As previously discussed here, a great deal of the case being made to increase defense spending is based on supposed damage to the military’s readiness. A related line of argument military leaders and defense officials make has to do with risk. For example, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey told PBS Newshour last year that due to the spending limits established by the Budget Control Act, “risks are beginning to accrue.” He argued that, should the budget caps remain in place for fiscal year 2016, “then we will have what I think would be too much risk.”
According to Michael Mazarr, a political scientist with the RAND Corporation, the way Dempsey and other defense leaders discuss risk as it relates to national security is flawed in ways similar to the military’s rhetoric about readiness. Drawing on research he has conducted over the past year, Mazarr recently discussed the way risk is assessed as it pertains to defense policy in a pair of essays for War on the Rocks. He argues in the first essay:
I have come to believe that, notwithstanding a number of well-designed risk frameworks being employed for very specific purposes, the way we use risk in national security has too often been ill-defined and misleading. We need a more focused and precise understanding of risk at the highest levels. In the process of developing one, we should judge risk processes by one fundamental criterion—the degree to which they contribute to the making of effective strategy.
In his second essay, Mazarr discusses a way of better assessing risk that eschews linearity and takes into account contextual and subjective factors such as values. Both essays are worth reading in full. However, one of Mazarr’s “four basic elements” for approaching risk stands out: “Risk processes must be grounded in the right organizational culture.” He writes:
A strong risk culture has a number of typical characteristics. It takes the risk part of the risk-reward calculus seriously, and while not abandoning boldness or aggression, makes clear that everyone’s job is being risk-aware. It connects risk management to senior leadership: CEOs and other top officials must set a clear tone of risk appreciation from the top and reinforce the seriousness of the issue with their own actions. It values dissent and warnings and treats those who provide them as prized institutional assets. It imposes accountability for risk management, punishing those who fail to achieve it — no matter how favored they may have been. And it is built around open and shared risk assessments, ensuring a constant dialogue throughout the firm, and making sure that risks don’t become submerged under layers of assumption or wishful thinking.
In many important ways, the organizational culture of the Department of Defense is the polar opposite of the type Mazarr describes. The Pentagon’s Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) system and the military’s emphasis on jointness prize consensus and comity above all. Dissent is not a valued commodity. Under PPBE, dissenting views are allowed, but the byzantine nature of the system means there is little chance they will amount to much. Under the military’s culture of jointness, dissent can amount to heresy. Mazarr is right that better ways of assessing risk in national defense are needed, but major changes must also be made at the Pentagon to develop an organizational culture conducive to them.