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Defense acquisition reform: small step or pointless?

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The Pentagon announced Monday a series of steps it hoped would save $100bn over 5 years. These steps are focused on creating greater “efficiencies” in the defense acquisition process. Defense acquisition chief Ashton Carter said to reporters “In the rest of the economy, we expect this — you get a better computer every year, and cheaper. But we haven’t seen productivity growth in the defense economy. More has been costing more, and we need to reverse that trend and restore affordability to our programs.”

The plan, detailed in this memo by Ashton Carter, has logical objectives. Amongst other things, it aims to “deliver the warfighter capability we need for the dollars we have” and to “get better buying power” for the defense department. Carter advocates steps to reach these objectives which also seem rational.

He splits these steps into two sections. The first section focuses on how the Pentagon can change the defense industry by giving it incentives to become more efficient. This section is called “Providing Incentives for Greater Efficiency in Industry.” It includes these steps:

  • Leveraging real competition
  • Using proper contract type for development and procurement
  • Using proper contract type for services
  • Aligning policy on profit and fee to circumstance
  • Sharing the benefits of cash flow
  • Targeting non-value-added costs
  • Involving dynamic small business in defense
  • Rewarding excellent suppliers

The second section is called “Adopting Government Practices that Encourage Efficiency.” Seemingly it includes efforts to change and reform government practices to become more efficient. It includes:

  • Adopting “should-cost” and “will-cost” management
  • Strengthening the acquisition workforce
  • Improving audits
  • Mandating affordability as a requirement
  • Stabilizing production rates
  • Eliminating redundancy within warfighting portfolios
  • Establishing senior managers for procurement of services
  • Protecting the technological base

At first glance you would think all of these actions would already be happening. Indeed, most businesses operating in competitive environments would already do these things. But the defense sector is not subject to the rules of competitive markets. As Dan Froomkin notes, “it’s a testament to how corrupt the now $400 billion a year contracting process has become that the changes outlined [above] seem in any way dramatic; they are, mostly, simply assertions of common sense.”

Ashton Carter proposes to open contract bidding to more firms and even source defense needs from smaller businesses. He advocates “fixed-price” contracting over “cost-plus” contracting, basically shifting the burden to cover cost overruns from the DoD to the defense supplier. But these initiatives are assured to meet up against congressional roadblocks and an industry well sheltered from competition, foreign or domestic.

Perhaps as an indication of how this would play out, earlier this year Northrop Grumman walked away from a $35bn contest to select a replacement for the air force’s fleet of refuelling tankers in part because the Pentagon insisted on a fixed-price development contract. That left only Boeing and the European based EADS to bid for the project, which has characteristically went political and become a source of congressional parochialism.

Next, the Defense Department pledges to refine its in-house acquisition capabilities. Meaning it wants to get better at buying things. For example, “will-cost” management is something the Pentagon doesn’t do well because it doesn’t have engineers and project managers well-trained enough to determine how much a project is actually going to cost.

Take the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Running nearly $500 million per ship, these coastal “asymmetric” warfighting vessels (otherwise known as Lavishly Crewed Speedboat, or any of these other acronyms) originally were supposed to cost $90 million per ship. But because the Pentagon awarded the ship-building contract prematurely to General Dynamics, the hull was built before the Navy had submitted its requirements for what it wanted the ship to do. Defense Department acquisition personnel were unable to convince or realize that cost overruns would occur, which led to the 500% increase in price.

To get to my point: Acquisition reform is only the beginning. In fact, the projected $20bn a year savings is an optimistic figure subject to changing political conditions. To create substantial reductions in the defense budget will require real cuts to real programs, and the lowering of end-strength in some of the services. This in turn, will have to be predicated by a more limited mission for the Department of Defense. One that doesn’t necessarily include the projection of power to all parts of the globe and state building in war-torn countries located in the geo-strategic periphery of U.S. national interest.

Two posts on an overloaded national security strategy and China’s angering behavior

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In back-to-back posts, Professor Dan Drezner talks about strategy. In the first case, Drezner talks about President Obama’s National Security Strategy, which last month was released and meant to detail everything that the president thought was a national security risk and, consequently, the actions his administration could take to reduce those risks.

Drezner’s assessment of the document is that it is “mostly harmless,” if maybe a bit contradictory on nuclear policy with a stated aim at retrenchment (which requires a strong deterrent) and nuclear disarmament (which nuclear weapons provide the best/cheapest deterrent). Drezner also points out the deficiencies in President Obama’s plan to get America’s fiscal house in order, saying that it is short on actions that could improve American economic strength.

These criticisms aside, the National Security Strategy has some other major flaws. Principally, it includes too much. There are sections covering the economy, environment, “international science partnerships”, and promoting democracy abroad. These things are well and good, but their placement on a national security document waters down its purpose: to identify security threats and formulate plans to address those threats.

In his second post, Drezner writes about how China’s behavior over the past nine months – angering officials at international conferences and not placating to the interests of others – is stupidly endangering their own strategic interests. In a way, I agree with Professor Drezner in that strategic communications are important and China needs to do them better. But, in the end, does how you talk to another country matter if you hold the hard sources of power?

Drezner states:

China’s strategy here is of a piece with their behavior over the past nine months or so, which, intentionally or not, could be characterized as “Pissing Off as Many Countries As Possible.”


This is a long and distinguished list of countries to alienate [Drezner identified numerous].  It certainly signals a shift, intended or not, from the “peaceful rising” approach of the past decade or so.  It also appears to be bad strategy — simultaneously angering the countries that could form a balancing coalition is not an exercise in smart power.  And as I’ve said before, China has badly overestimated how it can translate its financial capabilities into foreign policy leverage.

Here I disagree. Only on the grounds that China’s actions simply exist in the realm of international opinion. What they are doing does not alter global hard power dynamics. The soft power aspect is important but not as much as Drezner implies.

China is making poor strategic communications. Arguably this is a bad move but large powers often say things that anger other countries. While maybe an idealist would want a friendlier dialog, a realist would know that it doesn’t matter so much.

Smoke and minerals: Afghanistan’s “new” riches don’t matter

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You would think $1 trillion worth of minerals would not go unnoticed for so long. But apparently, the Pentagon believes it just “discovered” a vast wealth of minerals in Afghanistan which could be the treasure chest needed to fund the Afghan treasury (something the U.S. currently does). Sounding more like a marketing agency, the Pentagon revealed in an internal memo that the minerals offered so much potential that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium.”

Altogether this hoopla is reminiscent to Paul Wolfowitz’s proclamations at the beginning of the Iraq War that oil revenues would cover the costs of occupation and fund the transitional government.  But really, everybody knows that it would take years, if not decades, to develop Afghanistan’s mines. And even by then, the likely beneficiaries of those mines will be Afghan power-brokers (not the people) and unscrupulous investors (such as in the Chinese-Aynak copper deal).

For further reading: This subject was broached in “Who competes over failed states?

Written by gringolost

June 15, 2010 at 11:03 am

Vietnam’s great war hero: General Vo Nguyen Giap

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This is Part II of an 8 part series on great generals during the industrial warfare era. Part I covers Omar Bradley.

General Vo Nguyen Giap was forced into exile in 1939, fleeing to southern China where he met and learned guerrilla warfare from Mao Tse-Tung. Giap would later tailor Mao’s maxims on war to fit the conflicts and terrain of Vietnam. There he would defeat two of the world’s great powers: Overwhelming the French at Dien Bien Phu, pushing them to retreat past the 17th parallel (dividing Vietnam into Northern and Southern halves). Then after nearly a decade of conflict with American forces, Giap would break American containment and lead the reunification of North and South Vietnam under communist rule in 1975.

Giap is well-regarded for countering superior technology and firepower from the French and American side with his effective combination of conventional and guerrilla tactics.  His doctrine for the use of force fell into three stages: 1) guerrilla insurgency and unconventional assaults during the initial stage of contention; 2) mix of guerrilla and mobile-conventional warfare during equilibrium stage/protracted war; and 3) increase mobile warfare with conventional forces in order to exploit the loss of the will to fight by opposing forces. Using these three principles, Giap orchestrated the French defeat by isolating then overpowering French forces. Against the U.S., he effectively supplied and augmented the Vietminh insurgency while holding key positional ground in the northern border regions of South Vietnam.

But lastly the reason Giap makes our list of top 8 industrial war era generals is because he understood, perhaps more than anybody, the connections between political goals and military strategy. Giap practiced grand strategic political warfare. On war, Giap has written “not only did we fight in the military field but in the political, economic and cultural fields.” In this regard, he timed the siege of Dien Bien Phu to coincide with rising French disillusionment in Indochina and their growing willingness to have conciliatory talks with Ho Chi Minh. And he countered America’s strategy of attrition with an ability to harness local disenfranchisement and prolong the battle beyond the American public’s will to fight.

My return to blogging: Looming danger in Korea, debt burdens, and security strategy

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Life’s been hectic the past month or so. But after last week’s graduation from The Fletcher School (congrats fellow neo-alumni!), my schedule is starting to clear up. Now free from classes, I can concentrate on those other things that make me miserable, i.e. job searching and FINISHING MY THESIS. But in the meantime, why not do some learning through blogging.

I’ll start my return with a quick post about interesting news items and hopefully pick up a steady schedule of 1 or 2 posts a week. My focus, for those unfamiliar, is on geopolitical issues, American defense and national security, and odd international news (the kind that makes foreign policy more interesting than domestic policy).

So here we go…

News on Korea

The Cheonan Report has been out for more than a week now (text can be found here: ROK Cheonan report 5-20-10). In it overwhelming evidence reveals that North Korea sunk the ROK warship Cheonan with a torpedo. Since then concern has been that Kim Jong-il approved of the strike personally, while some speculate it was an act of insubordination. What could the analysis be if either of these scenarios are the case? If Kim approved of the attack is this a plea cloaked by a dagger? Or is Kim signaling back off or else? If the act was an insubordinate action by a rogue commander, does this mean Kim is losing control of his regime with power going to the military? Something not unlikely in a country about to be taken over by third generation 27-year old heir apparent. These are points up for discussion.

More related news: there is some confusion about the level of technological advancement in North Korea’s submarine fleet. And South Korea has lost track of four North Korean subs. Here’s some insight courtesy of the Cheonan Report – The North Korean military is in possession of a fleet of about 70 submarines, comprised of approximately 20 Romeo class submarines (1,800 tons), 40 Sango class submarines (300 tons) and 10 midget submarines including the Yeono class (130 tons).

Oddly related news: Zimbabwe’s reprobate president Robert Mugabe is sending an il-conceived gift (get the pun) of wild animals to North Korea, apparently as a token of friendship.

News on National Debt

It soars past $13 trillion, or 13000000000000.


News on Security Strategy

General McChrystal called Marjah a “bleeding ulcer.” Something you don’t want to hear about a campaign that is supposed to be the blueprint for the coalition’s plans in Kandahar. Meanwhile, Obama reveals his National Security Strategy in which he admits our “military is overstretched.”

So that’s most of the latest. There is, of course, an ongoing oil spill that everyone is well aware of. But BP is on the case with its poorly named “Top Kill” attempt to stop the ongoing oiling of the Gulf.

Cheonan's torpedo impact location

Taxing Marjeh, yet another way to “win” Afghanistan

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Joshua Foust from writes in the NYTimes and World Politics Review that the best way to push out militants and establish effective governance in Marjeh is to establish a working tax and property rights system run by the Afghan government. Foust believes the Taliban’s system of taxation should be mimicked by ISAF. Foust writes that this approach can be more effective in winning the population over than just simply establishing rule of law through government in a box:

This presents an incredible opportunity for the newly installed government to establish a sustainable set of governance institutions. Rather than following the established ISAF model of focusing on law-and-order, which has at best a mixed record, Haji Zahir and his ISAF sponsors should focus first and foremost on establishing a stable tax regime, including checks and balances necessary to minimize the predatory behavior that ruined the previous government’s reputation.

I only have one comment to this proposal (which isn’t wrong in its own right but still will not work): Taxing Marjeh might sound like a great idea but it is just another great idea in many that can only postpone the inevitable. Whether it’s establishing rule of law, a tax system, alternative crops, building roads, etc etc… the only way out of this is to compromise on what’s not essential (governing Afghanistan) and focus on what is essential (separating the Taliban from al Qaeda).

This comment was posted to Foust’s Registran blog here.

Written by gringolost

March 3, 2010 at 9:20 am

Memo for the President of the United States

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Let’s pretend you are the Secretary of Defense. Now let’s pretend that POTUS (you know who) asks you to write a short memo on what the U.S. can do to better to protect national security. Let’s also pretend that your previous idea for a memo was rejected in the initial draft phase (It had these 3 recommendations: more enlisted soldier training, aligning the Dept of State regional bureaus with the Dept of Defense Unified Combatant Command System, and creating a hybrid warfare doctrine for military operations). But that didn’t work.

Now if you’ve gotten this far you might be stumped. Or at least I was. But I had to pen something because the POTUS was demanding this memo right away. And POTUS said my grade depended on it. Or at least 25%. So, to please POTUS (My professor) I turned in this memo…

Memorandum for the President of the United States

Subject: Increasing Personnel Readiness for Hybrid Warfare

Conflicts in the 21st century are characterized by a hybrid blend of tactics, conventional and irregular, administered by decentralized networks of enemy combatants. To meet this challenge the DoD must evolve by creating a more versatile military force. Additionally diplomatic and development aid efforts must be better orientated towards addressing hybrid warfare threats. The problem with military personnel is that they are inadequately trained to operate in the ambiguous environments that characterize hybrid warfare. While civilian agencies responsible for providing diplomacy and reconstruction assistance during hybrid contingency operations are improperly orientated to the military’s mission which inhibits their ability to effectively deploy in tandem with the DoD.

This memo proposes two solutions to the aforementioned problems. (1) Train military forces in hybrid warfare by focusing on the cross-specialization of job duties and education of service personnel. (2) Orientate diplomacy and aid capabilities to help the DoD augment the country’s hybrid warfare capabilities. These two programs place an emphasis on cross-training between Agencies and Departments of the Federal government. The programs also aim to develop military and diplomatic personnel with an interdisciplinary understanding of hybrid warfare.

Recommendation 1: Institute training focused on hybrid warfare. To prepare forces for hybrid threats necessitates training for multi-modal operations and building greater cognitive awareness in troops so they can navigate complex situations involving civilian populations and enemy combatants. This type of force will have to be built upon a solid professional foundation based in the officer corps but crossing over to the enlisted members and lower-ranks. Certain decision-making functions will have to be flattened which mandates more cross-specialization training for small unit leaders so they can take decisive actions in real time. The proposed training program will include advanced interdisciplinary training between military occupational specialties; better mid-career development for non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers, including fellowships with national defense universities; and more opportunities to attend the Foreign Service Institute. Training should incorporate education on new uses for information technology in the battlefield.

As a consequence of this reform expect to see pushback from senior military leadership who prefer to focus on conventional operations and specialized skill-sets in their combat personnel. The likely cost of this endeavor should be less than $10 billion annually, based on instituting training for new recruits and conducting remedial training for existing personnel. To mitigate these specific cost concerns funds can be pulled from conventional training programs.

Recommendation 2: Orientate foreign aid capabilities to address hybrid threats. Since the hybrid warfare environment will require agile and comprehensive countering measures, it will be necessary to have civilian agencies adept at providing support in tandem with the military. This will require synchronization between the DoD and civilian agencies. Civilian agencies should be prepared to serve on the front-lines or amidst combat situations. The proposed program recommends creating diplomatic and civilian aid capabilities which can link with the military’s mission during early phases of potential hybrid conflict. This program does not recommend creating a new division to house interagency efforts.

The program will create an operational design which subtly directs the sources of power to either defeat an enemy or gain the support of non-combatants. The program’s focus will be on establishing (a) a contingency gendarmerie force which can provide law and order during stability operations, (b) a cadre of legal specialists which can rapidly deploy with military forces to ensure the functioning of a judicial system, and (c) a strategic communications capability which can process and publicly address developments in the event of hybrid war. These program goals will be met by conducting interagency training. Most notably, a yearly interagency hybrid warfare training exercise will require different departments in the federal government to train in unison against the most dangerous threat scenarios of hybrid war.

This program’s costs will likely run under $10 billion annually with most of the costs used to hire and train additional civilian aid personnel, plus the additional costs of running an interagency exercise. Resourcing this program can be a joint effort with funds coming from the DoD and other federal departments. The likely consequences of this program will include pushback from personnel in the law enforcement, foreign aid and diplomacy communities who will be reluctant to collaborate increasingly with the military. Many civilian agencies will likely resent the proposal to imbed with military units.

Memo: US response to Iran’s nuclear program

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It’s the end of the semester here at The Fletcher School. With that comes finals. One of my finals was a policy options memo on how the U.S. could respond to the current Iranian nuclear issue. The memo is about 1,500 words, but I just wanted to share about 600 words that cover, what I think, are the 3 courses of action available to U.S. policy-makers. Here goes:

The Obama administration has essentially three viable courses of action in which to proceed: engagement, containment & deterrence, and rollback. These three options cannot be pursued simultaneously but exist along a continuum. These options can be augmented by supplementary inducements, both political and economic.

  • Engagement has been “Plan A” for this administration. Whether in a multilateral framework or bilateral talks, negotiations with Iran have been shrouded with threats of punitive economic action. To compel Iran to put its nuclear program on the negotiating table will likely require harsher sanctions on the regime. However, it will be tremendously difficult to gain international support for what essentially would be a near-boycott of Iran.
    • The downside to engaging Iran with the threat of economic sanctions is the policy’s risk of hardening disapproval against the U.S. in the region. Further, the success of this policy is inextricably linked to our ability to gain an international coalition to impose such sanctions.
  • Connected to engagement is the “Plan B” option of what the U.S. could do to oppose an Iran with nuclear weapons. Here, U.S. policy would be one of containment and deterrence against the regime. This option becomes enacted whence the failure of engagement. To maximize the utility of containment and deterrence, the U.S. will need to form multinational strategic partnerships and explicitly convey these partnerships to Iran.
    • Necessarily, the U.S. would have to extend its nuclear umbrella to allies, deterring Iran based on our second-strike capabilities. As with engagement, containment will require increased international cooperation to isolate Iran.
  • The rollback option will emphasize less engagement, although engagement can be a tool to gauge Iranian intentions. Rollback will begin with increasingly stringent sanctions; then it will be followed by preventative strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. The rollback policy will require significant calibration to signal our resolve against Iran. Necessarily, regime change will be seen as an escalation of this policy. By gradually escalating the use of force, the U.S. could dissuade Iran sufficiently to cease its nuclear activities.
    • The risks posed by this option are great. The American image abroad will suffer should another attempt at regime change occur. Additionally, there is the risk that escalation could draw the U.S. into a larger war with Iran. Further, it will be difficult to predict the behavior of an Iran that has been directly attacked by the U.S.
  • Supplementary inducements include the repeal of current sanctions against Iran. Additionally, political concessions to Iran will have to be made. The U.S. will most likely have to back Iran’s ascent to greater regional leadership.
    • As an supplement, inducements are most likely to succeed with the rollback option. However, this combination still holds the most risks to American interests. Inducements coupled with engagement could produce positive results, but the “Plan B” containment and deterrence option must remain as a safety mechanism.

Recommendation: Engagement coupled with political and economic inducements should be this administration’s priority. However, this policy should be prefaced with explicit statements that any and all available means will be employed to contain and deter Iran if engagement does not work. Although this strategy may strengthen Ahmadinejad’s hold on power, it offers the best chance of de-nuclearizing the country without having to resort to force.

Who competes over failed states?

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Jakub Grygiel in this American Interest article argues that failed states are power “vacuums” that could lead to Great Power confrontation.  *Hopefully, this will not happen in California.

According to Grygiel, “[t]he interest of these great powers is not to rebuild the state or to engage in ‘nation-building’ for humanitarian purposes but to establish a foothold in the region, to obtain favorable economic deals, especially in the energy sector, and to weaken the presence of other great powers.”

Grygiel uses the term “nation-building” but that is primarily a lexicon used by the U.S. to describe its robust  involvement with governments in troubled or post-conflict regions.  The principle U.S. government apparatus overseeing these operations is the Department of States’ Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS).  This Office’s operations are augmented with support from the  DoD, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, amongst others.  Altogether these agencies work to “help stabilize and reconstruct societies in transition from conflict or civil strife, so they can reach a sustainable path toward peace, democracy and a market economy.”

This is the U.S. approach to “nation-building” but Grygiel argues that these operations are part of a larger strategy to claim neo-colonial possessions before other equal or growing powers do so.  Thus, if we were to combine this theory with practice, we could look at where the S/CRS nation-builds and see if there is competition from other foreign powers for regional clout.  Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan provide three cases of S/CRS assistance. With the most obvious example of Great Power “competition” over clout within these states coming from China.  To be sure, there are plenty other states where competition to fill power vacuums could occur but these three examples are a good test of Gyrgiel’s theory.

To keep this post short, we’ll take at face value that U.S. assistance in these states is, at least in part, conditional; meaning aid-receiving governments must comply with a certain level of American influence on their political system. Now in comparison, China’s support (foreign direct investment) is mostly unconditional.

Contrary to the U.S., China’s primary reason to become involved with these states is economic instead of security-oriented.  Seemingly, this is why China cares less about the character of the political system and more about absolute resources gains.  In essence, China pursues a moral-free foreign policy agenda while the U.S. sees its interests as more comprehensive entailing free markets, stabilization, and regional security.

Returning to the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan examples, we can see how China’s involvement is less competitive with the U.S. in a security sense.  This is not to say that competition over resources will never occur, but that resource competition is more likely to occur between countries such as Russia and China or India and China, than it is to occur between the U.S. and other great or growing powers.

  • Iraq: China’s National Petroleum Corporation won the first petrol licensing bid worth $3 billion.
  • Afghanistan: The China Metallurgical Group win’s the largest bid in Afghanistan history (worth $3.5 billion) to develop the Aynak copper field.
  • Sudan: Despite the ICC arrest warrant for Omar Bashir, China still engages in an arms trade with Sudan and develops its oil fields.

These Chinese investments are clearly intended to resource China’s growth needs.  And despite the exuberant investments, there has been no competition between China and the U.S. that could be called destabilizing to international security.  Of course, who knows what the future holds and if competition would arise eventually.  But it’s a leap to say power vacuums will automatically lead to competition between all Great Powers.

Sen. Kerry shows up for the Afghan debate

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Comments made by Sen. John Kerry during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Afghanistan:

I am concerned because at the very moment when our troops and our allies’ troops are sacrificing more and more, our plan, our path, and our progress seem to be growing less and less clear. … no amount of money, no rise in troop levels, and no clever metrics will matter if the mission is ill conceived.

Now, if we can only get Congress to stop passing war supplemental appropriations.


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