Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Leaders Who Are Busy Looking Busy

Chris Cavas of Defense News has some quotes from Bob Work that need special attention.

For now, Work said, worrying about the so-called Sword of Damocles cuts will have to wait. Planners have enough to do preparing for the near term.

"It's up to Congress to decide where those cuts will be taken" in the 2012 budget, Work said.

The need to know the 2012 numbers is crucial.

"Anything Congress does in '12 will have cascading effects that we will have to consider in the fall," Work said.
This tells me everything else is on hold while the Navy waits to find out the final budget for FY 2012. Hopefully Congress gets the message and puts the pedal down and gets the FY12 budget done quickly. Since it has been a couple years since the DoD had a regular budget passed by Congress, that appears easier said than done.

More Bob Work...
Press leaks of the discussions are expected, Work said, but he cautioned against quick assumptions.

"I tell people all the time, when they see these leaks, they shouldn't get too excited," Work said. "Everything's on the table, everything's being discussed. There are all sorts of scenarios. We're looking at every aviation program, every shipbuilding program. We're trying to wring out cost wherever and whenever we can find it. "Everybody is focused," he said, "on maintaining the highest number of ships possible, the highest number of aircraft, the highest number of sailors and Marines."

That approach "is uniformly held, across the services."

Work said leaders are striving to avoid mistakes of previous generations.

"We would much rather have a smaller force than a larger, hollow force. So what everybody's doing in these what-if drills is how we keep the best capability for the least amount of money," he said.
I don't disagree with the way the Honorable Undersecretary is describing the situation, but I would note he isn't being very specific. Service leaders are not striving to avoid the mistakes of previous generations in the generic, rather they are trying to avoid the specific mistakes of the 90s generation of military downsizing. It is akin to fighting the last war, which is exactly what the budget battle of 2011 is doing - fighting the last budget war known to everyone (in particular the current generation of General and Flag Officers as the 1990s). Indeed I would take it a step further and suggest the Navy specifically is doing very little to apply the lessons of the 70s budget cuts managed under CNO Zumwalt, suggesting it isn't necessarily previous generations - rather specifically the last generation.

The conclusion is particularly noteworthy.
Taking a step back, Work noted that the severely compressed pace at which major decisions are about to be made is a rare opening.

"Opportunities like this only happen only once every 20 years or so," he said. "If you're going to be in government, this is the time to be in. The decisions we make over the next six to eight months are going to have an enormous impact on the way the Department of Defense looks over the next 10, 15, 20 years.

"It really is an exciting time," he said. "A time for our best and brightest to come up with good ideas, because we sure need them."
The reason I love Bob Work is because he sees opportunity in every challenge, something I believe exists here as well. With that said, with Ray Mabus out selling bio-fuels to the American people, Bob Work has also become the defacto civilian leader in the Navy. As such that probably means he is 10 minutes late to his next appointment which is a meeting that actually started an hour ago. I'd love to believe there are folks looking at the compressed pace of major decision making as an opportunity, but I don't see any evidence of this.

For example, Ray Mabus is the actual Secretary of the Navy, and as the head civilian leader of the Navy representing the Obama administration, he should be out leading the budget charge for the Navy in public. Apparently not, because he is apparently too busy talking about alternative energy, Navy museums, or 9/11 to be engaged in the most important Navy discussion since the end of the cold war. Maybe I think the debate is overrated though, because other Obama administration leaders are just as busy trying to look busy... Secretary of the Army John McHugh is out talking about Ground Combat Vehicles, dwell and deployment schedules, and alternative energy. Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley has been on a whirlwind tour through Australia, Singapore, Iraq, and Guam where he has basically made news by being there but not actually saying anything relevant to the budget discussion.

These guys are really busy looking busy, but with less than four months to budget the next decade of defense, they aren't even talking about the challenges the services they represent face nor the strategic environment over the next decade that must be budgeted for. Go ahead and Google the top leaders in the individual services and you will also struggle to find evidence there are signs of enormous budget pressures facing the DoD - because none of them want to publicly give a speech that addresses their unique contribution to the country at a time when ROI of the entire Federal government budget is under a microscope.

With all due respect to Bob Work, the lack of public leadership by the appointed leaders of this administration is the single most obvious attribute of the defense debate in the United States today. Defense policy for the next decade is apparently going to be determined in a vacuum absent any public discussion, so how is it even possible the best and brightest are going to be able to pitch new ideas when all but about 50 accountants have been excluded from the entire discussion?

The Obama administration is nowhere to be found on defense policy, with nothing in the public space for anyone to even promote an idea - which is scary unless you believe closed door discussions in OMB represents the best way to craft defense policy. The President gave a speech about a roles and missions debate for the DoD, and yet all rumors inside the Pentagon bubble suggests that "debate" is a bullshit popsicle. All the various budget documents being leaked to the public represents evidence supporting that claim, because those documents continue to reveal that it appears the only real division of consequence in the roles and missions debate is the equal shares of a 1/3 fraction applied to each services budget. How would the best and brightest know where to begin when suggesting an idea when the strategic theory guiding DoD budget choices is - literally - a fraction? The Obama administrations own National Security Strategy (PDF) offers no guidance at all to the Department of Defense or Congress regarding what choices need to be made, and in my opinion that document is epic failure because it is all style and no substance. The QDR is just as bad for the same reason, but the QDR is actually worse when one considers Bob Gates basically discredited the QDR in public speeches on his way out of office.

The nation has less than four months to budget the next decade of national defense strategy, and this comes as we mark the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 - which marks our nation at war for the previous 10 years. You can't make this up.

In my opinion, any topic discussed by a civilian administration leader in the DoD right now not related to the budget discussion or the policy discussion that is supposed to guide the roles and missions discussion in the DoD represents epic failure of the Obama administrations people to lead this country. Alternative energy is an important topic, but it is difficult to believe Ray Mabus could say anything on the subject of alternative energy in the next 4 months that couldn't wait until next year. 10 years ago today we had no idea we were about to fight a land war in Asia for a decade, so yes it is a big deal we are budgeting the next 10 years of defense right now in the context of a process that has given ourselves a tiny window to get it right.

It is just as big a deal that all the top civilian defense leaders appointed by this administration can't articulate a single speech in support of their services during this crucial budget and national defense policy debate.

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