Step one: eliminate whole echelons of headquarters.


On Thanksgiving Day here in the US, I would like to thank for their service troops all around the world, but particularly this week outgoing Defense Secretary Hagel for his. Like his two predecessors, he has had a tough time working with this White House. Each of those secretaries has also struggled with the vast bureaucracy of their own department; Robert Gates entitled that chapter of his memoirs “Waging War on the Pentagon”. So as speculation swirls about who might become secretary number four, I’ll offer this advice: plan to prosecute that war with extreme prejudice.


Back in May 2010, in a speech at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, then-Secretary Gates announced his effort to remove $15 billion in overhead costs from the Defense Department’s budget. In the four years and two secretaries since then, little has seemed to happen. As Deputy Secretary Work told Defense Industry Daily earlier this month (13 November), most past initiatives have relied on Pentagon offices and defense agencies  recommending their own cuts—an approach likely to bring forth dissembling explanations of how everything is vital. In contrast, Work now intends to use the Defense Business Board as his “operational arm” to recommend new cuts and consolidation measures throughout 2015. The DBB is staffed by some unsentimental souls, so the answers now may be different.
Many of the recommendations for cost reduction efforts have focused on trimming the multiplicity or size of the COCOMs—the so-called combatant commands, the Pentagon’s geographic headquarters around the world. Ben Friedman of Cato and Harvey Sapolsky not long ago wrote a short but strong recommendation for shutting down the entire structure. I have myself suggested matching the number of COCOMs to the number of wars the US might plausibly simultaneously fight—two? two and a half? On the other hand, some colleagues at the Atlantic Council have argued that the COCOMs may serve an important role in the Pax Americana, managing military relations around the world. But even if that’s true, there are still legions of excess PowerPoint Rangers in quonset huts all around the world. 
Even outgoing Secretary Hagel, not known for favoring sweeping change, had previously expected across-the-board cuts of 20 percent of all their headquarters staffs. His directive seems to have been largely ignored, but in any case, it’s not just their numbers or size that matter. It’s the steps in the process below their level that foul up the flow of information. As Gates complained in that speech about the tight control of canine teams at the Pentagon, “can you believe it takes five four-star headquarters to get a decision on a guy and a dog up to me?” That’s just wrong.
Consider how, at the outbreak of war in 1914, the German and US Armies each organized their battalions into regiments, regiments into brigades, and brigades into divisions. By the time of the Lundendorff Offensive in 1918, German divisional headquarters were directly controlling the battalions. The brigades were gone, and the regimental headquarters were just coordinating logistics.  And if the Germans managed this a century ago on field telephones and semaphore, NATO forces can manage it today with satellites and the cloud.
To a certain extent, they do. The late war structure of the Deutsches Heer is rather like the US Air Force’s long-standing skip-echelon approach to command. Lately, the USAF has gone further, placing all the wings in the Pacific under a tactical Pacific Air Forces HQ at Hickam Field. The US Army made some progress with streamlining during the Schoomaker era at the level of divisions and corps. During the last major reorganization of the French Army, the defense ministry briefly considered having all fifty-something regiments report directly to Paris. They didn’t, but even today, there is but a single echelon—the brigade—between the colonels and the commandment des forces terrestres. As RAND reported this month, the French Army has been fighting impressively, recently in Afghanistan and now in Mali, so perhaps there’s something to that degree of fluidity.
But the process isn’t complete around the world. The Marines have long had three collections of expeditionary force headquarters—including those for their component divisions, air wings, and support groups—purely for political purposes. The US armed forces still have some forty flag officers manning desks in Europe. That war on Washington—and Brussels—is still far from won.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.