DoD's Tail Is Wagging the Dog
Updated: Apr 20, 2020
"Why does a dog wag its tail? Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail were smarter than the dog, the tail would wag the dog." My impertinent challenge of the primacy of defense agencies over the military services, first published in June 2001.
This tease line from the movie Wag the Dog comes to mind nearly every day now. Over the past decade, I have been transferred from the operating forces to the Pentagon three times to work weapon development and acquisition issues. In that time, I have learned one important lesson: whenever a conflict emerges between career Pentagon bureaucrats and the uniformed military, the bureaucrats almost always win. They might not win quickly, and the win might not be pretty, but eventually they will prevail.
"...dog anatomy by Picasso."
You see, inside the five-sided wind tunnel, the tail (supporting infrastructure) is smarter than the dog (the warfighting forces). This reality is driven by a single structural defect in Pentagon administration: defense agencies work more-or-less directly for the Secretary of Defense, while the warfighters are run by officials who are layers down. Using our Wag the Dog conceit, the tail is attached directly to the brain—dog anatomy by Picasso. Worse, defense agencies are run to a large extent by career civil servants who possess great staying power. If they are engaged in a losing battle with an active-duty officer, they know it is only a matter of time before that officer transfers or retires. If you are a career civil servant and you wait long enough, you can beat anybody—even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Of course, this tail-first structure was not established out of malicious intent. Consolidating multiservice support functions into integrated defense agencies makes a great deal of sense from the point of view of efficiency. Historically, each military service was its own fiefdom. The Army, Navy, and Air Force each had its own logistics agency, its own accounting structure, its own overhead imagery capability, and its own land-based communications structure, run by the service chief. This framework was enormously inefficient and made it hard for the services to work together. And since the services had to work together anytime we went to war, these discontinuities manifested themselves at the worst possible moments. Over time, our civilian masters in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and in Congress decided that existing structures were not doing enough to increase efficiency and interoperability. Ultimately, and to a large extent over uniformed service objections, like efforts were combined into common DoD activities. The notion of combat support agencies was written into law, giving birth to such organizations as the Defense Logistic Agency, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the Defense Information Services Agency, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, and the defense health affairs community. DoD populated these organizations with the very best military and civilian professionals and had them report directly to the staff of the Secretary of Defense. Hence, the degree to which these agencies succeed or fail reflects directly on the highest political appointees of the department. As a result, our civilian leaders have tended to take whatever action necessary to ensure these activities are successful. In contrast, there are layers of insulation between the warfighting forces and these same decision makers. If these actions improve the effectiveness of our warfighting force, the nation benefits. But if the performance or product of an individual agency is treated as a higher priority than the performance of our Defense Department in general—and this increasingly has become the case—then the defense of the nation suffers.
What Are the Problems?
Bleeding the force. Defense agencies are drawing critical capital from the warfighting forces. Joint Staff analysis indicates Army contingency deployments are 15 times what they were in 1989; the number of Air Force personnel deployed is 39% higher than in Vietnam with a force only a fraction of the size; and the Navy responded to 2.4 times as many crises in the 1990s as in the 1980s with just 63% of the people and about half the ships. Yet, while the service budgets have shrunk considerably since 1985 in constant-year dollars, the defense agencies' budgets have ballooned by 70%.1 If you add health care and other defense-wide expenses to the mix, defense infrastructure costs have increased by 264% for a force that is 40% smaller than it was in 1985.
Taxation without representation. Agencies work directly for the Secretary of Defense. All an agency has to do to get funding for the newest pet project is convince the appropriate under secretary or assistant secretary that someone in the operating forces "needs" the capability, and that the military services are not doing enough to meet this need. Look hard enough and you always can find somebody in the operating forces who "needs" whatever solution you're trying to provide. The under secretary then submits a request for the DoD comptroller to find the funding—which usually comes in the form of a "tax" to the services. These solutions generally are implemented without considering their priority relative to other military requirements. The bill is simply passed on to the services, who get no vote on the matter, but who have to find the funding within their existing accounts.
This is a problem. At the beginning of every fiscal year, the Office of Management and Budget requires that every budget dollar be accounted for. Congress approves how you plan to spend every cent. This construct doesn't allow the services to keep "rainy day" funds. Nor can they take out a loan to respond to short-notice funding requests. In addition, at the start of each fiscal year, most procurement and research accounts already are under contract. Those funds are obligated. Hence, when services must pay for things they didn't plan on funding, they have to dip into the only unobligated money at their disposal—their current readiness accounts. This is one of the many factors that has resulted in our readiness crunch; services routinely are forced to cash in operations funds to pay for somebody else's "good idea." This is not the way the services make tradeoffs when it comes to funding their own warfighting shortfalls. Like it or not, the services are assigned budgets, and they know they have to live within them. If a service wants to field a new superwhamodyne, it has to cancel something else to find the money. This forces the services to establish and defend their priorities, balancing current and future readiness in the process. But occasionally, even when the services try to make these tradeoffs in good faith, they are prevented from doing so. A recent example is the decision by Congress and the Pentagon to transfer funding of the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) from the Air Force to the Ballistic Missile Defense Office. The stated reason for this transfer is concern that the Air Force was not giving sufficient financial priority to SBIRS. Hence, SBIRS will now receive its funding off the top, a de facto declaration that it is more important than the systems whose funding it will take. I can envision a future situation in which a parent of a downed pilot asks, "Why didn't you fund that advanced jamming system that could have saved my daughter's life?" Answer: "Because the money we intended to use on that system got diverted to pay for a satellite system that was actually a lower priority." But the Defense official who made that decision won't be standing in front of the cameras; instead, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force will be on point, just as it was the Chief of Naval Operations speaking to the nation defending decisions he did not make after the Cole (DDG-67) attack. In the end, the services work for the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who suffers or dies in conflict. To ensure this reality is driven home every day, the services populate their staffs with people like me who rotate between frontline forces and the Pentagon. Bringing in new people to take fresh looks at long- established structures also highlights other shortfalls, such as:
Agencies are monopolies. In our form of government monopolies are bad. If monopolies are bad, government-run monopolies are worse, since government monopolies are not subjected to market forces. Worse yet, government monopolies sometimes possess regulatory authority to compel others to use their products, thereby reinforcing their monopolistic hold on the product. A structure that mandates the establishment of government monopolies with regulatory power that also have authority to tax others for services they don't want, to fund infrastructure they don't need, is beyond the pale. But that is exactly the situation in DoD today. We have created little communications fiefdoms, logistic fiefdoms, intelligence fiefdoms, each with their own agenda and with decision makers who outrank the war fighters, and each little fiefdom creates its own political constituency, its own congressional sponsors, its own cadre of cottage industries, and its own soon-to-be-obsolete structures.
Bureaucracies don't easily give up their own. In a revealing statistic, when forced by a defense reform initiative to review its job codes to determine what percentage could be transferred to the private sector, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service declared that 85% of its accountant positions were "inherently governmental" and could not be outsourced. In contrast, the Department of the Navy said only 73% of its positions were similarly "inherently governmental," and this included all the sailors and Marines that man our ships, submarines, and aircraft.2 This is not a new problem. Alfred Thayer Mahan defined a bureaucracy as "the organization which has been created for facilitating its own labors."
The fundamental question is this: Why does DoD continue to perform services the private sector can do better? The Defense Logistic Agency manages $970 billion of contracts, more than any of the services. It has an annual budget $16.3 billion. Why do we need government accountants and auditors tracking our money using financial tools that don't comply with modern accounting standards? We've all heard the stories regarding how much DoD funding has gone "unaccounted for." Do we really need to pay such a premium for service of this quality?
What's the Solution?
Our civilian masters are the ultimate decision makers within the department. They should establish policy and make acquisition decisions. They should not sponsor programs or advocate agency- defined solutions. Let the uniformed military determine the relative priority for capabilities to be funded. Agency-sponsored programs should begin and end with validated military requirements. This structure already is established by law in Title 10—we should use the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) in its prioritization role the way law intends. The services and the JROC are in the best position to consider the relative priority of an agency's proposed solution against the programs or readiness money that would have to be canceled to fund it. The default position whenever we have a problem should be to identify a service as capability sponsor, unless for reasons of economy of scale or integration an agency is the preferred solution. Defense agencies should be treated as what they are: combat support activities. They should be employed only when the following tests are met:
The task requires that a government organization execute
Economies of scale or integration issues dictate that a single organization provide similar services to each service
It is improper or impractical to have a military service provide the capability
All three tests must be met. The good of the agency should never be the issue. The focus always should be on support to the warfighting forces. In other words, we need to perform whatever tail extraction surgery is necessary so that the dog can again wag the tail.