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Here's Hagel's Short To-Do List on Reforming the Pentagon

By Leon E. Panetta (130131-D-BW835-305 Uploaded by January) [CC-BY-2.0 ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I applaud last week's speech given by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in his first major policy address, as I have lauded similar initiatives in the past.

Hagel has identified the Department of Defense as an inefficient, top-heavy, bureaucratized organization seemingly as devoted to social service programs as it is to warfighting.

But, as with all the lofty speeches given by these strategic leaders, there is very little - if anything - in the way of "how to" to reform the Pentagon. I'll give the new secretary, as I have in the past, the benefit of the doubt.

As an advocate of Outcomes-Based Training and Education (OBT&E), I know the leader of an organization is charged with accomplishing the goals, as well developing its people:

  • The first issue that should be identified is the problem, which the secretary has done.
  • Secondly, he needs to define the outcome he wants his people to achieve.

Hagel has identified the problems with Defense Department and listed some possible outcomes in his speech.

Now, comes the hard part.

It is the "how to" that is what is important. Yet few, if any, politicians go there.

I hope Hagel will go beyond rhetoric and soon provide the goals he wants the Pentagon to achieve. The surest path to success is to identify the long-term result sought, and then get out of the way and let your people figure out how to do it.

I have authored four books and more than 60 articles dealing military reform, and conducted several studies focused on personnel, education and leader development.

I know that the "devil - here, aka defense reformer - is in the details" when pondering it something concrete is really going to happen.

It is not Hagel's job to draft the details. He has large staffs and lots of people eager to create the road map to reform. Heck, even I'm willing to lend a hand. If I had 30 minutes with the new secretary, this is what I'd urge him to do based on my 20 years' experience in the field:

  • Do not pay think tanks money to do more studies on what has to be done. While consisting of many intelligent people with colorful resumes, I have not been impressed with the quality of work these organizations put out.

My experience with them is they tend to say what the powers to be want to hear-group think. You get a lot of flashy words in pretty paper, but not much more. Most of these find their place in the trash can. I will leave it at that. Anyway, my following bullets will explain why

  • Heed to what Air Force Colonel John Boyd famously said after the first Gulf War. He declared that any successful outfit, military or not, must put people first, then ideas, and lastly hardware. It is the people who make an organization work; everything else is subordinate.
  • Appoint real mavericks to, at a minimum. at least consult on a reform agenda. These are the people who shy away from think tanks with pre-determined conclusions. Like Boyd, they will not be controlled or influenced by anyone, but driven by their devotion to do and say what is right by their oath of office to the Constitution of the United States.

By and large, they are also all brilliant individuals whom no one has question their morals, ethics and intelligence, but only what they have recommended to better the military. (Mr. Secretary: I'd be glad to provide such a list.) But if he plucks national-security insiders to blaze his reform trail, he'll end up with largely with the latest in defense hot-house groupthink and platitudes filling pretty binders.

  • There are already plenty of studies done, internally and externally, that recommend to that the Defense Department's personnel system needs a total overhaul. As then

As now-retired general Pete Schoomaker, then the Army chief of staff, said in 2003, tear the personnel system down and rebuild it.

"The most important activity our institutional Army conducts is human capital management-the assessment, development, and employment of soldiers," Army Lieut. Colonel Scott Halter noted in a 2012 Military Review article. "However, as analyses by the Secretary of the Army's Generating Force reform Task Force [on which I also served] and numerous others have suggested, many of these systems are antiquated and flawed."

Halter's observation applies across the Defense Department, which is built upon outdated and flawed assumptions on a foundation of laws such as the Defense Officer Personnel Act of 1980 that are ill-suited for the 21st Century.

  • Time is not on your side, Mr. Secretary.

Do not let this drag out.

Bring in as many mavericks as you can and give them the resources they need. Give them a quick deadline to draft that roadmap for a 21st Century military that works, and that our nation can afford.

Then, sit back and wait. Once you receive their recommendations, out them on a timetable and accept the greatest challenge any defense chief gets: selling major changes in the U.S. military to Congress and the American people.

Yr. Obt. Svt.,

Donald Vandergriff

Donald Vandergriff served 24 years in the Army and Marine Corps. He writes and lectures on military leadership education and training.

Reprinted with persmission from Time's Battleland blog.