A day before House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) is set to roll out his second defense reform proposal, experts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday put forward their own recommendations, which included creating a new experimentation fund and the establishment of U.S. Cyber Command as an independent combatant command.
Guided foremost by the idea to “do no harm,” the CSIS experts eschewed some of the more sweeping suggestions made by former military and Defense Department personnel who presented testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee this past year, proposing changes that would consolidate regional combatant commands or insert the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff into the chain of command.
“One of the things we have to be careful about is making very long term solutions, long term structural changes to address problems that may be short term in nature. You don’t want to rework our whole command structure so that it works better for the kinds of threats we’re seeing in Syria and Iraq and ISIS, because that’s not likely to be the threat that we face 20 to 30 years from now,” said Todd Harrison, CSIS’s director of defense budget analysis. “We will basically be stuck 20 or 30 years from now with the changes that we make today.”
Harrison was joined on the panel by Andrew Hunter, director of the CSIS’s defense-industrial initiatives group, Mark Cancian, senior adviser of the organization’s international security program, and Kathleen Hicks, director of the international security program.
One of the most considerable recommendations put forward by the CSIS panel was to make U.S. Cyber Command and U.S. Space Command (SPACECOM) their own independent, unified combatant commands. Both are currently under U.S. Strategic Command, although SPACECOM used to be its own command.
“Space and cyber, these are not just supporting elements to the warfighter anymore. These are operational domains in and of themselves,” Harrison said. “I think it just makes sense to separate those out so you can have a command structure that focuses on each of these elements.”
That absolutely should not entail an expansion of those headquarters staffs, he added. “It should be mandated from the beginning that if you break out Space Command and Cyber Command from Strategic Command, that you must do it within existing personnel, resources and using existing facilities.”
CSIS also put forward two suggestions to help the Pentagon increase innovation, something Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has said will be necessary for the department to retain its technological edge. One current problem noted by acquisition officials is that, because of the budget planning process, there is a two-year delay between the time a service asks for funds and when it receives them. To that end, the department could install a “bishop’s fund” for experimentation that would be overseen by the deputy secretary of defense and open to all services, Hunter said.
“What the bishop’s fund allows you to do is to respond with the speed of the problems that are coming in,” he said. “The advantage of it really is to have a relatively small amount of money dedicated to problems that you can’t fully predict two years ahead of time.”
In a January HASC hearing, the Navy’s top weapons buyer Sean Stackley and Richard Lombardi, the acting assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, advocated for a similar mechanism.
“If there’s more flexibility…that will allow us to start activities with less specific details, that would be very helpful for us,” Lombardi said then.
Thornberry also indicated he was receptive to making such a change, saying that the department needs to be able to respond to changes in technology (Defense Daily, Jan. 7).
Additionally in the area of innovation, CSIS recommended that the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) look into changing its own rules about what qualifies was a “conflict of interest” that would require a Defense Department official to divest his or her financial assets. These informal rules, which are not statutory, were put in place to guard against putting in power a top Pentagon official who has a financial interest in ensuring certain defense companies receive contracts, Hunter said. However, the application of those rules has become more restrictive in recent years, which in turn has kept executives from top commercial companies from signing on to a stint with the department.
“I won’t get into names, but I’m familiar with certain cases where senior officials said they had to divest their stock in Coca Cola in order to become a Department of Defense employee because there’s lots of Coca Cola purchased by the Department of Defense,” he said. “The idea that some senior is going to push business official is going to push business to Coca Cola because they may own a few shares of the cola stock is, frankly, crazy.”
“We really are precluded right now,” he added. “There are some really top-flight managers from industry that you can imagine coming in under the next administration, but they’re not going to do it, probably, under the rules as they have been applied under the last few years.”
In the past, the government allowed potential top officials to put their assets into a blind trust and then buy insurance to protect against a loss. That might be a potential solution, Hunter said.
Other CSIS suggestions included another round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), which the services have backed but is politically unpalatable in Congress, or consolidating the number of war colleges. The department could also look into reforming its civilian personnel system to make it more agile and flexible, including potential changes to the pay, promotion and hiring and firing systems, Harrison said.
Instead of inserting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff into the chain of command, he could be tasked with devising transregional strategic plans, CSIS recommended. This “intermediate” step would insert the chairman into the planning process and help the department develop strategy for conflicts that cross the bounds of a combatant command’s area of operations, Hunter said.
Other potential areas of reform—such as the mergers of combatant commands, efficiencies in defense intelligence agencies and the numbers of headquarters personnel—should be the subject of a study or commission to ensure that any changes won’t create additional issues or challenges, Harrison said.
Thornberry will release his acquisition reform policy in a Tuesday speech the Brookings Institute. He plans to open the bill for comment before rolling it into the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
SASC Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) also plans to put forward his own reform proposal this year, but instead of focusing specifically on acquisition, he has shown interest in making more comprehensive changes to the department’s organization and management in line with the Goldwater-Nichols Act. Thirty years ago, Goldwater-Nichols introduced changes to the military chain of command and Pentagon structure meant to eliminate interservice rivalry and increase joint capability.
The Defense Department is also conducting its own Goldwater-Nichols style review, the results of which will be announced soon (Defense Daily, March 4).