An incoming assistant secretary’s focus will be essential for holding down spending in the long run.


It’s a shame that Ashton Carter keeps getting all the attention. In more than a crosstown nod to a think-taking colleague, I’d like to highlight another incoming Pentagon appointee, David Berteau, who is entering office with an ambitious idea. As reported earlier this month by Inside Defense, the recently confirmed “assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness aims to emphasize sustainment planning for all major defense program reviews, according to responses to advanced policy questions he submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee.” The emphasis is added, but it’s well that attention be focused here.

As more than a few defense planners have reminded me, many of those faceless and much-derided DoD civilians behind the lines are handling logistics. It’s their work that has made the United States, in the words of Dan Goure’s recent essay, “a logistics and sustainment superpower”. More to the point, it’s the logistics and sustainment that make the superpower, allowing US troops to patrol the globe, and arguably with very positive effect. As economist Tim Kane calculates on his blog this month, not just trade, but development and liberty follow the flag. All those troop postings around the world seem to be positively associated with the spread of good government, not to mention American military dominance.
But it is expensive! Adjusted for inflation, American spending on military sustainment increased by 41 percent from fiscal years 2001 to 2012—considerably in advance of increases in spending on procurement, RDT&E, and even military personnel. While this has been substantially driven by front-line needs in fighting two wars, forcing the number downward remains challenging. Demand management is the first issue. That patrolling is all well-and-good, but presidents and their advisors love to send air wings and naval flotillas galavanting around the globe whether they’re needed or not. As I heard one former fleet commander explain at a meeting last year, it’s really hard to return a carrier, even when the regional C-in-C can’t find a use for it.
The second problem is, as with most matters of defense economics, requirements. American weapons often seem designed with scarcely a thought towards financing their sustainment. Were this not so, the projected maintenance costs of the F-35 wouldn’t be half again those of the F-16. In much of Europe, however, the importance of life-cycle costing has long been not just known, but acted upon. That’s how combined diesel-and-turbine propulsion became almost standard across NATO navies—except in the USN, of course.
At a minor conclave of thinking on defense economics some weeks ago, I heard the recommendation that acquisition reform could help take money out of procurement overhead, so that it might be made available for sustainment spending. I find that a compelling idea in the short run, but not so helpful in the long run. At a certain point, putting more money into O&M is just feeding the beast. If the Pentagon is going to solve its long-term sustainment cost problem, it needs to consistently build sustainment cost planning into every program review, and get serious about stiff-arming the requirements inflation that too often shows up at those meetings.
As Berteau has spent years supervising the defense-industrial research program at the CSIS, he’s an outstanding man for the job. We wish him well. After our short break, we’re back, and we hope everyone had a good Christmas.
James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.