Advice to the Trump Administration on bringing discipline to the defense enterprise

At the conclusion of an unconventional but brilliant campaign, Donald Trump has effected, in terms he might appreciate, a hostile takeover of the executive branch of the United States federal government. In that campaign, he repeatedly promised to move swiftly towards administrative change, perhaps in a hundred-day campaign. There is reason to move out smartly. As Paul Ryan wrote in A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America, enemies and adversaries are “moving at the speed of broadband, so we cannot move at the speed of bureaucracy.” Rather, as the Speaker said the day after the election, with majorities in both legislative houses, “the opportunity is to go big, go bold and to get things done.” For his part, Trump has promised to prioritize private-sector experience and thinking in installing leaders and formulating policies for all federal agencies. So, for Defense, what now?

At Defense, an endemic problem of cost-ineffectiveness has been brewing for decades, with endless streams of cash pouring down seemingly endless holes of Middle Eastern wars that are never quite won. The worst is born out in the operational approaches that Colonel Mike Pietrucha of the USAF has called “logistical fratricide,” and that Tobias Burgers and Scott Nicholas Romaniuk have called “shooting ants with elephant guns.” All this high-technology whack-a-mole has accelerated capital depreciation, by which the military has accrued further costs for service life extensions, and a continual, grinding trade of aging systems for more expensive kit in lesser quantities. As recently pointed out by Major General Jeff Newell, the now-retired former chief strategist for the USAF, a key element of strategy is to stop doing some things so that one can start doing other more important things.

Fortunately, we have a model that should be familiar to the new administration. When a businessman takes over a new business, he usually undertakes detailed surveys beyond his earlier due-diligence. He gathers those in the know, and asks where are the factories? The distribution centers? The research laboratories? Who really runs that department? Where do all the back-office people sit? After some answers, the question that follows is usually and do we really need all of this? For as Libertarian Vice Presidential candidate Bill Weld said to a CNN town hall meeting earlier this year, “I’ve never seen a layer of government that didn’t have 10 or 20 percent waste in it.” If President-elect Trump wants to rebuild the military without exacerbating the government’s debt problem, he may want to pursue unconventional ideas for finding radical economies and opportunities.

At Defense, fundamentally rethinking structures and systems along business-like lines could save billions, particularly in sustainment spending, freeing up money for investment in new weapons, ships, and aircraft. Fairly, government isn’t a business, and it can’t quite be run like a business, but the US Defense Department desperately needs some business-like discipline in its planning, purchasing, and operations. For fifteen years, Defense has had a Defense Business Board, but its advice has too often been absorbed without effect or even affect. Even beyond the DBB’s ideas, Defense needs business models, to cite Northwestern University’s Robert Wolcott, that don’t just defend the present, but look to the future.

So what, broadly, are some of the options? Over the next several months, The Defense Industrialist will be focusing on building out the ideas, to provide advice to this administration on bringing some discipline to the defense enterprise. Implementing much of this change won’t be easy, but something better than today’s tired answers is essential.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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