Best Defense

Natural Security: Should we blame the Pentagon’s P&R shuffle on Voldemort?

For the ninth time in the last seven years, the person serving as the Department of Defense's personnel chief has resigned.



By Sharon Burke
Best Defense guest columnist

For the ninth time in the last seven years, the person serving as the Department of Defense’s personnel chief has resigned. It’s beginning to look as though Voldemort might have cursed the beleaguered post.

Or perhaps it was former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who laid on the curse. In his 2014 memoir, Gates lamented his failure to break through the “obduracy and resistance” of the personnel and health care bureaucracy. “It makes me angry even now,” he wrote.

Gates was hardly the first reform-minded defense official in a hurry to run headlong into an institution that resists change. And Brad Carson, the president’s erstwhile nominee for undersecretary of personnel and readiness, will probably not be the last. There’s a saying in the defense acquisition corps that if “you want it bad, you get it bad.” Like the rest of the U.S. government, the defense bureaucracy is designed to weed out bad, hasty ideas, which makes sense given the stakes. Unfortunately, the same checks and balances weed out good ideas, too. Just because the bureaucracy didn’t give Gates what he wanted when he wanted it doesn’t mean they weren’t actually trying.

And that’s a situation the nation — and the dedicated individuals inside the Pentagon, including in Personnel and Readiness — can no longer afford.

At Carson’s acrimonious confirmation hearing in February, one senator reminded the nominee that the military’s core mission is to close with and destroy the enemy (as the Marines put it). While that’s true, the definitions of “close,” “destroy,” and even “enemy” are shifting. Robotics, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, cyber, electronic warfare, biological engineering, space weapons, advanced missiles, and big data, along with the globalization and democratization of these technologies, are changing the very nature of war.

If the Pentagon is unable to adapt, the consequences for American national security will be dire. Today, it’s appropriate and even necessary for the Secretary of Defense to be in a hurry.

And that helps explain the latest spontaneous combustion of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. Blame it on “The Force of the Future,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s ambitious personnel reform initiative. Carter must have decided he would rather risk the penalty for presumption than wait to unleash Carson, a talented former congressman and combat veteran.

Although some senators at Carson’s February 25th confirmation hearing couldn’t seem to get past the word “progressive” in the description of the initiative, there’s much more to the Force of the Future than “cryopreservation” of sperm and eggs (and while that sounds a bit bizarre, the Department also has some $500 million in the budget for erectile dysfunction, and you don’t hear much complaining about that). The initiative is looking to make sweeping changes in hiring and firing, talent management, and the makeup and use of the Reserve Component, as well as creating a workplace culture that mirrors the best practices of the best 21st century businesses, rather than the worst of the 1950s. The underlying concept is a more flexible workforce, one that can continue attracting and retaining the kind of people defense will need as the nature of war shifts.

The great irony of Carson’s toxic hearing and abrupt departure is that many of the senators leading the attack may well agree with the core changes Carter and Carson were proposing. It is a shame that P&R will yet again lack the stability and leadership it needs, but it would truly be tragic if that shared commitment to modernizing the U.S. military gets lost in the latest P&R shuffle.

Sharon E. Burke, a senior advisor at New America, served as the assistant secretary of defense for operational energy from 2010 to 2014. When so moved, she writes the Natural Security column for this blog.  

Image credit: Screenshot/Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I/Wikimedia Commons

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 @tomricks1

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