Cutting School

Why is the Pentagon making big cuts to big think?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The budget axe is descending on National Defense University, the Pentagon’s flagship institution for professional military education. The cuts come amid controversy over whether NDU should focus solely on Joint Professional Military Education (JPME), which addresses military strategy and cooperation between the services, or whether it should also serve as a think-tank for strategic analysis. According to an internal Pentagon document, the Joint Chiefs of Staff want NDU to stick to JPME, and have recommended a long list of budget cuts that would slash other functions. But critics worry that narrowing NDU’s mandate will deprive the United States of big-picture thinking at a time when American planners are struggling to adapt to changing geopolitical and budgetary circumstances.

The budget cuts, including dozens of layoffs from NDU’s 800-strong workforce, are part of a long list of recommendations compiled by the Joint Staff, which works for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. JCS spokesman Richard Osial refused to comment on the grounds that the cuts are part of an internal staff document under review, but a copy obtained by Foreign Policy says the changes are intended to "align NDU organization and funding with [the] new fiscal reality."

That reality is less than cheerful. NDU is scheduled to lose nearly 10 percent of its Pentagon funding, from about $93 million in FY2012 to about $85 million in FY2013, and the Joint Staff report provides recommendations on how to reach that goal. NDU has two main sources of funding: direct funding from the Joint Chiefs for JPME, and reimbursable funding from other government agencies for various research and analysis activities.

It’s the non-educational activities that are drawing scrutiny. "NDU’s overall budget has grown from approximately $51 million in 2001 to $143 million in 2011. The majority of this growth was outside the education mission," according to the Joint Staff report. NDU’s research budget, for example, has nearly quadrupled, from $6.5 million to $24.5 million. The problem is that outside funding is drying up. "NDU’s business model has become increasingly dependent on reimbursable funding. As all government agencies are experiencing budget impacts, outside sponsors who provide funding to NDU research and programs are likely to reduce their funding, making NDU’s current budget model unsustainable," the report says.

NDU’s website shows an organization of remarkable breadth, including five colleges, a dozen research centers spanning everything from Chinese military affairs to tabletop war games, and five geographical research areas for various parts of the world.

Yet the Joint Staff report points to an unwieldy organization: "The existence of multiple management structures across the numerous NDU schools adds significant overhead costs and complicates sound fiscal decisions and management due to competing equities." In addition, the report cites high personnel costs: 58 percent of NDU’s budget goes to salaries because many employees are GS-15 or Senior Executive Service (NDU’s FY2013 budget report puts the average civilian employee salary at $115,000). Also, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits Mid-Atlantic universities, found that NDU had critical information technology deficiencies that jeopardize its teaching functions.

The Pentagon’s solution? Focus NDU on professional military education so that it can eliminate departments and jobs. There are almost a dozen recommendations, some of which seem almost petty, such as a $40,000 savings by eliminating two courses at the Joint Forces Staff College at NDU.

The proposed cuts include:

  • Abolishing the Institute for National Security Ethics and replacing it with an ethics chair, saving $600,000 annually. Two military officers would be reassigned or returned to their services, and two full-time-equivalent positions would be eliminated.
  • Abolishing the Joint Reserve Affairs Center, which teaches national security to reserve and National Guard forces, thereby eliminating four jobs and saving $500,000.
  • Redirecting the Center for Strategic Research to concentrate on JPME, which would save almost $1 million and eliminate seven jobs, plus one officer reassigned.
  • Concentrating the National Defense University Press on JPME, which would save $660,000 and eliminate four jobs.
  • Evaluating other NDU organizations, including the Center for Complex Operations, the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies, the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, the Conflict Records Research Center, and the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs for their actual cost to NDU (and presumably for future cuts).
  • Merging administrative functions within NDU for a savings of $2.1 million and nine jobs.

The real question boils down to what NDU’s purpose is. NDU’s mission statement, revised last February, states that "National Defense University (NDU) supports the joint warfighter by providing rigorous Joint Professional Military Education to members of the U.S. Armed Forces and select others in order to develop leaders that have the ability to operate and creatively think in an unpredictable and complex world." This replaced the older and broader mission statement, which stated that the university’s mission was to "prepare and support leaders to think strategically and lead effectively across the range of national and international security challenges through interdisciplinary teaching, research, and outreach."

One NDU staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the planned focus on professional military education as "anti-intellectual." A staffer at a research institution that has worked with NDU worries that the Pentagon is shooting itself in the strategic foot by focusing only on tactical questions: "There is a depressing and distressing tendency throughout the entire PME system to do away with intellectual rigor, critical thinking in general, and strategic thinking in particular in favor of less challenging short courses and quickie ‘education’ focused on short-term issues or bullshit topics."

Ironically, the cuts could actually threaten the university’s focus on military education because a reduced budget may result in curriculum changes that would trigger a mandatory re-accreditation of the JPME program. What’s more, combatant commanders have said that  NDU’s subject matter experts, who are not part of the JPME program but who advise the commands on things like area studies, provide an essential service — one that the combatant commands lack the funding to procure on their own.

The NDU staffer said that morale at the university is currently at "rock bottom" because employees know cuts are coming but feel like officials are not leveling with them, which means that NDU itself has both a tactical and a strategic problem on its hands.

Michael Peck is a defense writer. Twitter: @Mipeck1

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