From the moment they landed in Afghanistan, American forces worked to blend into a dusty, windswept warscape from another time. Crack U.S. fighters trained to strike with stealth and lasers instead grew beards, donned scarves, and rode horses trained to charge into machine-gun fire. They used pack-mules to transport equipment at night past minefields, and along narrow trails that dropped away into harrowing mountain chasms. Preparing to attack Taliban stronghold Mazar-e Sharif, they helped anti-Taliban Afghan soldiers with food, taught them tactics.
At a briefing of junior and senior officers at the National Defense University in January, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the rest of the story of the battle for Mazar: "On the appointed day, one of the [Special Forces] teams slipped in and hid well behind the lines, ready to call in airstrikes, and the bomb blasts would be the signal for others to charge.
"When the moment came, they signaled ... coalition aircraft and looked at their watches. Two minutes and 15 seconds, 10 seconds-and then, out of nowhere, precision-guided bombs began to land on Taliban and al-Qaeda positions. The explosions were deafening, and the timing so precise that, as the soldiers described it, hundreds of Afghan horsemen literally came riding out of the smoke, coming down on the enemy in clouds of dust and flying shrapnel.... And they rode boldly-Americans, Afghans, towards the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. It was the first cavalry attack of the 21st century."
Mr. Rumsfeld wasn't just entertaining senior troops with a gripping war story that day. He was addressing the need for the "transformation" of the American military. He held up the victory at Mazar-a strategic domino that ultimately toppled the Taliban from power-as an example of what American ingenuity could achieve. But he also pointed out the need for the whole Department of Defense, not just troops on the ground, to break free from Cold-War thinking-and from a bureaucratic quagmire that swallows fresh ideas the way a black hole swallows matter.
"The way the Department of Defense runs," said Mr. Rumsfeld, "... is broken. It is not serving the department or the country well. And yet it is inexorable. It just rolls along, like the freight train coming from San Francisco with the wrong things for New York."
George W. Bush's 2003 defense budget, passed quietly by the House last week with little of the usual interparty swordplay, may help. The $393 billion, two-bill package is the largest real increase in defense spending since 1966, and the largest defense budget, period, in more than a decade. The core "non-war" budget raises military pay, funds ballistic missile defense ($7.8 billion), increases key readiness accounts ($4.6 billion), bankrolls procurement ($73 billion), and allots more than $56 billion for military systems research and development.
That's a promising start. But DOD critics-and some government reports-say money alone won't jumpstart the management inertia that plagues the department. Instead, they say infighting, parochialism, and arcane accounting and procurement practices may torpedo the Bush-Rumsfeld vision of a "transformed" U.S. military.
"American forces are, on the whole, extremely flexible at tactics but more rigid institutionally," writes Johns Hopkins University Professor of Strategic Studies Eliot A. Cohen in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. "Although some stirrings are visible, the services have generally been unwilling to explore moving beyond old forms of organization."
Why do the armed services need transforming when the point of the American military spear is proving so sharp in Afghanistan? Because defense analysts worry that the new century will usher in threats from far more able adversaries.
Among them: China. Though it lags seriously behind the U.S. in firepower, China's military expenditures may have increased by roughly 40 percent between 1990 and 1995, according to an Army Strategic Studies Institute report issued in March. China also "appears to be developing a war-fighting, as opposed to a deterrence-oriented, nuclear weapons doctrine."
Another threat: North Korea. Now capable of firing ballistic missiles at U.S. interests, the communist nation worries national security analysts. They also are concerned with Russia's ability to maintain a coherent state-and thus maintain control over its significant supply of tactical and strategic weapons. Add to those worries a vast number and variety of "asymmetric threats," such as the 9/11 attacks.
"It is entirely possible that within a generation, more than one aspiring regional power will have both the motivation and the means to pose a sizeable military threat to U.S. interests," wrote then-Defense Secretary William Cohen in his 2001 Annual Defense Report. That report, issued prior to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, also warned of state-sponsored "terrorists capable of increased levels of violence [that] directly threaten American lives."
It was Sept. 11 that triggered the first serious sea change in U.S. military policy. President Bush "shook the defense department loose from the psychosis that America is incapable of asserting our own interests as we see fit, without getting permission from the UN and other countries," said J. Michael Waller, vice president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.
Yet, despite 9/11-inspired urgency, the Pentagon "still is not on a war footing," Mr. Waller notes. "It's still taking an obscenely long time for procurement. There are emergency exceptions, but overall, you have this sense of business as usual, of military bureaucracy."
Mr. Rumsfeld agrees. "Almost every day in meetings, I am confronted by people who come to me with approaches and recommendations and suggestions and requests that reflect a mindset that is exactly the same as before Sept. 11th."
It's not that DOD's people aren't bright and hardworking-most are. But, as U.S. Comptroller General David Walker told Congress in March, there is little incentive to upset the status quo. DOD's half-million civilian employees are not rewarded so much for great performance as they are for just sticking around. Meanwhile, decades of policymaking-sometimes concurrent and conflicting-have produced layer upon layer of paperwork, and more hoops to jump through than the Cirque du Soleil.
To understand the difficulty of change, it helps to look beyond weapons and recruiting counts at the vastness of the agency that protects American freedom. Over 1.4 million active-duty service members operate in more than 140 countries. DOD maintains the equivalent of small cities in most of those lands-more than 80 such mini-cities in Europe alone-along with 50 Army forts, 66 Air Force bases, and 81 Navy and Marine Corps bases stateside.
From these installations, and from 318 Navy ships, U.S. forces fight terror, project power, hunt drug traffickers, monitor despots, police borders, rescue disaster survivors, deploy spies, train foreign troops, patrol seven seas, even search for comrades lost in wars past. Then there are the American peacekeepers who blanket the planet, deterring aggression.
Maintenance and logistics groups repair, process, and transport everything from infrared goggles to toothpaste. Meanwhile, military schools staffed with hundreds teach troops about weapons, nuclear power, electronics, computers, intelligence, medicine, transportation, supplies, food service, administration, and special warfare. Add to that the vast network of human resource and "quality of life" operations that attempt to keep America's all-volunteer force paid, fed, and happy.
The management and procurement structure powering this behemoth consumes more than double the dollars spent annually by the militaries of all other NATO nations combined. Yet, according to the September 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), DOD's financial systems "would struggle to meet the standards of generally accepted accounting principles."
In March, for example, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that the DOD last year couldn't exactly tell whether $1.1 billion earmarked for spare parts was actually spent on spare parts. Also in fiscal year 2001, the defense department made $146 million in "illegal" financial adjustments, while the Navy blew $64 million on fraudulent government purchase card expenditures.
Some current acquisition programs already are treading the path of cost overrun and delay. For example, R&D costs for the new F-22 fighter, in development since 1995, are expected to exceed by $557 million the contract price of $18 billion, according to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Production costs are expected to shoot through the $37.6 billion contract cost cap to $43 billion. Meanwhile, F-22 flight testing is behind schedule, so the Air Force extended the schedule and reduced the test requirements by almost a third, the GAO reported.
The 2003 defense bill lists more than 50 acquisition and modernization programs-from buffing up the radar-jamming, Vietnam-era EA-6B Prowler to developing the new DD-X family of stealth-capable ships. GAO defense analyst Allen Li says he hasn't seen much to convince him that those programs will fare better than the F-22. DOD program managers, he said, often commit financially to a project before they know how well an article will work. "They're now recognizing that that's not a good thing to do and are looking at how private industry does it. But I haven't seen any success stories so far that show their words are turning into action."
Past attempts to bring DOD in line with the best practices of private enterprise have been costly disasters. Take Corporate Information Management (CIM), for example, a 1989 reform initiative expected to save billions by reforming DOD procurement, finance, and other key management areas. By 1997, after spending eight years and $20 billion on CIM, the savings had yet to materialize. DOD eventually abandoned the initiative.
Even bureaucracies created to overcome change-resistance have resisted change. In 1997, the DOD established a Defense Management Council that included high-ranking military representatives and senior executives from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. This civilian-like "board of directors" was designed to break down organizational "stovepipes" and create cooperative approaches to DOD struggles. But "the council's effectiveness was impaired," the GAO reported, "because members were not able to put their individual military services or DOD agencies interests aside to focus on department-wide approaches to longstanding problems."
Mr. Rumsfeld has tackled some of those problems since taking office last year. A Washington veteran who served as defense chief under Gerald Ford, his acerbic manner at first chafed at underlings when he reentered the job. But after 9/11, Mr. Rumsfeld's no-nonsense rhetorical style and utter disdain for political hokum came across as just what the country needed. (His candor so charmed the press that the liberal magazine Vanity Fair recently featured the conservative defense secretary on its cover. The photo, which also pictured Gulf War masterminds Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, imparted the distinct impression that, well, grownups were now in charge of matters of state.)
Some changes so far on Mr. Rumsfeld's watch: In April, he reorganized the military theater commanders-in-chief (CINC), assigning every part of the globe, including the continental United States, to a combat command. This sweeping change, the first of its kind in more than half a century, unifies force structure, supplanting a system in which "functional" and combat CINC responsibilities overlapped. Now there is no confusion about who's in charge.
Feminists are also no longer in charge at the Pentagon. The DACOWITS (Defense Committee on Women in the Services), as conservatives knew and hated it, is gone. The committee was launched 50 years ago to address the needs of the growing number of female service members. But over time, it morphed into a tax-funded feminist lobby that pressed hard for such political goals as putting women in ground combat, while branding dissenters as "anti-woman." Rechartered in March, DACOWITS now will focus on real military women's issues such as family separation and childcare.
Mr. Rumsfeld also chucked the Pentagon's two-theater war doctrine in favor of an approach that calls for the military to be ready to fight multiple regional conflicts and respond to large-scale "asymmetric" attacks such as those on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Important changes all, each ushered through quickly with executive support. But other changes to DOD management may have to run the bureaucratic gantlet: Pentagon officials thought "transformation" was such a good idea that they established a new office to manage it-the "Office of Transformation."
Can another internal DOD jurisdiction really be an effective agent of change? Or will it only add more hoops?