.  The old paradigm was for DoD to do it all; the new paradigm should be for DoD to do what’s necessary.  “Yeah, we can do that” has long been a military mindset.  The new one should be “Yeah, we can do that.  But what should we stop doing in order to do that?”

2. The existing military retirement system (zero vesting until the 20 year point and then 100% vested) has to change to allow incremental and as-you-go vesting.  The retirement system as-is provides massive financial incentives to stay 20 years and then depart shortly thereafter, often just when a person’s skills, abilities, experiences, and maturity are hitting a ‘sweet spot.’  The existing retirement system is as much an anachronism as the hunting-gathering lifestyle.   

3. For those who do make military service a career, thirty and forty-plus year careers should become the norm.  On whole, people in the military are not only living longer and with better pay and benefits than ever before, but DoD also has significant investments in their people’s skills, abilities and experiences (flying aircraft, language skills, multi-year leadership development programs, and the likes) which demand a better–and–longer return on investment.

4. Get serious about metrics and talent (or non-talent).  The intent is to allow DoD talent to be more easily and accurately assessed.  Google-like employee performance data is needed to help both high and low performing individuals succeed.  Over the long run, the existing talent system–promotions–disproportionately favors those who stand closest to the flagpole (that is, serving senior leaders or working in headquarters assignments).  Are those the people who add the most to national security or deserve to be promoted?  Maybe, but if so, how does DoD really know?

5. Get rid of the officer/enlisted distinction.  Like the hunter-gatherers, this is also a vestigial remnant from a bye-gone era.  Military members need to contribute special expertise to the issue of national security.  The nation’s defense needs will be better met by a force of more-capable specialists who can do generalists work when needed.  That need is now upside down due in large part to the huge generalist requirements in the staff and overhead structures across the Department of Defense.

6. Address volatile and dynamic manpower needs (especially for exquisite knowledge, for example, cyberspace and languages) with custom and rapid workforce changes, including direct accessions into higher pay grades and much more senior positions as needed.  The flexibility to move military members in and out of the service(s) in a rapid and responsive manner should become normalized. 

7. Engage Congress to allow unobligated/unspent appropriations to be rolled forward instead of the current ‘use or lose’ funding systems.  Allow DoD to issue bonds and other similar investment instruments like state and local municipalities do, only for new national security investment (which I’ll define as procurement, RDT&E, and military construction) programs.  This would allow DoD and the services to view national security through more a ‘risk/cost’ lens rather than the existent ‘on/off’ lens and provide better and more enduring accountability. 

8. Embrace robotics and automated processes.  Call it the rise of the machines, but unmanned (OK, remotely operated, if you insist) and largely autonomous systems are needed in ever increasing numbers to perform dirty, dangerous, and dull work.  There will still be a few exquisite systems, but unmanned should be the new DoD point-of-departure within cost and mission constraints.  Automated processes–think software versus armies (so to speak) of full-motion video analysts–are urgently needed to harvest the full effect of unmanned systems which are gathering massive volumes of data, much of which can’t be optimally exploited for a national security benefit.

9. Deal with waste.  The cost of redundancies and overhead within the Department of Defense is in a gruesomely contrast with the national security “value” added by such efforts.  Businesses minimize redundancies and overhead because they’re motivated by profit (among other things).  Defense should minimize redundancies and overhead and doing so will allow more national security work to be performed with the same total funding.

Change is wrought with challenge and the greatest tests will be to construct the off-lanes/egress paths–the grandfathering–of existing retirement, health care, career paths, weapons systems, and other items.  It won’t be easy–nothing worthwhile ever is–but will the change be managed from within, mandated from above, or cleaned up after the fact?

Mark Stout is a researcher and analyst at the Air Force Space and Cyber Strategy Center and contributes to its unofficial blog Songs of Space and Nuclear War.  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.

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