August 7, 2017

Thwarting the Pentagon’s March Toward Centralization



There is a march toward centralization in defense. We have centralized control over the armed services in the hands of the Secretary of Defense. The secretaries of the services have long since lost their place in the president’s cabinet, their control over weapons acquisition, and the direction of operating forces. The chiefs of the services sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but are not in the chain of command, and have no control over deployed units of their own services. Central defense agencies, reporting directly to Secretary of Defense, own a big chunk of the defense budget and manage important functions such as controlling nuclear weapons, gathering intelligence, and providing health care for the department.

This centralization is the product of the Second World War, where many senior officials saw the services as being too parochial—more concerned about protecting their own organizational interests than in working together in furthering the national interest/strategy. The National Security Act of 1947, which created the overarching Department of Defense, was an effort to bring about more interservice coordination. Subsequent amendments to the Act and presidential executive orders gave the secretary of defense increased authority over the Pentagon. The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 promoted jointness among the services and centralized control over operational forces.

Those of us who worry about military innovation fear centralization and jointness because it parallels monopolization and cartelization in industry and will lead, in our view, to doctrinal and technological stagnation. Centralization usually closes off new ideas by putting too much faith in the wisdom and approachability of the leader. Concentration of power allows for the quick implementation of innovative ideas, but only those that the boss understands and finds non-threatening. Cartelization involves a sharing of power, but also its protection. Innovation threatens existing power structures, bring forward new ways of doing things and requiring new leaders.

But we underestimate the disruptive, meddlesome quality of Congress. It can’t stop trying to direct policy through reorganization. Committees overseeing particular parts of the executive branch need to have agendas. They need to reform acquisition, improve benefits, push technology, and look responsive to the public’s fears if not help stoke them. Concerned about cyber-attacks, terrorism, war in space, and nuclear accidents? Congress is there to protect and serve. And when the executive branch resists—as it must because of conflicting priorities, overlooked complications, and limited budgets—energetic committee chairs will use the club of reorganization to force the solutions they wish to impose on the department.

The history is impressive. Congress created the Department of Defense in the National Security Act of 1947 to coordinate defense policy, but also created an independent Air Force to ensure that strategic airpower has a voice. In parallel to the Goldwater-Nichols Act, Congress created the Joint Special Operations Command—in essence adding separate service with its own assistant secretary of defense, budget, and control over operations. The terror attacks of 9/11 brought big budget increases for defense to coincide with a new war, but also the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and a new home for the U.S. Coast Guard. Nothing is tight and finished. The Air Force doesn’t own all of our air forces. The Special Operations Command doesn’t own all of its forces. And the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t control the FBI—the lead agency for domestic anti-terror coordination—or the CIA, which works overseas with the Department of Defense against terrorists.

Don’t lose hope. The Congress is a disruptive force. Recently it required that the Department of Defense create a sixth undersecretary of defense—splitting the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics (AT&L) in two, and creating undersecretaries for research and engineering (R&E), acquisition, and sustainment (A&S) in its place. It has also created a Cyber Command, which was split off from Strategic Command and headed by the admiral in charge of National Security Agency—providing the commander both support and operational authority. And if the House of Representatives has its way, we will soon have another armed service, Space Corps, hived off of the Air Force but leaving untouched space commands in the Navy and Army. Nor would it affect the National Reconnaissance Office, which has responsibility for lots of operational activities.

The Congressional reorganization urge keeps disrupting defense. It mixes operational commands with support commands, but inconsistently, while honoring no rules. The structure is in constant flux. Attempts to centralize are thwarted by decentralizing moves. Jurisdictions are overlapping and uncoordinated. The Secretary may think he is in charge, but there is always the opportunity for congressional appeal. The potential for innovation is there.