Can the Pentagon Be Fixed? Cato Institute Forum

Related Content: Wasteful Defense Spending
Printer Friendly
March 13, 2009


Featuring Winslow Wheeler, Director, Straus Military Reform Project, Center for Defense Information; Colonel Douglas Macgregor, U.S. Army (Retired), Straus Military Reform Project adviser; Danielle Brian, Executive Director, Project On Government Oversight; Thomas Ricks, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security, and Special Military Correspondent for the Washington Post; and Benjamin Friedman, Research Fellow in Defense and Homeland Security, Cato Institute     Follow the link to watch and listen to the presentations.

Danielle Brian's Remarks:

I think I was invited to speak today to have one optimist in the room.  My assigned topic is to discuss whether we can recreate the halcyon days of the military reform movement. 

I was literally raised at the knee of the military reform greats. What were the important elements back then?

First, there was a small bi-partisan cadre of engaged Members of Congress with extremely talented staff.  Senator Grassley, Senator David Pryor, then- Rep. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Denny Smith.  This was during the Reagan Cold War buildup.  Yet during that time, they were successful in freezing the defense budget.  Almost unthinkable now.

These leaders were informed and supported by a league of insiders – the Pentagon Underground – who believed Pentagon spending was actually about national defense. I am honored today to be on this panel with one of those talented former Hill staffers, and one of the giants of the Pentagon underground.

Finally, during that time, the contacting system was at least transparent enough that government auditors could find the $7600 coffee pot and the $436 hammer.  That is no longer possible.

Can we recreate those days? The cards are stacked against us.

Now, Members of Congress are comfortable pretending that their parochial interests are fueled by their concerns for the troops.  Recently, 44 Senators and nearly half the House wrote to President Obama demanding that he buy more F-22s.  This is a $350 million XXXXX per copy plane that the current and former Secretaries of Defense have told us is IRRELEVANT for our national defense.  And really, how often does a SecDef say we don't need a weapons system? No matter how technically capable these aircraft may be, they are so expensive, we can only buy very few of them.

The Pentagon Underground barely has a pulse.  Those who have the backbone and inclination to challenge the status quo have been squeezed out, sending a signal throughout the building that you shut up, or you will not be up, you will be out.

Finally, the fact that we aren't hearing about overpriced spare parts – and remember that weapons systems are simply overpriced spare parts flying in close formation – is not because they aren't happening anymore. We aren't hearing about them because in the 90's, the contracting system was radically changed to remove the "red tape" of oversight and transparency so that we can no longer see cost and pricing data. This mentality led to both the C-17 and the C-130J cargo planes being bought through "commercial contracts" as though there had been free market forces determining their prices. But how many of you have found these military cargo planes at Walmart? This was costing us, as taxpayers, hundreds of millions more than it should have, until it was exposed and stopped.  Another example of the new world of contracting is the theory that we can just turn over government functions, like overseeing weapons programs, to contractors – like in the catastrophic Coast Guard Deepwater program.

For nearly two decades, no one picked up the banner.

Now, there is a hint of hope.

Senators Claire McCaskill and Tom Coburn seem to be willing and able to challenge the way Washington has been doing business. They are both comfortable telling it like it is, and they have great staff.  We are still waiting to see some of this leadership from the House.  President Obama has given a speech specifically targeting the failures of pentagon procurement – although it remains to be seen whether his current and future appointees will be up to the task.

So what needs to happen?

There needs to be fundamental and significant reform on two fronts: Both What We Buy and How We Buy.  These issues are related, but distinct.

What We Buy

The recently introduced Levin/McCain legislation is actually focused on what we buy.  It's biggest weakness is that it relies on the Congress to be the serious overseer that it is not to make the tough choices.  It also does not prevent the Pentagon from buying and building weapons with immature and unproven technologies.  This is really where all our money and time is lost.   I agree with CATO's writings that we should stop shooting for totally transformational weapons, as though the sky is the limit, and financial and technological boundaries do not exist. We need to be constantly aware that for every gee whiz concept, we should make sure it works before we are committed to it, and we need to remember that there is an inverse relationship between cost and numbers deployed.

How to Buy

We don't need new rules. We just need to get rid of all the games that have been created over the past 20 years to get around them.  We need to avoid risky contract vehicles like Time and Material and Labor Hour contracts and Other Transaction Authority contracts.  We need to recognize that a contractor's bottom line is, and should be, their bottom line.  As a result, we need government officials overseeing weapons programs whose bottom line is the best interests of the troops and the taxpayers, rather than who their next job is coming from.

There is hope on the horizon, although the landscape is much harder than it was in the 80s.

In the end, the two fundamental changes that must occur are:

  1. We must not allow the ramping up of production of a weapons system (which includes the political juggernaut of jobs in every Congressional district) until after the weapon technology is proven through Independent Operational Test and Evaluation.
  2. We must get back to an arms-length relationship between the government and the defense industry, rather than the current relationship where all the arms and legs are wrapped around eachother.

Related Work