America is no longer a sole superpower. As stated in the 2018 National Defense Strategy:
China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea. Russia has violated the borders of nearby nations and pursues veto power over the economic, diplomatic, and security decisions of its neighbors.
Adding to these challenges, our nation’s fiscal posture, massive debts, crumbling infrastructure, and hyperpartisan political environment have slowed down our ability to quickly and thoroughly address these issues. This reality must be reversed if we are to stay ahead of our adversaries in the coming years and provide the opportunities and freedoms previous generations of Americans have enjoyed.
The practice of the American experiment depends on the strength of our national defense, the capabilities of our warfighters, and the nation’s ability to synchronize its soft and hard power while furthering its ideals and safeguarding its interests. As noted by the Defense Business Board’s June 2020 report: “Normal ‘budget cut drills,’ although involving very tough choices, are not transformative and will not address the pacing threat of China.” Rather, leaders in both the Pentagon and Congress will need to buckle down, make tough decisions, and institute major reforms.
I care deeply about reshaping defense processes, DoD organizations, and defense spending practices. The future of our nation requires it. With this in mind, here are the top 15 guiding principles essential to ensuring the strength of American security.
1. Think Smarter, Not Richer. Strategy must remain at the center of all decisions. The department has done a good job pivoting toward great power competition in its National Defense Strategy, taking into account the threats, goals, and objectives of our nation. Now, the department needs to dramatically improve its acquisition process, significantly reduce its overhead, and curtail the unsustainable rate of increase in the fully burdened lifecycle costs of personnel and benefits. This is especially important in an increasingly limited budget environment, as there won’t be the annual 3 percent- 5 percent real growth in budgets Pentagon leaders require to truly implement the National Defense Strategy. Because of this, the department and Congress will need to think smarter, not richer, and make hard decisions.
2. Focus on Outputs, Not Inputs. The Pentagon and Congress should shift their focus from the inputs (how much we spend) to outputs (what we get for what we spend) to ensure the department gets the most bang for its buck. Just spending more money has not always resulted in better outcomes. Oversight mechanisms should be implemented to ensure funds are being spent efficiently and appropriately, as outputs need to truly increase the department’s capacity and capabilities. Additionally, leaders need to take a long-term approach to solve present-day problems. Today’s leaders owe it to future generations to break their myopic focus on the short term.
3. Put the Nation’s Fiscal House in Order. The country must address the ever increasing deficit and accumulating debt. Politicians have consistently refused to solve or even honestly grapple with our almost $30 trillion debt. Continued deficit spending puts our long-term economic health at risk. We’ve neglected the foundations for too long. There needs to be a new Simpson-Bowles commission that addresses discretionary spending, entitlements, and revenues with a long-term bipartisan plan to reverse the adverse trends. This outcome will only occur if all are asked to sacrifice by constraining discretionary spending, reducing the growth of entitlements, and increasing government revenues.
4. Change the Benchmarks. The Pentagon needs to develop performance benchmarks to focus the department’s output goals on being better, faster, and cheaper than China. As a whole, the Pentagon needs to become timelier and more efficient regarding technology development and implementation. Our warfighters must be able to quickly address new operational concepts and possible conflicts. China has seriously invested in new technological capabilities across the board, and we need to address and counter these advances. If we fail to do so, China will dominate us technologically and militarily within the decade, a reality noted by many leaders, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley.
5. Define Senior Leadership Roles. When it comes to the top leaders in the Pentagon, there are several important relationships that need to be clearly defined. The secretary should be the department’s chief executive officer while the deputy secretary should act as the chief operating officer. Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should focus on operations while the vice chairman should concentrate on joint requirements, management, and technology. The service secretaries should specify the roles and responsibilities to be performed by the service chiefs, as well as better clarify the division of labor between service secretaries and the military staffs. Additionally, the SECDEF should ensure that the combatant commanders coordinate all efforts, including legislative, with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
6. Streamline the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The Office of the Secretary of Defense should focus on macro management rather than micromanagement. Because of the massive size, scope, and function of the Pentagon, the secretary needs to be able to focus on the department’s major issues. In order to do this, the Office of the Secretary should focus on its core functions, such as macro allocation of resources, major policy formulation, and enterprise-level oversight.
7. Reduce the Tail and Increase the Tooth. Conflicts are fought and won by combat forces—not support organizations or service headquarters. Over the years, the defense overhead has increased as defense-wide spending has grown from 5 percent of the budget to almost 20 percent of the budget. Additionally, the defense agencies and DoD field activities — which started with just one in 1952 and are now up to 28 in 2020 — are spending over $115 billion a year. In the same period, the capabilities and number of our fighting forces have decreased. This trend must be reversed.
8. Challenge the Fully Burdened and Lifecycle Costs of Personnel. The ever increasing fully burdened and lifecycle costs of the military are unsustainable — especially for active-duty military—as the all-in costs associated with a single service member continue to rise at an alarming rate. This trend also encompasses the post-service retirement benefits, which are also increasing at an unsustainable rate. Today’s system currently pays a service member 70 years for those who retire after only 20 years of active service. For example, if someone joins the military at age 18, they can retire with full retirement benefits at age 38. Given that the average life- expectancy rate is now in the mid-80s, the department is now responsible for approximately 50 years of additional retirement costs. The department and Congress must acknowledge the fully burdened and lifecycle costs associated with adequately supporting an active-duty warfighter and consider adjustments on a prospective basis rather than retroactively.
9. Reform and Improve the Authorization and Appropriations Process. Congress needs to get their work done on time — it is as simple as that. October 1 happens on the same day every year. Congress should adhere to the well- defined congressional budget process and move to a two-year budget cycle so they don’t repeat the same processes every year. Additionally, Congress should consider collapsing the budget, authorization, and appropriation processes into a budget committee that sets overall guidelines for spending and revenues and a joint authorization and appropriation committee that both authorizes and appropriates in the same bill. This would reduce the duplication of efforts among the three current committees.
10. Update the Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) System. The PPBE system should be updated and improved to match modern-day fighting needs. The Pentagon should redefine the Major Force Programs of the Future Years Defense Program, ensure the planning documents identify clear goals and objectives, and establish macro-level priorities. Additionally, the budget should be recognized as the final product of PPBE, not the first. Throughout the entire process, the Office of Management and Budget should provide oversight specifically focused on macro-level budget management.
11. Increase the Industrial Base. There needs to be better awareness of the industrial base and its relationship to the acquisition process and the needs of the warfighters. Industry is key to ensuring that our warfighters are never in a fair fight. Specifically, lawmakers and Pentagon leaders should understand that the current smaller industrial base reduces competition and the DoD’s ability to leverage prices. The Pentagon should continue efforts to attract nontraditional providers into the defense marketplace while also encouraging efforts to streamline and compress the overall acquisition process.
12. Improve Industry-Government Communication. Industry and government need to improve the flow of information on matters of technology and personnel. The Pentagon should collaborate and consult with industry partners — both big and small — on a wide variety of matters from acquisition and technology to internal departmental workings. Industry leaders often bring much-needed world-class business practices to the Pentagon, which is critical considering the number of taxpayer dollars spent daily.
13. Enhance Bipartisanship in National Security. Historically, national security has been largely immune to partisan bickering and gridlock. In the past, leaders experienced the most success when they attacked the toughest issues head-on in a bipartisan fashion. These leaders let the facts and the situation on the ground drive decisions to ensure the nation attained its objectives, even if that meant political risk for an individual or the whole party. However, like the rest of the country today, national security is suffering from increasing partisan gridlock that has resulted in less problem-solving, greater inefficiency, and overall dysfunction. Political leaders, whether in Congress, the White House, or the Pentagon, need to prioritize national security needs over partisan agendas. Even during periods of divided government, a bipartisan approach to national security must be preserved.
14. Foster Strong Relationships. A military unit draws together people of diverse backgrounds, talents, opinions, and abilities to accomplish its common mission. It’s essential to victory and even survival that the unit develops mutual respect, understanding, and concern for one another. This is absolutely vital in combat, as it should be in politics. In addition to working in a bipartisan fashion whenever possible, Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon need to engage in more frequent and transparent communication. These discussions should also include the Office of Management and Budget and other key national security entities, including the intelligence community, the Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security.
Across all groups, mutual respect, courtesy, and communication would help ensure the probability of good working relationships in spite of different opinions. Whether in politics, government, or business, there will always be another important issue, meeting, or decision — when an old enemy may become, at least temporarily, an ally. The old cliché of not burning bridges holds true. You can shake hands at the end of the day ... and be ready to solve the next problem together.
15. Lead by Example. General Colin Powell said, “The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.” Leaders in the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon need to lead by example. They must listen to varying perspectives, base decisions on objective facts, and then take the necessary calculated and informed risks. We need politicians and defense leaders of sound moral character, who know what they stand for, and will steer the nation in the right direction. These qualities will allow our leaders to make the necessary tough decisions in an increasingly competitive and hostile global order.
The nation has faced serious challenges before, and we can do so again. We still have men and women inside the beltway who truly have the public interest at heart. In order to change the trend from the “ever-shrinking fighting force” to the “ever-growing fighting force,” we will need to search out the best in ourselves, work across the aisle, and implement the much-needed reforms. There are few things as important, and none as unforgiving of failure, as this. The future of our country depends on it.
From “The Ever-Shrinking Fighting Force” by Gen. Arnold L. Punaro, published by Punaro Press. Copy Copyright © 2021 by Arnold L. Punaro
Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold L. Punaro is a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was also the former chairman of the Independent Commission on the National Guard and Reserves and the former chairman of the Secretary of Defense’s Reserve Forces Policy Board. He recently released his second book, “The Ever-Shrinking Fighting Force,” which is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Editor’s note: This is a book excerpt and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial you would like to submit, please contact Military Times senior managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.