The Defense Reform Consensus

Today at noon, a group of scholars from several different Washington think tanks will present a joint letter making the case for major reform within the defense establishment. The Wall Street Journal blog leaked some elements of the letter on Thursday, and the full text is now available online here.

The initiative is remarkable both for the names and affiliations of those who signed–from the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute and the Foreign Policy Initiative, to the liberal National Security Network and the Center for American Progress–and for the depth of its analysis. Although I will be unable to attend the meeting on Capitol Hill due to a schedule conflict, I am honored to be a signatory. It is a timely (indeed, long overdue) and important undertaking.

Specifically, the letter calls for closing “excess bases and facilities, [reexamining] the size and structure of the DoD civilian workforce, and [reforming] military compensation.”

The letter continues:

While we do not all agree on the best approach to reform in each case, we agree that if these issues are not addressed, they will gradually consume the defense budget from within. This will leave a smaller share of the budget to pay for the manning, training and equipping of our armed forces that make the U.S. military second to none.

I did not have a hand in drafting the letter, but I endorse it wholeheartedly. I have been concerned with all three of these issues for many years. Reducing the civilian workforce accounted for nearly nine percent ($105 billion) of the $1.2 trillion in savings that Benjamin Friedman and I estimated in our Policy Analysis published in September 2010. Ben and I also called for reducing overhead, including excess base capacity, and for reforming the calculation of military pay and benefits.

Other projects involving experts from a number of different think tanks have also taken aim at some of these issues. The report of the Sustainable Defense Task Force (SDTF), of which I was a member, called for reforming military compensation and health care, and reducing “command, support and infrastructure” commensurate with the other cuts outlined in the report.

Unlike the members of the SDTF, however, the participants in this latest effort do not agree that the Pentagon’s budget should be cut in the first place. The letter explains:

Those of us who have joined together in support of these efforts find ourselves with differing views on many other issues, including the proper level of defense spending and how that money can best be allocated. But we are all in strong agreement on the need to pursue these key reforms for a transforming military.

Here are a few other choice passages:

There is no shortage of useful ideas on how to begin addressing these pressing matters. The challenge has been getting Congress and the administration to admit change is required and take action.

[…]

None of these reforms will be easy, painless, or popular. But they are absolutely essential to maintaining a strong national defense over the long term. These smart and responsible initiatives should be undertaken by Pentagon and Congressional leaders regardless of the level of defense spending. While these reforms are necessary, they are not of themselves sufficient to meet the fiscal and strategic challenges the military currently faces.

As the letter states, it will be difficult to implement these recommendations. It cannot be seen as a partisan exercise; and it is not. Signatories include individuals who have served both Republicans and Democrats. There are liberals and conservatives (in addition to this one libertarian). I hope that this joint letter, and the subsequent events and articles that will flow from it, provides some much needed cover for members of Congress, and other experts within the policy community, to advocate for these sensible and long-overdue reforms.