Even within the same administration, a newly installed Secretary of Defense leads to expectations of a certain amount of policy churn. And Secretary Esper is no different. In a press conference this week he mentioned an earlier announced Defense-wide review process to “identify time, money and manpower that can be reallocated to our highest priorities…” and that the process will “focus on the fourth estate and will eventually address other parts of the Department of Defense enterprise.”
What does that mean?
Well the fourth estate is all the agencies in DOD that are not within a military service. Entities like the Defense Intelligence Agency, Missile Defense Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. This follows an earlier recommendation from the Government Accountability Office that this area is ripe for reform.
But he has indicated that he would be reviewing legacy programs and would be “looking for programs that don’t have as much value relative to another critical war-fighting capability…” In a memo laying out his plan he indicated that “No reform is too small, too bold or too controversial to be considered.”
At roughly the same time, the new Commandant of the Marine Corps published the latest edition of the “Commandant’s Planning Guidance” providing his strategic direction for the Corps.
Too often these documents, like the carousel at the county fair, are loaded with initiatives that defense contractors grab onto as the colorful design and procurement processes begin to spin. New things get bought but somehow the old thing that was supposed to be divested to pay for new toys remains. That’s not just the most likely scenario; it’s also the most expensive.
General Berger writes: “We will divest of legacy capabilities that do not meet our future requirements, regardless of their past operational efficacy. … We will divest of legacy defense programs and force structure that support legacy capabilities. If provided the opportunity to secure additional modernization dollars in exchange for force structure, I am prepared to do so.” (Emphasis in the original.) So that sounds like it is both going to cost more and will only happen if more modernization funds are dedicated to the Marine Corps.
Among the programs the Commandant lists as not defining the Marine Corps: both the F/A-18 and F-35 aircraft. Close readers of our work at Taxpayers will note we’ve written a lot about the monstrous costs of the F-35 program. And while we are heartened to read the Commandant is willing to look at all legacy aircraft programs, color us skeptical that Congress and Lockheed Martin Corporation are going to look the other way while he de-emphasizes the F-35.
Our favorite quote in this piece is one that, on its face, appears to lean toward saving money. “We must continue to seek the affordable and plentiful at the expense of the exquisite and few when conceiving of the future of the amphibious portion of the fleet.” (Emphasis in the original.) In fact, if you dig down into the details like we do at Taxpayers, you’ll see that the Commandant wants to design a new fleet with “smaller, more lethal, and more risk-worthy platforms.” These include at least three new classes of ships: a hybrid amphibious ship, a self-deploying “connector” ship, and an array of “black bottom” ships to supplement the preposition and amphibious fleets.
If you’re in the business of shipbuilding, that sound you just heard was the “cha-ching” of the cash register. New ship designs? That’s expensive. Old ship designs, never actually going to go away and so will continue to require maintenance and overhaul. Cha-ching.
On the potentially cost saving side, the Commandant points out that the Marine Corps is “encumbered” by 19,000 buildings, some of which are beyond repair and should be demolished. He also points out a need for a “deliberate review of our installations and a deliberate plan to invest, divest, and reset.” We couldn’t agree more but are skeptical the political climate in Washington will allow any actual divestment of properties. Base closure has been anathema to recent Congresses.
The Commandant states, “We cannot continue to accept the preservation of legacy capabilities with little to no demand signal, or those that are only associated with the least-likely, worst-case scenario.” And while we agree with this sentiment, our 25 years in the Washington budget wars tells us there’s going to be a lot of pushback against these initiatives. Programs have been cancelled before like the Crusader cannon and the Comanche helicopter in the George W. Bush administration and the Presidential helicopter in the Obama administration. But it takes a lot of fight.
Worst case scenario from the standpoint of your tax dollars? The Pentagon is forced to keep the old stuff, by the unholy alliance of defense contractors and the lawmakers representing districts where the stuff is built or maintained. But instead of either/or, all the new programs are begun…and gain the support of different defense contractors. And the carousel of Pentagon spending spins again.
With a deficit approaching a trillion dollars and a debt to GDP ratio not seen since right after World War II we cannot afford business as usual. There’s a lot of Pentagon bloat to cut, Secretary Esper and General Berger and others at DOD need to lean into the fight because it is not going to be easy.