The Pentagon’s Pricey Culture of Mediocrity

A revolving door keeps military brass beholden to contractors.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates gives his remarks at the change-of-command ceremony from U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno to recently promoted Army Gen. Lloyd Austin in Baghdad at the al Faw Palace on Camp Victory, Iraq, Sept.1, 2010. DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison

When the tank crew under my command ran into trouble on the battlefield, I never doubted the ultimate success of the mission because the Marines I served with were among the finest people I knew.

But if we want to keep it that way, the Pentagon must stop mismanaging its talent and fix its personnel policies.

The problem is, far too many officers have become captives of the acquisition process. Instead of independently assessing weapons systems and other items on offer from the private sector, they get caught up in satisfying Pentagon contractors who peddle expensive new wares.

Consider the case of Air Force Captain Joshua Wilson. When he discovered problems with the F-22’s oxygen system, he shared his concerns with his superiors, Congress, and eventually 60 Minutes. For his troubles, the Air Force held up his promotion — even though he’d received highly positive evaluations throughout his career.

That’s a major disincentive for any career-minded officer.

The current system mandates that officers either continue to get promoted or leave the service. The military calls this “up or out.” And if an officer is forced out before he qualifies for retirement benefits, he loses everything members count on in their golden years — including a monthly pension, medical care, and commissary privileges.

Such a system creates fewer people like Captain Wilson at a time when we need more of them.

The root of the problem is the revolving door between the Pentagon and private military contractors.

"They’re creating a system that self-selects a large cadre of mediocre conformists."

-Dan Grazier

Remember the big white blimp that broke free from its mooring in Maryland last year and floated across rural Pennsylvania? That’s a good example of an underperforming and expensive military program the government should have canceled years ago.

In fact, the Army did try to cut the program, officially called JLENS, in 2010 — only to have then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General James Cartwright, rescue it. Shortly after his retirement from the Marine Corps in 2011, Cartwright joined the board of directors of Raytheon, the prime contractor for — you guessed it — the JLENS.

With billions of dollars at stake, who’s going to speak out against ineffective and wasteful Pentagon spending? Cuts to programs like the F-22 and JLENS not only threaten the boss’s next promotion, but also his or her ability to land a high-paying, lucrative job with a big military contractor after retirement from government service.

Meanwhile, it’s the taxpayers who get stuck paying for overpriced, underperforming weapons systems like the deeply troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive and unnecessary weapons program ever.

These policies undermine the military competence of the Pentagon’s own officer corps. They’re creating a system that self-selects a large cadre of mediocre conformists.

There have been piecemeal attempts at personnel reform in the past, but none have solved this problem. Replacing the “up or out” system was among the changes a committee led by Undersecretary of Defense Brad Carson proposed last year. But so far, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has remained silent on this issue.

Genuine reform wouldn’t just close the revolving door — it would cultivate officers who aren’t tempted by it. They’d be more independent-minded and more attuned to its deleterious effects on combat effectiveness. Such officers wouldn’t only grasp, say, just how useless the F-35 would be in combat due to its numerous and well-documented shortcomings. They’d also have the confidence to say so publicly.

The Pentagon chief and Congress need to act now to change this “up or out” system before we end up saddled with even more expensive and ineffective weapons systems — and there’s nobody left with the moral courage to call them out on it.