Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Today's Reading Assignment

...from Brendan Miniter at Some provacative thoughts on a hide-bound Pentagon brureaucracy that has "failed to internalize" the President's strategy for winning the War of Terror. The results of this, according to Mr. Miniter, can be seen in efforts to provide more protection to the troops (which often moved at a glacial pace), and programs to deal with the IED threat.

Mr. Miniter is correct in his assessment that the Pentagon bureaucracy needs to be reformed. The acquisition process is often too expensive, too slow and unresponsive to the needs of combat units. Such problems have existed since at least the 1960s, and they continue today, in part because Congress and various personnel unions have blocked reform attempts. Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld's serious effort at reforming the DOD's civilian personnel system (the National Security Personnel Program, or NSPS) remains mired in legal challenges. By some estimates, it won't be implemented until 2008 (or later), if it actually reaches that stage. Without reforming the personnel system--and rewarding innovative, productive workers--the civilian bureaucracy (which is over-represented in the acquisition community) will never change, and progress will genuine remain elusive.

But despite its many flaws, the Pentagon bureaucracy has made substantial progress on both the armor and IED issues. Amid outrage over the lack of armored HUMVEES in Iraq in 2004, it was discovered that contracts for more armor had already been awarded; the problem was more of a manufacturing and installation issue than an acquisition problem.

Ditto for the IED problem. While roadside bombs are still claiming American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of casulaties have declined, thanks to a combination of new technology, improved tactics, and better cooperation with local residents. Half of all IEDs in Iraq are now located and defused before than can kill and maim--and that represents real progress, some of which must be credited to that bloated, inefficient Pentagon bureaucracy. As Mr. Miniter indicates, the budget for counter-IED efforts has mushroomed. But this is not, as he suggests, an indication of past failures and under-funding--failed efforts do not help produce a 50% find/disarm rate, particularly when a resourceful enemy is constantly modifying his weapons and tactics, in response to our counter-measures.

That figure is even more remarkable when you consider that the enemy has put virtually all of his combat eggs in the IED/VBIED basket--it's the only viable strategy the terrorists have for attacking coalition forces and Iraqi civilians. The number of IEDs emplaced by the enemy has more than doubled, but our ability to find them and disarm them has more than kept pace, suggesting that many of our counter-tactics and new technology are having an effect. Despite more (and larger) bombs, the number of effective IED attacks remains quite low (around 10%), another indicator that our efforts are producing positive results.

To be sure, our anti-IED efforts would be more efficient if we reformed--and even eliminated--layers of the Pentagon bureaucracy. And, there is clearly room for innovation, as illustrated by the Marine Corps battle lab, which has produced innovative solutions for urban combat problems. But Mr. Miniter fails to note that all the services now have battle labs or similar facilities, created to develop (and implement) cutting-edge solutions for the battlespace.

From Miniter's perspective, progress on the IED issue has been minimal, and that's prima facie evidence that the Pentagon culture is broken, particularly in the acquisition community. In reality, the situation is not as dire as he describes. There are plenty of goldbricks in the military's bureaucracy, notably on the civilian side. But there are more than a few honest, hard-working civil servants who never forget their ultimate customer--the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine on the front lines. They may be a minority in today's bureaucracy, but their efforts are making a difference, as evidence by those under-reported numbers on IEDs that are being located and neutralized on the roads of Iraq.

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