As former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel once observed, “no crisis should go to waste.” The same can be said for bipartisan summits, which are infrequent in the current polarized political environment.. The crisis is sequestration’s devastating cuts to the defense budget. The bipartisan summit is the Reagan National Defense Forum, a star-studded gathering of Democrats, Republicans, government officials, defense industry leaders and national security intellectuals, billed as a rare attempt to build a national consensus on defense. Organizers of the forum are hoping to narrow the growing divide between advocates of a strong national defense and those focused primarily on increased domestic spending or deficit reductions.
So when the two come together, this is an opportunity that should not be wasted. Frankly, it is a mistake for the Forum’s participants to focus on achieving agreement regarding the need for a robust military. No reasonable individual, regardless of organizational background or party affiliation, is in favor of not deterring aggression, defending this country’s vital interests or a military that is technologically inferior to prospective adversaries. The central question is how to maintain the military everyone wants at an acceptable cost?
The answer to this question is straightforward, albeit politically difficult: the current labyrinthine defense acquisition system must be streamlined. Those involved in defense issues know that this is the elephant in the room with respect to maintaining a robust national defense. Just today, Representative Mac Thornberry, Vice Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, published an editorial in RealClearDefense which calls for reforming a defense acquisition system that costs both money and lives. As the Congressman rightly observed:
“The cost of the current system is enormous. Too much money and manpower is poured into processes and systems that do not yield a single bullet or minute of training. The weapons and equipment that are produced are too often late and over budget. But the cost is in more than just dollars. Delays in getting top quality equipment into the hands of our troops can cost lives, and the overall security of our nation can be affected.”
Recent studies by the Lexington Institute and others support Representative Thornberry’s assessment. The regulatory burden on defense amounts to as much as 20 percent of all spending on goods and services or more than $100 billion annually. Streamlining this system could save an amount equal to the penalty on defense budgets imposed by sequestration. Moreover, it could have this effect without cutting force structure, weapons modernization, pay and benefits or defense R&D.
Sequestration has created the crisis which warrants undertaking the difficult task of reforming the defense acquisition system. The Reagan Forum is a good place to establish a consensus on the need for such reforms as well as the outline of an agenda for change. As Representative Thornberry rightly observed, “It will take Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate, Defense Department and Military Services, industry and trade associations, as well as smart, experienced individuals in and out of government all working together to fix these problems.” All the stakeholders will be present at the Reagan Library for the Forum. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity.
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