'Transformation, part deux'

Posted: May 13, 2003 12:00 AM

(Washington, D.C.): George W. Bush made a central plank of his 2000 campaign platform the "transformation"of the U.S. military. By appointing Donald Rumsfeld and his team to run the Pentagon, President Bush found people with the vision, courage and tenacity needed to make the policy and hardware choices that will do much to determine whether the armed forces will be as effective in contending with future threats to the Nation's security as they were recently shown to be in liberating Afghanistan and Iraq.

Congress' Supporting Role

They cannot do the full job of transformation alone, however. If the promise of such changes is to be fully realized, Congress must give urgent and broadly favorable treatment to a package of legislative initiatives now under consideration on Capitol Hill.

Under the rubric of the "Defense Transformation for the 21st Century Act of 2003," Secretary Rumsfeld proposes literally to transform the way the Pentagon works in three critical areas: how it develops and buys military hardware; how it recruits, compensates and manages the department's 750,000-person civilian workforce; and where and how it trains the troops.

On the face of it, there is an obvious need for clearing away much of the thicket of congressionally mandated restrictions, reporting requirements and associated regulations that today afflict the Department of Defense in each of these areas. Accordingly, the suggested revisions have generally found favor among legislators charged with overseeing the Pentagon. They are, predictably, running into resistance from others in Congress who are exceedingly sensitive to government watchdog groups, public employee unions and environmental activists for whom concerns about national security come second (if that) to their respective special interests.

Why Relief is Needed

There is, nonetheless, an overwhelming national interest in effecting the sorts of legislative relief needed to achieve what might be called "Transformation, Part Deux." In particular, Congress needs to give Pentagon managers both responsibility and authority to streamline their operations, notably by employing practices critical to successful private sector ventures. Streamlining should be undertaken as well with respect to congressional requirements for duplicative reports whose preparation consumes immense amounts of staff and executive time seemingly unjustified by their use on Capitol Hill.

Since the early 1980s, the Defense Department has successfully experimented with improvements in personnel practices that have made possible considerable enhancements to civilian work-force performance and morale, while permitting some cost-savings. Secretary Rumsfeld proposes to draw on this experience, the recommendations of numerous independent review panels and the insights he and others have garnered in the business sector, to devise a new National Security Personnel System.

These personnel management changes are not simply desirable; they are essential. The Pentagon faces an impending crisis as aging baby-boomers, who comprise many of its most experienced civilian employees, begin to retire in droves. Flexibility not currently afforded to managers -- especially with respect to expedited hiring of needed personnel, the ability to reward outstanding service and greater latitude to reassign or terminate non-performers -- will enable the Pentagon's civilians to keep pace with, and support, the transformation of the capabilities of their military counterparts.

One of the most controversial aspects of the Defense Transformation Act is among its most commonsensical: The military needs to be able to train as it intends to fight -- something that it is increasingly unable to do on the lands and in the waters set aside for that purpose due to creeping (in some cases, galloping) environmental-related strictures.

The Rumsfeld team is both environmentally sensitive and mindful of the fervor any effort to undo "green" statutes and regulations typically engenders. Faced with the real threat to training and readiness arising from current inhibitions on movement over military bases' beaches, in litoral waters and on off-road areas, however, the Pentagon is seeking legislative protection from still further restrictions that would have a truly crippling effect. This is absolutely the least Congress can do to support the troops.

The Bottom Line

The Defense Transformation Act is neither a panacea nor is it incapable of improvement by national security-minded professionals. Aspects of the bill bearing on foreign dependency, depot-maintenance and contracting-out of Pentagon activities, for example, are matters on which there will likely be disagreement and room for vigorous debate -- even among people animated exclusively by the desire to secure the most transformed and capable U.S. military possible.

The Congress has a duty to do its part in securing such a transformation. Unless acquisition, personnel and training and readiness improvements are made in tandem with the sorts of changes Secretary Rumsfeld has put in train with respect to operating, equipping and overseas deployment of the armed forces, the full benefits of transformation will be denied the military and the Nation they serve so well.

As legislators are subjected to the inevitable pressure to resist these sorts of changes -- whether externally generated by interest groups or emanating from their own reluctance to change familiar ways of doing business -- they have an obligation to ask themselves as Ronald Reagan did their predecessors a generation ago: If not now, when? If not we, who?