As discussed here previously, there is a great deal of interest in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ongoing review of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. While there is near-universal agreement that it is time to reform the three-decade-old law underpinning the structure of the Department of Defense, there is little consensus on what exactly needs to be reformed and to what extent. Exacerbating the problem is that very little is known about the direction the Committee and its chairman, Senator John McCain, will take the reform effort.

As mentioned before, a number of recommendations have been made in testimony before Senator McCain’s committee, and Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has helpfully organized them all in a spreadsheet available at the CSIS website. Cancian has arranged the recommendations in nine categories, and each one is worth looking at individually (which is exactly what I will be doing in a series of posts here at Dollars & Defense over the coming weeks).

The first post in the series will discuss the recommendations for how Congress can act to improve defense management. Unfortunately, half the recommendations do not inspire much confidence.

The two substantive recommendations retired U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Major General Arnold Punaro, who helped craft Goldwater-Nichols as a staffer for the House Armed Services Committee, and conservative historian Walter Russell Mead. Punaro argued in his testimony that Congress needed to revise rules that raise barriers to appointing individuals from the private sector to positions of defense management. The fear among those advocating restrictions on private sector actors serving in defense positions is that absent regulations the “revolving door” between the Pentagon and the defense industry will lead to greater opportunities for cronyism and corruption. These fears have some justification but can be taken too far.

General Punaro’s logic for recommending the restrictions be relaxed is that it will open up greater opportunities to appoint private sector actors that generally have more experience managing large enterprises. He made a similar argument when quoted in a Politico article from late 2015, about dysfunction at the Defense Logistics Agency. While he is right to note the importance of organizational management though, Robert McNamara’s reforms of the 1960s provide a cautionary tale about attempts to impose business practices on the Department of Defense. Government agencies are not businesses. They respond to different incentives and require different management skills.

Walter Russell Mead offered perhaps the most interesting of the recommendations. Mead suggested establishing an equivalent to the Congressional Budget Office for strategic research. According to his testimony,

In order to perform its oversight functions more effectively, the Congress should consider establishing a professional, nonpartisan agency that can be a source for independent strategic research and advice, and which can evaluate executive branch policies in a more systematic and thorough way than current resources allow. Similar in some ways to the CBO, a COSA would provide in-depth analysis and other resources to members and staff. Such an office would ideally be able to analyze anything from the strategic consequences of a given trade agreement to the utility of a proposed weapons system. This office would also allow a much more sustained and effective form of Congressional oversight, restoring a better balance to the relationship between the Executive and Legislative branches of government.

In and of itself, Mead’s recommendation of a strategic research agency is not without its merits. However, the question is whether it would actually be effective. Would the conclusions provided by the agency be heard above the cacophony of media stories and constituent demands on any single issue? Would the agency’s reports provide useful new information not already available from Beltway think tanks and academic sources?

Moreover, does new information really lead to better-informed policymakers? Cognitive psychology suggests otherwise. Preconceived notions, once formed, are hard to discard. New information is normally shaped to fit those biases once received. For Mead’s recommendation to work as intended, legislators would have to read the new agency’s reports prior to having formulated a perspective on the issue under consideration. That is not to say the recommendation should be rejected, but it is something to keep in mind before standing up yet another government agency to compensate for the failings of an existing institution.

Two other recommendations are where things really fail to inspire, and for related reasons. The first, from former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been discussed previously here. “As you consider needed reforms in the Pentagon, I fervently hope you also will urge your colleagues in congress to break with the recent past,” Gates said during his testimony, “and place the national interest—and national security—ahead of ideological purity or achieving partisan advantage.” But few things can be defined as an objective “national interest” and politics has always been a part of national security planning as disputes over what constitutes an interest are adjudicated. Legendary Congressman Carl Vinson was a famous partisan of the Navy. One could argue that, being isolated from the rest of the world by two oceanic moats, favoring the Navy was in the national interest. The Army would certainly not see it that way. But Vinson consistently pushed maritime interests over those of the land power community during his five decades in Congress and now has an aircraft carrier named for him. Secretary Gates’ calls for compromise are welcome in today’s polarized politics, but as a basis for defense reform, asking politicians to not act like politicians is indulging in fantasy.

The final recommendation is the most problematic, particularly because it comes from a leading defense official. Sean Stackley, the long-serving Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, testified that Congress should provide the Pentagon with predictable budgets. “The great uncertainty, delay, and frequent changes to budgets through the annual authorization and appropriation process,” Stackely argued, “counter our efforts to effectively execute to a plan.”

As discussed elsewhere, expecting stability in politics is as much a fantasy as expecting politicians to set politics aside. There are always competing claims on the resources that Stackely expects to be sent over multiple years to aid Pentagon planning. To say that the Department of Defense should have a fixed claim on resources over a period of time because doing so fits preexisting plans would divorce defense from the democratic process. Doing so might make it easier for defense officials to execute plans, but it would undermine the system the Pentagon exists to defend.

There is a narrower problem with Stackley’s statement that gets at an important issue in the Goldwater-Nichols review effort. The Pentagon’s planning system is predicated on there being stability. And it is not alone. As management scholar Henry Mintzberg observed in his magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, planning systems like that in use at the Department of Defense are justified by the need to plan for “turbulence” but function only during times of stability. Mintzberg makes an important point about what occurs when planning leads to suboptimal outcomes:

Often, when a strategy fails, those at the top of the hierarchy blame it on implementation lower down: “If only you dumbbells appreciated the brilliance of the strategy we formulated…” Well, those dumbbells down below might well respond: “If you’re so smart, why didn’t you take into account the fact that we are dumbbells?”

That last statement could be revised slightly in response to Secretary Stackley’s testimony: “If your plans are so great, why didn’t you take into account budget instability?” Strategic planning will be discussed later in this series of posts, but that question should be primary in the minds of defense reformers as they consider changes to Goldwater-Nichols. If Pentagon planners cannot contend with resource instability, and stability in politics is the exception rather than the rule, what good are their plans?