My colleague Joshua Hampson wrote recently on the disconnect between strategy, technology, and spending at the Department of Defense. Josh argues that while a financial audit of the Department of Defense is necessary, a strategic and technological audit is also necessary to bring plans and resources together. Citing a recent Breaking Defense report on the U.S. military’s unexploited advantages in electronic warfare, he concludes, “Waste exists in part because the Pentagon’s strategy is uncoupled from their acquisitions, and vice versa. Reattaching these two aspects of defense policy will help in the mission to reduce financial waste.”

This conclusion raises the question of whether reestablishing that link is possible with the system currently in place at the Pentagon. As discussed here previously, the centralized planning system at the Department of Defense tends to reinforce the status quo bias to which many government bureaucracies fall prey. In theory, the Pentagon’s planning process is the product of strategy. The reality is far different.

The National Security Strategy (NSS) and Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) are supposed to serve as the basis for defense planning. The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 mandated the White House release a national security strategy annually, though no administration has followed through on that requirement. Instead, the NSS is usually produced once per term. Even then, it often appears later than scheduled. For example, the Obama administration released its strategy in February 2015 after more than a year’s delay. As Professors Gordon Adams and Cindy Williams note in their text on the defense budget process, these perpetual delays mean that the Department of Defense often moves ahead with planning without an overarching national strategy.

The Quadrennial Defense Review—mandated by Congress in the 1990s as the Pentagon grappled with its post-Cold War military strategy and force structure—is released, as its name suggests, every four years. The QDR was meant to be an iterative process that forced the Pentagon to continually reassess itself in a changing international security environment. It was meant to provide alternatives to current programs and highlight tradeoffs. Instead, the report produced during each QDR reflects watered-down compromises to satisfy the priorities of the various defense bureaucracies.

Even if the National Security Strategy did arrive on time, it is unlikely to provide coherent ideas around which defense plans could be made. Strategic planning documents like the NSS substitute pleasant sounding aspirations for concrete goals and ways to achieve them. “The National Security Strategy that President Obama issued in February 2015 was even more vacuous,” wrote Anthony Cordesman, a longtime defense analyst, of the Obama administration’s most recent NSS. “It set goal after goal, some of which bordered on the ludicrous.” Cordesman went on:

“Lead with purpose?” What was the president doing during his first six years of office? Handle climate change, Ebola, widespread economic slowdowns, and every other conceivable goal on the president’s agenda without ever getting down to the plan, the cost, and any other specifics? “Put our economy to work?” “Shape the global economic order?” “End extreme poverty?” “Live our values?” “Empower civil society and young leaders?” The document had hundreds of goals and good intentions but no meaningful plans, programs, or budgets.

From these often-late, vague, and watered-down documents flows the Strategic Planning Guidance (SPG). Adams and Williams write that the SPG “communicates the [defense] secretary’s top priorities, information about risk tolerance in the department’s various theaters and mission areas, and broad guidance related to military and business capabilities that the upcoming program and budget are meant to support.” The SPG is “resource informed,” rather than “resource constrained”—meaning it “does not tote up the full costs of it.” Instead, a fiscal guidance is issued that covers six years—even though major acquisition programs tend to take a decade or two. The undersecretary of defense for policy and the director for program analysis and evaluation make up the Joint Programming Guidance (JPG), which “is fiscally constrained in the sense that each component should be able to carry out its guidance within the budget it anticipates.” The Chairman’s Program Recommendation, from the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, “informs” the JPG—as do the Integrated Priority Lists the regional combatant commands contribute.

This process, with its multitudinous “guidance,” is the legacy of Robert McNamara’s attempt to force order and rationality on the defense budget. The problem is that the McNamara system assumes strategy is imposed from the top-down, and on a schedule that conforms to a formalized procedure, rather than an iterative process that takes place over time. When those at the top either fail to impose the strategy, or if what is imposed consists of little more than platitudes, path dependence is likely to supersede strategy. Thus the military services pursue organizational prerogatives disconnected from larger strategic goals.

This disconnect is evident not only in how the Pentagon plans, but also in how the military uses technology. As James Q. Wilson observed in describing bureaucratic behavior, “Organizations will readily accept (or at least not bitterly resist) inventions that facilitate the performance of existing tasks in a way consistent with existing managerial arrangements.” The U.S. military often accepts new technologies, but the services are more likely to graft them onto existing force structures and incorporate them in existing doctrines than they are to look for new, more efficient and effective, ways to use them. The status quo bias in the planning system merely reinforces that tendency. It is therefore not surprising that the military overlooked ways in which it might use its electronic warfare capabilities more effectively, since doing so would have required the adoption of new practices and procedures.

So how could the Pentagon achieve the strategic and technological audits Josh recommends?

There is no easy way to counter bureaucratic status quo bias, but relying on centralized formal planning to impose rationality from above obviously has not achieved this end. It has, in fact, worsened it. Decentralization is no guarantee against organizational sclerosis, but it can create conditions under which it is no longer amenable to organizational interests. As political scientist Ionut Popescu notes in an essay critiquing Pentagon planning:

The way that successful companies such as General Electric adapted to the internal challenges of a sclerotic bureaucracy and the external challenges of facing a fragmented and rapidly changing competitive environment was to decentralize the strategy-making process and emphasize bottom-up emergent learning rather than top-down deliberate planning.

At the Department of Defense, this would mean giving more responsibility for planning to the military services themselves. They are the primary users of defense resources and thus possess the best information about how resources should be used. However, devolving planning responsibility to the services is not enough to overcome their desire to preserve organizational prerogatives. Limiting defense spending will force them to make choices in how to use their resources though. In the competition for scarce resources, pursuing the status quo at the expense of efficiency and effectiveness will lead to the loss of funding to other services who can better match resources, technology, and strategy. The combination of scarcity and competition will thus force the services to audit themselves.