One of the most interesting theories I have ever heard about the sinking of the Titanic is that the liner could have survived if, rather than trying to avoid the collision, Captain Edward John Smith, had steered directly for the iceberg. You might remember that the attempt to go around the iceberg exposed the side of the ship. The result was a massive tear that opened five compartments to the Atlantic and doomed Titanic. An impact by the Titanic’s prow with the iceberg would certainly have done damage to the ship, perhaps sufficient to eventually cause it to sink. But even in this worst case scenario, the rate at which Titanic would have taken on water would have been less, the ship would have taken longer to sink and help could have arrived in time.
Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, like Edward Smith, may soon see his vessel, the Department of Defense, threatened by an equally catastrophic event, a collision with the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). In order to cut $500 billion from federal spending over ten years, the BCA imposes a ceiling on defense and domestic discretionary accounts. Any amount above that cap would be taken away from government accounts, by what is termed sequestration. President Obama has proposed an FY2016 budget that essentially does away with sequestration. But if the law is not repealed or an alternative solution found, as was the case for 2014 and 2015 in the Ryan-Murray agreement, defense spending will have to be cut some $36 billion below the President’s budget.
In his prepared remarks for today’s hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carter made it clear that he thought sequestration was a bad idea. On Monday when the President’s budget was sent up to Capitol Hill, each of the military services provided their own briefs which warned of the damage sequestration would do to the defense of the nation. Trying to manage a military that is smaller and busier than at any point in its modern history and absorb the budget cuts mandated by sequestration would be like trying to steer the Titanic around the iceberg. The attempt is likely to prove catastrophic for the Pentagon.
The problem Carter and his predecessors have had in getting the American political system to appreciate the magnitude of the disaster that is sequestration is that the military has always been too good at finding work arounds as the budget has shrunk. Even as military forces go hollow and modernization programs are truncated or terminated, the Pentagon finds a way of doing their job. At some point the force will break or come up against an opponent with superior capabilities and lose a war. But when that point is, no one knows. The U.S. military has earned the reputation of being unsinkable.
Perhaps Secretary Carter should take a fundamentally different tack. If sequestration cannot be avoided, maybe he could do the unthinkable and steer right for it. What do I mean by this? He should say fine, under sequestration we cannot have business as usual at the Pentagon. As a character in the disaster movie Armageddon recommended to his compatriots, “Embrace the horror.” Carter should make it clear that he intends to preserve warfighters, ready forces and modernization at the expense of every other program and activity in the department.
Here are four actions he should take.
- Ask for the authority to give pink slips out to not less than 20 percent of the defense department’s entire civilian workforce. As Mackenzie Eaglen pointed out in a recent article, since 2009 even as uniform personnel have been reduced by 8 percent, the Pentagon’s civilian workforce has increased by 7 percent. When DoD meets sequestration, the first result should be to cut the civilian workforce.
- Don’t try and reform the defense acquisition system, kill it. A 2014 study commissioned by Under Secretary of Defense for AT&L Frank Kendall concluded that decades of reform efforts have had no appreciable effect on the unit cost of major weapons systems. Tinkering with the system will do nothing. So propose dumping the current system with its unique and burdensome reporting requirements, regulations, accounting procedures and contracting practices. Go straight commercial on everything except – perhaps – testing.
- Place every major weapons system and platform on a long-term life cycle management plan. Establish very long-term sustainment contracts with both the private sector and organic defense industrial base for these systems and platforms with targets for goals such as availability rate and cost reduction. The U.K. Ministry of Defence has a 25 year sustainment contract with Boeing to manage its fleet of Chinook helicopters that is saving money and improving outcomes. Why can’t this be done for all the fleets of planes, ships and vehicles which the U.S. will operate for decades to come?
- Turn all non-core defense functions over to the private sector. Hundreds of thousands of Pentagon employees are involved in back office activities from heath care and commissaries to education and transportation. Stop doing things that the private sector has been doing well for decades.
Hitting an iceberg is not without consequence. But it is better than the alternative: to sink out of sight, taking thousands of lives as you go down.
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