Should the US follow the UK’s lead by seeking smaller scale in defense?

On Wednesday afternoon the Atlantic Council hosted a talk by Philip Dunne, the British Minister for Defence Equipment, Support, and Technology—the MinDEST. As he himself noted, Dunne is Whitehall’s equivalent of the Pentagon’s Frank Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics—the USD AT&L. Those are basically the same functions, spelled out in different letters. The scales of their operations, however, are vastly different. And as we think about the resolution with which British defense reforms have been carried out over the past few years, it’s worth asking whether that American scale and scope have indeed grown too vast.

Shortly after taking office in 2010, the Tories made some “tough calls” (Dunne’s words) about an “out-of-control procurement” program, underfunded on the scale of an entire year’s departmental budget. Longer-range work on reform got started in 2011, when Lord Levene wrote his report on the management of the Ministry of Defense, recommending 53 significant changes. Number four on that list was to 
     focus the Service Chiefs on running their Services and empower them to perform their roles effectively, with greater freedom to manage, as part of a much clearer framework of financial accountability and control
As Dunne put it, this has put decisions in the hands of those closer to the problems. He similarly talked up the examples of the conversion of his own Defence Equipment & Support organization into “a bespoke trading entity, an arm’s length body” of the MoD, and the recent sale of his Defence Support Group (effectively the Army’s main depot) to Babcock International. In both cases, management will now have a freer hand than was possible under a civil service regime.
But these various devolutions, observed discussion moderator Steven Grundman, run counter to the impulses of the American defense establishment, which presumes that efficiencies are invariably found in centralization and amalgamation. Jointness and efficiency have long virtually mantras in American defense, and with almost a faint Bolshevik ring. Then a few months ago, the Chief of Naval Operations expressed his desire to “take jointness to another level”! At least he was usefully recommending that we “examine potentially duplicative missions that have emerged in the last ten years… to avoid overspending on programs that are similar to those in other services.”
Reigning in America’s own out-of-control procurements seems a sound idea, but is across-the-board jointness the sound way to affect that? As I have argued here in the past, it’s easy to take haphazard jointness too far: recall the rosy savings estimates of the 2005 BRAC. But maybe sentiments are shifting: after the experience of the F-35 program, the Air Force and the Navy are now both keen “to avoid another joint acquisition”. Fairly, it’s notable that the Levene Reforms left big decisions in the hands of the State Secretary for Defence, and created Britain’s own “four star-led Joint Forces Command, to strengthen the focus on joint enablers and on joint warfare development”. Jointness is operationally vital on the battlefield, and logistically important in the train rearward. But it’s probably less valuable than commonly thought in procurement and administration.
Indeed, Dunne opined that the smaller size of the UK’s MoD has made for more manageable problems than with the US’s DoD. If so, then cannot the US recapture some of the benefits of that smallness, and avoid the diseconomies of extreme scale, by decentralizing defense? Should the service secretaries and chiefs be more firmly be put in charge of their services? Should those military departments and the defense agencies be encouraged to engage more sharply in bureaucratic competition, by more closely tailoring procurement processes, staffing models, and incentive structures to their own needs? Really—in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, are not hundreds of thousands enough people to manage without all the more consolidation from above?
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.