Wednesday night’s Republican primary debate offered more discussion of defense policy than the previous one. Unfortunately, it remained relatively substance free. Senator Marco Rubio claimed the military has been “eviscerated” despite spending remaining near record highs when adjusting for inflation. Dr. Ben Carson lamented the “small” size of the U.S. Navy, even as the United States maintains more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined. Carly Fiorina offered the most detailed plan for expanding the military, but her ideas are in no way affordable.
The GOP has a standard refrain when it comes to fixing whatever ails the military: more. And “more” generally means “more money.” Instead, the Republican candidates for president should be thinking about who they will appoint as secretary of defense should he or she win. More importantly, they should think about naming someone who will address the Pentagon’s outdated planning system.
As discussed here previously, the Department of Defense continues to use a planning system based on the one Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara installed in 1961. McNamara, having come from Ford Motor Company, brought the state of the art in corporate strategic planning to the Pentagon. The system was supposed bring order and rationality to a complex organization with powerful and competing sub-organizations. The problem with the system is that it requires stability and predictability for planning purposes. As political scientist Ionut Popescu notes in an essay critiquing the Pentagon’s planning practices, the business world began to move away from similar systems in the 1970s as turbulence in the global economy demonstrated that predictability is a chimera.
Stability and predictability in politics is never guaranteed. Events in international politics rarely unfold as predicted. Domestically, political competition over limited resources makes stability hard to count on. Popescu argues that the Pentagon’s planning system is not responsive to these kinds of unpredictable change. Instead of adapting to new conditions—new threats on the international level or changing political priorities at home—the Pentagon bureaucracy tends to act to preserve previously-made plans. No matter how much new money is thrown at the Pentagon, this sort of lumbering inflexibility will keep it from adding up to genuine military “readiness.”
Rather than continuing to glibly argue for more money for the Department of Defense, the Republican candidates should consider the opportunity to rise above the pack by announcing who they would choose to run the world’s largest bureaucracy, and why. In evaluating potential appointees for secretary of defense, the first thing they should ask is what he or she would do about the Pentagon’s planning system. Calling for a bigger defense budget, as Republican candidates consistently do, signals complacent satisfaction with an antiquated status quo. Promising a modern planning system, and a secretary of defense who will overthrow the status quo, would signal leadership.