On increasingly rare occasions, the relentless cacophony inside the Beltway gives way to harmony. Such was the case last week when the doyens of DC’s think-tank community united their voices to urge painful yet necessary Pentagon reforms. On Monday, a group of 25 scholars from 10 different think tanks released an open letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and senior congressional leaders of the defense committees on June 3 in The Hill newspaper.
The authors issued a clarion call on the need for quick action on excess bases, the size and structure of the defense civilian workforce, and make-up of military compensation. Many of the necessary measures will face steep political resistance from entrenched interests in both branches of government as well as many communities and constituencies across America. While all of these concerns must be weighed equally, what should not get lost is the other key Pentagon priority to provide service members the cutting-edge tools and training, maintenance, and readiness they need to fight and win as safely, effectively, and quickly as possible. Yet this is increasingly a zero-sum outcome if policymakers continue to allow DoD structural costs to squeeze the defense budget from within.
As Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center wrote last week, “It won’t matter if you want more planes or fewer, more troops or a smaller force, the right hardware, or the opportunity to confront or befriend China. Declining defense budgets, already well underway, combined with the costs of people and property, will eat the tradeoff space that allows anyone to make sensible policy and hardware decisions.”
This message was a consistent theme at the letter’s launch in the Hart Senate Office Building. The bipartisan panel was joined by Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN), Ranking Member of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee on the House Armed Services Committee. Congressman Cooper acknowledged all of these realities and called on his colleagues to take the long view and unite behind the necessary changes that are ultimately in the national interest.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the overall initiative was the breadth of the assembled coalition. The letter was signed by conservatives, liberals, libertarians, and moderates. These groups often find little on which to agree but are all of one mind when it comes to changing the way the Pentagon does business.
As Cato’s Christopher Preble observed, this effort “cannot be seen as a partisan exercise; and it is not.” Indeed, the defense reform consensus demonstrates that this imperative is one that transcends political affiliation.
Pentagon reform led by the military and supported by Congress is the responsible and overdue path forward. After all, as the letter notes, “every unnecessary base that remains open, every excess civilian employee that remains on the payroll, and every mis-targeted dollar of military compensation signifies, in the final sense, a theft from both the training and equipping of our young men and women in uniform and, ultimately, from the security of our citizens.”