WASHINGTON — Spurred by repeated Pentagon pricing scandals, the poor performance of a number of American military units on Grenada and the failure of a 40% real increase in defense spending to purchase any real increase in military strength, both Congress and the Administration have jumped on the military-reform bandwagon in the past year. Their most important initiatives are a bill sponsored by Sens. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), recently approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the recommendations of a presidential commission headed by former Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard.
The main purposes of the Nunn-Goldwater bill are to reduce the paralysis in military planning caused by interservice rivalry and to improve the notoriously poor quality of military advice provided by the Joints Chiefs of Staff. To these ends, the bill gives more authority to unified commanders--commanders who oversee all services in a specific area, such as Europe--and strengthens the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the expense of the individual service chiefs.
The bill is a step in the right direction. The Armed Services Committee staff report that spawned it is a tough, hard-hitting and accurate indictment of our current military command system. Increases in the authority of unified commanders, such as giving them the right to fire subordinates from other services, are long overdue. Cutting back the power of the service chiefs is justified, since they are almost always guardians of their service's bureaucratic interests first and serious military planners only second, if at all.
But the Nunn-Goldwater bill also has two major weaknesses. It tries to get clear, crisp, thoughtful advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff by giving the chairman more independence and authority. But if the chairman is not a real soldier but only a "milicrat"--a bureaucrat in uniform--he is not likely to use his new powers. He will still seek consensus, which is synonymous with vague, useless recommendations, with the other members of the Joint Chiefs, the service chiefs. He will do so because that is how bureaucrats operate. Very seldom does a real soldier become Joint Chiefs chairman, because our military promotion system generally promotes milicrats, office politicians and courtiers, not soldiers--not leaders, trainers and tacticians.
Nor does the bill fix something that can be fixed even in the face of current promotion policies: the joint staff under the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Today, most military advice has already been chewed into a meaningless pulp by the time the joint staff presents it to the Joint Chiefs for their action. This is largely because the officers who work on the joint staff are poorly educated in the art of war, selected casually and must return to their parent branch and service after their joint-staff tour. Unless they defend their service and branch parochial interests while on the joint staff, they commit career suicide.
The Senate bill should have replaced the joint staff with a true general staff. A general staff selects and educates its members very carefully, and once they become general staff officers, their promotions for the remainder of their career are controlled by the general staff itself. This gives them a license to be objective. They can give advice that works against parochial service interests without fear of retribution from the next promotion board.
The second widely reported reform initiative is the package of recommendations from the Packard commission. Some of these proposals would really change the way the system behaves. Four are particularly important. Selecting new weapons from among several competing prototypes, each against another (and, one hopes, against the weapon they are to replace) is one. This is very seldom done, but when we did it in the 1970s for two aircraft programs, the F-16 and the A-10, something surprising happened: We got new aircraft that performed better than the old ones and cost less.
A second important proposal is to buy more equipment off the shelf--that is, by selecting from among items already in production rather than putting out specifications that require a whole new design. For everything from knapsacks to trucks to transport aircraft, this can cut costs while letting the military benefit from product quality driven by the competitive, civilian marketplace.
A third reform proposed by the commission, more competitive procurement, can also cut costs. Today only about 6% of all defense procurement, measured by dollar value, is competitive in a classic, sealed-bid sense. In effect, at the same time that we laugh at the Soviet economy, we copy it when it comes time for the Defense Department to buy something.