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Event Recap

October 18, 2021

Generals Jones and Major General Punaro discuss bureaucratic inefficiencies in the Department of Defense

By Jacob Mezey

On Monday, October 18, the Scowcroft Center ’s Forward Defense (FD) practice hosted General James L. Jones, USMC (Ret.) and Major General Arnold Punaro, USMC (Ret.) for an event titled “Maximizing Military Power through Minimizing Bureaucratic Barriers.” General Jones and Major General Punaro joined the Washington Post’s Missy Ryan to discuss the problems posed by the increasing cost of maintaining and developing the US armed forces. This challenge is the topic of Major General Punaro’s insightful new book The Ever-Shrinking Fighting Force, which catalyzed the conversation. In line with FD’s mission to produce forward-looking analyses of the trends, technologies, and concepts that will define the future of warfare, this event explored how the Pentagon can tackle its looming budgetary woes.

President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council Fred Kempe welcomed the audience and began by solemnly noting the passing of General Colin Powell. Mr. Kempe took a moment to remember him as one of America’s great soldiers and statesmen, remarking that he was lucky to count General Powell not only as an honorary director of the Atlantic Council, but also as a personal friend. Mr. Kempe then introduced Ms. Ryan, General Jones and Major General Punaro, who each noted how the topic of the day was one that General Powell worked on himself.

The conversation opened with a discussion of why Americans should be concerned with the Department of Defense’s declining return on investment. Major General Punaro remarked on how, now more than ever, it is important that the United States maintain a strong deterrent, characterizing the current strategic environment as “more dangerous and unstable than it has been since the Cold War” with respect to China’s global ambition. He went on to point out that the Department of Defense is “spending more money in constant dollars than at the peak of the Reagan build-up and yet the force is 50 percent smaller.”

The speakers discussed possible solutions to the worrying trends in the defense budget, as well as the barriers to reform. General Jones noted that questions are being asked by international observers of whether or not the United States is in a period of decline. “It is not a given that the United States is destined to be the world leader forever, that status comes about as a result of hard work, sacrifice, and a realization that we live in a very competitive world,” he said. According to General Jones, policy makers must make a serious case to both the public and Congress for “a strategic vision for where we want to be in the future.” Ms. Ryan pointed to the fact that Major General Punaro mentioned in his book that the Department of Defense spent over 70 percent of its base budget on personnel in fiscal year 2016. She asked the speakers if there were ways to remove inefficiencies and redundancies in this part of the budget. General Jones responded by noting that there have been attempts at reforming both personnel and acquisition practices, however, there has not been a Secretary of Defense in recent administrations who was able to make internal reform a top priority during their tenure. Major General Punaro added to General Jones’ points, saying that “the healthcare budget has gone from 17 billion a year to 52 billion dollars a year, it has 10 million beneficiaries of which 5.6 million are retirees and their dependents.” However, Major General Punaro added that the problems extend far beyond personnel, and that acquisitions should be the main area of reform. He noted the time it takes to build fighter aircraft has increased to decades long timelines from the point of contracts being awarded to aircraft being introduced to service. Major General Punaro remarked that despite the best intentions, “bad processes beat good people every day.”

On the subject of reform, General Jones brought up the possibility of a new Goldwater-Nichols style legislation for both the Department of Defense and and hereagencies, arguing that strategic competition with China will require leveraging all the instruments of national power. He also emphasized the importance of increased cybersecurity. One reason for China’s rapid military modernization is its industrial espionage and ability to steal classified plans from defense contractors. General Jones argued that “it is incumbent on us to organize ourselves in the public and private sector to prevent things like this from happening…until we do so we will be chasing in this competition.” Major General Punaro pointed to the important role Congress plays in the ability of the Department of Defense to implement reform. At times Congress has even blocked the services from retiring platforms that they view as obsolete. However, Major General Punaro noted that, “the defense committees are still a bipartisan oasis…Those committees work, and they work together…and they pass their legislation.” Major General Punaro explained that while the Goldwater-Nichols act fixed the operational inefficiencies of the Department of Defense, the issues in the management side of the Department have yet to be addressed.

Major General Punaro concluded his remarks by emphasizing that he has full faith in the “people in the Pentagon that come to work every day,” who are committed to doing the best they can for US taxpayers and warfighters.

You can re-watch “Maximizing Military Power through Minimizing Bureaucratic Barriers: A Conversation with Gen James L. Jones, USMC (Ret.) and MajGen Arnold Punaro, USMC (Ret.)” here or below. For more information about the Atlantic Council’s Forward Defense practice or to read our latest reports, op-eds, and analyses, please visit the website here. You can also sign up for updates from Forward Defense to hear the latest on the trends, technologies, and military challenges shaping tomorrow.

Jacob Mezey is a Young Global Professional for Forward Defense in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Forward Defense

Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, shapes the debate around the greatest military challenges facing the United States and its allies, and creates forward-looking assessments of the trends, technologies, and concepts that will define the future of warfare.

Image: U.S. Marines assigned to Georgian Liaison Team-9 and Georgian Army soldiers assigned to the 33rd Light Infantry Battalion make their way to the extraction point during Operation Northern Lion II in Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 3, 2013. Northern Lion II was a Georgian-led operation conducted to deter insurgents, establish a presence, and gather human intelligence in the area. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alejandro Pena/Released)