Esper Is Attempting the Biggest Defense Reform in a Generation
In two recent memos, the SecDef reveals his intention to change how the Pentagon uses its money, people, and time.
Since New Year’s Day, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has issued not one but two memos to the force. Both push for “ruthless prioritization” by the bureaucracy in support of his top priority: great power competition with China and Russia.
He’s a man on a mission, and in a hurry. The goal? To achieve “full, irreversible implementation” of the defense strategy. Pentagon officials want to take the military so far down the road that their work cannot easily be unwound by the next cadre of leaders, whenever they might arrive.
In his Jan. 2 memo, Sec. Esper says “aggressive reforms” are getting underway at the Pentagon. He is seeking headroom under the flat budgets to come, but he’s not just looking for loose change in the proverbial couch cushions. He wants the entire defense enterprise to shift its time and people to better implement the National Defense Strategy. The focus on time and tasks is new, and important. The tyranny of the here-and-now (see: Iran) means that for many at the Pentagon, their days do not match the strategy.
His Jan. 6 memo provided more insights into the reforms. In it, Esper highlighted $5 billion already designated to be squeezed from the 28 non-service defense agencies dubbed the Fourth Estate. He also identified an additional $2 billion in activities that will be shifted to the military services. And he announced upcoming reviews of the combatant commands.
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The memos are significant for three reasons. Firstly, the secretary is advertising that he plans to cut or retire various weapons and gear and shift money to efforts deemed of more utility in great power competition. Congress can expect the 2021 budget proposal, slated for delivery on Feb. 10, to make a clear break with the past to invest in research and development of the future.
This broad and well-telegraphed push for targeted cuts — including, no doubt, to some congressionally cherished programs — may succeed where previous efforts have failed. Congressional leaders have signaled that they want a list of clear winners and losers. If no one is wailing to Capitol Hill, politicians don’t believe leaders are seriously implementing the strategy. And if the recent past is any guide, Congress will get behind most of the Esper cuts even if they are politically unpopular.
When he was Army Secretary, Esper led a similar zero-based budgeting review. A whopping 186 Army programs were targeted for elimination, cuts, or delays over five years. Casualties included a container-handling program, lightweight laser designator, mine clearing vehicle, Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle and an armored bulldozer. Confronted with this “flood-the-zone” approach, Congress wound up approving almost all of the proposed changes. Esper & Co. now hope the same tactic will work with the Fourth Estate reforms and, shortly thereafter, the Navy and Air Force.
The memos reveal Esper as an ambitious reformer, with goals broader than predecessors Robert Gates, who closed Joint Forces Command; and Chuck Hagel, who slimmed various headquarters staffs. His upcoming reviews of the regional and functional combatant commands presage an assault on a problem that many have long perceived but none have tackled: an imbalance in the requirements-generation process and Pentagon resourcing decisions that insulate and favor combatant commanders over service chiefs. This imbalance has led to some of the problems the defense strategy tries to redress, such as making the Middle East an “economy of force” region where missions are done more efficiently—or not at all.
Finally, the review is about more than creating tradespace under flat budgets. Between the lines, Secretary Esper is also showing due diligence that could be used when making future arguments to boost defense toplines to fully resource the defense strategy.
In his Jan. 2 memo, Esper highlights the past three years of steady spending increases and their benefits. He calls out the improved readiness across the force and notes the Defense Department is “beginning to modernize” capabilities across domains with these additional funds.
He echoes this line in the Jan. 6 memo, saying that savings found to date are “only a down payment” on what’s truly needed. He goes on to say that competition and the preparation for high-intensity conflict against a high-end competitor “is expensive.” The implication is that even the most valiant efforts he is overseeing to move money around under the topline will likely be insufficient.
Members of Congress have been asking for two years whether the Pentagon was buying its own strategy. Most agreed the answer was no. This is one reason defense hawks are disappointed in last year’s budget deal, which dealt the Pentagon an inflation-adjusted decline in its 2021 budget . Policymakers will be quick to latch onto the defense secretary’s nuanced arguments that the three-year Trump bump for defense will not complete the job.