Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The collapse of NDU: A view from inside

By “A. Puzzled Prof” Best Defense guest columnist I read your piece on the resignation of Hans Binnendijk, the head research guru of the National Defense University and one of America’s leading strategic thinkers. It comes amidst much turmoil imposed on the university from the top. It isn’t pretty, and it will surely not serve ...


By “A. Puzzled Prof”

Best Defense guest columnist

I read your piece on the resignation of Hans Binnendijk, the head research guru of the National Defense University and one of America’s leading strategic thinkers. It comes amidst much turmoil imposed on the university from the top. It isn’t pretty, and it will surely not serve the national interest. I am not directly involved in it, but this is what I have been told by many who are.

The new uniformed leadership of the Armed Forces, i.e., General Dempsey and his staff, apparently intend to prune NDU back to where it was a few decades ago. There will be some modest resource savings, but since the entire university budget doesn’t amount to the cost of a single joint strike fighter, one has to wonder what is motivating all of what is happening here. In the cuts that have been discussed, Dempsey’s deputy, Marine Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn has wielded the meat axe, often with the aid of micromanaging action officers. No one here in the rank-and-file is sure if the urbane chairman is on board with the details of all of this. (Ironically, both the chairman and J-7 are NDU graduates with advanced degrees.)

This set of changes took place in stages. First, while very few general or flag officer slots were cut in the armed forces, the three-star president of the university slot was downgraded to two, and the school commandants, downgraded from two to one star. No big deal, one might say, but one would be wrong, very wrong. A three star in Washington can go head-to-head with a principal on the joint staff or a senior OSD bureaucrat to protect the university. To compound the problem, the last three star president was retired in the spring and the university was left for a few months under the command of a senior foreign service officer, a former ambassador, a woman of great diplomatic talent and experience with no clout in the Pentagon. The new commandant — a highly regarded Army two-star — will not report until deep into June, when all or most of the cuts have been set in concrete. (Interesting question: can an employee of the State Department legally or even virtually assume command of a DoD organization?)

Second, the university was moved from a direct report to the chairman of the joint chiefs to reporting through the J-7, Lt Gen Flynn, whose staff section is nearly as big as the rest of the joint staff. This move violated the old SOP of commanders reporting to commanders, not staff officers. It also made the J-7 the ersatz president of the university during a period of severe resource reductions.

A new "charter" was subsequently published by the Chairman. It focused the university on joint professional military education and training, which in itself, is a good thing. Immediately, however, the research and outreach activities of the university, often more focused on national strategy than military affairs, came under intense scrutiny. These outfits had grown way beyond their original charters and had become effective and highly regarded servants of a wider interagency community. Much of their work was not done for the joint staff but for OSD Policy, and some of that in conjunction with civilian think-tanks. The research arm of the university was productive, even if not always useful in a practical way to the joint staff. It also was helpful to the colleges in a much more proximate and direct fashion than other think tanks, like RAND.

Third, a series of this-year and next-year budget cuts were announced. The J-7, armed with the new charter, pushed the university to take most of the cuts in the research, gaming, and publications sections, all of which had grown significantly in the last two decades. The mantra became, in effect, that if this or that did not directly support the war colleges, it was wrong and needed to be eliminated or cut way back. No one, of course, spoke to the need for out of the box thinking on future national security subjects. Fundamental research — which has to operate miles and years ahead of war college coursework — had no powerful friends in the leadership of the operating forces.

The research, gaming, and publications arms of the university — a major part of the big-think, future concepts and policy business here — will be cut to somewhere between half and a third of their original sizes. To make things worse, many of the specific cuts appear to have been crafted in the Pentagon, and nasty emails have come down from on high, about how the university is bankrupt and going into receivership, which was never the judgment of the military and civilian accrediting officials, who inspect us regularly and have generally given the university high marks.

All of this represents the systematic destruction of well respected institutions, three decades in the making, all in the name of very small savings and right-sizing. The position of the senior vice president for research and related things will be eliminated. The future-oriented, big picture research program will shrivel, the number of academic books coming through the NDU Press will be cut to a small fraction of this year’s production, and gaming will be severely restricted. The university will no longer support the popular, interagency-oriented journal, PRISM. The Information Resources Management College and other non-war or staff college schools are in jeopardy of being zeroed out. Sadly, OSD policy has not come to the rescue of any of these institutions which have labored hard on its behalf and that of the interagency community.

Worse than functional changes, many government employees, especially senior professionals hired under yearly contracts, so-called Title X professionals, will lose their jobs. Firing them by not renewing their contracts is much easier than firing tenured civil servants. This takes some financial pressure off of the colleges, but not much. All of the savings will go to meet predetermined cuts, conceived ahead of time on the Joint Staff or passed on to them by the departmental comptroller.

One has to wonder why this is going on here. Sequestration is not upon us. No one is forcing the joint staff to dismember a significant part of this institution. There are no great dollar savings to be had here. Certainly, no academic or management expert would think that dismantling the research, publications, and gaming arms of a policy-oriented university is progress.

In times of great stress and famine, a roach will eat itself, starting with its hind legs. Without such stress or famine, the leadership of the joint staff has decided to consume part of the lobes of its brain. This is an organizational tragedy that will not help us adapt to a challenging future.

So, that’s what’s going on over here, and I wonder why civil experts aren’t writing more about it, and why Congress — long the guardian angel of the university — isn’t getting involved.

"A.P. Prof" is just that.


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1