In June 2013, twenty-five think tank officials who specialize in defense issues released an open letter to then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. The letter called for internal reforms at the Department of Defense, such as the consolidation and closure of excess military infrastructure, the reduction in size of the Pentagon’s civilian workforce, and comprehensive reform of military compensation. What was remarkable about the letter was less the recommendations—many of which are widely recognized as necessary—but the willingness of conservative, neoconservative, progressive, and libertarian think tank officials to join together in an effort to see these reforms achieved.
The 2013 letter is worth mentioning now because yesterday four of its signatories gathered at the Cato Institute to discuss the continued need for such reforms in light of the Obama administration’s 2016 budget request. The panel discussion, moderated by Kate Brannen of Foreign Policy, included Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, MacKenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute, Dov Zakheim of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and Christopher Preble of Cato, who organized the event.
Harrison focused on the budget process, and the next steps for Congress now that the administration has released its request. Eaglen picked up on an issue that Harrison closed with—the Pentagon’s ballooning civilian workforce—and that the Department of Defense has little idea what to do about the problem. Zakheim also touched on the civilian personnel problem, but as a former Pentagon comptroller who served on the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, his remarks focused on the issue of compensation reform. Preble discussed the idea that removing current caps on spending would also remove any incentive the military had to pursue reforms and argued that if the military is given less, it should be asked to do less as well.
Other issues discussed included acquisition reform, which Harrison supported but also warned was no “silver bullet,” how Congress needs to allow the Pentagon to reduce its infrastructure through another base realignment and closure round, military readiness issues stemming from sequestration, and the upcoming “bow wave” in the military’s modernization plans. There was hardly universal agreement among the panelists. One exchange between Zakheim and Preble during the Q&A became heated enough that the former invoked the name of Louis Johnson, generally remembered as the country’s worst secretary of defense. Still, on this day at least, the consensus on the need for defense reform outweighed the disagreements.
Watch the entire event here.