National Security

Will Chuck Hagel Stand Up to the Drone Lobby?

Or will he be yet another victim of Pentagon operators?

U.S. Central Command has released some interesting numbers on the performance of modern air systems in Afghanistan; the data do not auger well for our defenses in the next decade, nor for the suitability of the man who appears likely to be the next secretary of defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel -- his admirable iconoclasm toward some national security dogmas notwithstanding.

With the Department of Defense budget looking at no real growth or even reductions in the next few years, there will be a clear need for defense systems that offer more performance for less cost. The data from Afghanistan on what drones are contributing to the war there show that we are getting little but paying a lot, the reverse of what we will need in the future. These data notwithstanding, drones are the embodiment of what conventional wisdom in Washington holds to be the wave of the future for air power -- the quintessence of the high tech cutting edge that the pundits want more and more of and just the kind of myth that politicians appointed to senior executive branch positions fall for time and time again.

The Pentagon's new leadership needs the wit to recognize that the conventional wisdom on these (and other) systems can be badly wrong, and it needs the moral courage and political dexterity to act, standing up to the embedded material and intellectual special interests in the Pentagon, Congress, and think tanks that leap to the defense of these systems time after time. Without such brains, guts, skill, and, especially, persistence in the next Pentagon leader, our defenses are in for a rough ride -- downhill -- in coming years. In short, we need real deeds from a tough, no-nonsense executive, not just interesting, sometimes iconoclastic words.

The Air Force component of CENTCOM (AFCENT) releases numbers to the public each month on Air Force and allied sorties and weapon releases in Operation Enduring Freedom (which mostly means the war in Afghanistan) for drones and manned aircraft. (Data on CIA drone activities in Pakistan and elsewhere are not included.)

The released data are bad news for drone advocates. They show that in the first eleven months of 2012, the U.S. and NATO forces involved in Afghanistan conducted 1,505 air-to-ground "strike sorties" -- i.e., those that involved the release of at least one weapon. A total of 3,886 weapons were released on those strike sorties -- 3,439 from manned aircraft and 447 from remotely piloted aircraft, or drones (namely, the MQ-1B Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper). In other words, the drones were responsible for just 11.5 percent of the air-to-ground weapons used in the war. Manned aircraft, such as the A-10, F-16, F-18, AV-8B and B-1B, were responsible for the other 88.5 percent. Put simply, in the air war in Afghanistan -- called by some "the Drone War" -- drones did little better than 10 percent of the weapons delivery.

Little as they did in the first eleven months of 2012, they did even less in 2011, when manned aircraft released 5,117 weapons and drones released just 294 -- or 5.4 percent of the total.

The AFCENT data is very sparse on allowing more meaningful comparisons between drones and manned aircraft in the Afghanistan war. AFCENT declined to provide this writer more detail, but it gave some useful data to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the United Kingdom. That data shows that in 2011, manned aircraft flew almost 24,000 of the total close air support sorties -- whether a weapon was released or not -- and they flew well over 17,000 in the first ten months of 2012. Drones flew 10,300 sorties in the same category in 2011 and 7,600 in 2012. Thus, the manned aircraft are responsible for about 70 percent of the total sorties in both years.

More importantly, manned aircraft are flying an even larger percentage of the strike sorties: aircraft performed 1,743 strike sorties, or 88 percent, in 2011 and over 1,100, or 82 percent, in the first ten months of 2012. Finally, for delivering numbers of weapons during a strike on a target, drones averaged 1.4 weapons per strike in 2012; aircraft averaged twice that.

Nor is there any basis to think that drones have been delivering weapons more accurately. According to DOD's weapons tester, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the Reaper, for example, is capable of employing only two types of munitions: the AGM-AGM-114 laser-guided "Hellfire" missile and the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb. Manned aircraft carry a far greater variety, and while CENTCOM has not released the data, anecdotally it appears that most manned aircraft munitions are GPS-guided JDAMs, which have fewer limitations from clouds and weather and other causes than do the drones' laser-guided munitions.

That the drones are responsible for such a small percentage of the air-to-ground war in Afghanistan is the natural result of their inherent limitations. Prominent among them is their tiny payload compared to manned aircraft: The "more capable" drone, the MQ-9 Reaper, carries roughly one-ninth to one-fourth the payload of an A-10 or an F-16.

Nor are the drones cheaper to buy and operate. Using the Air Force's definition for all the components in a Reaper unit, they cost about $120 million to buy, compared to about $20 million for the original A-10 and about $55 million for a modern F-16. A Reaper "CAP," or unit, costs about $20 million per year to operate, compared to $5.5 million for an A-10C for a year or $4.8 million for an F-16C.

In short, with drones like the iconic Reaper, our forces get less performance for more cost -- compared to 35-year-old aircraft designs such as the A-10 and F-16.

These data notwithstanding, drones continue to be the darling of opinion in much of DOD, journalism, and think tanks. Articles repeatedly label Afghanistan as "the drone war," and one think tank drone advocate even referred to the AFCENT information as a "powerful data point" in favor of drones being "here to stay." They may, indeed, be here to stay, but that will be based on politics and hype, not performance in Afghanistan -- and perhaps the affinity of some for what drones are doing in Pakistan and Yemen under CIA control.

Whoever is the next secretary of defense will face a choice. He or she can operate at the policy wonk level, as so many already have, ignoring these kinds of basic nuts and bolts data. When they do so, and are told by in-house advocates of drones (or F-35s, or Littoral Combat Ships, or C-130Js, or almost anything else) that the newest technology is cheap and effective, the secretaries of defense with policy wonk and/or political backgrounds have proven themselves to be undisposed to serious, informed questioning. They end up taking the advocates' assertions at face value and acting on them.

The next steps in this process are as predictable as the sunrise: when some outsider suggests a budget cut, the DOD bureaucracies easily convince the secretary that their "affordable" and "effective" weapon systems will no longer be available. Then, the secretary proclaims the idea of insufficient resources for these pet rocks to be a "doomsday." In doing so, facilitators of business as usual like Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta thoroughly isolate themselves from the fact that the additional cost and low performance of these systems is much of what is driving the budget beyond acceptable levels of spending.

It is easy for the in-house advocates to co-opt the secretary of defense when he or she comes from an institution like Congress, where rhetoric and appearances trump facts, especially if the words are articulated cleverly or forcefully.

Such superficiality is precisely the profile Senator Chuck Hagel had as a member of the Senate. He was frequently in the news saying something interesting, often against the dogma of the Republican Party or even American politics in general. But, quick, tell yourself something he actually did of consequence in the Senate -- legislation or other important actions, not just words. Draw a blank? So did I, and I was watching up close and personal as a Republican Senate staffer for many of Hagel's twelve years there. Beyond the rhetoric, his record is quite sparse.

At a time when its budget is declining and advocates, backed by generally accepted myths, press hard for their particular hobby horse to be protected while others go begging, the Pentagon needs someone with a demonstrated record as a tough, acutely well informed downsizer or as an accomplished infighter against the powerful bureaucracies that run free under politically oriented secretaries of defense. A talker, not a doer, Senator Hagel, no matter how much I may admire his politics, is not the right person.

This is not to say that the other publically mentioned candidates for the job would be better.

As a denizen of the think tank and policy world, Michelle Flournoy -- as intelligent as she seems to be -- has been operating in a world where soft-policy differences are the stock in trade, not bureaucratic fights down in the weeds over the quality of data on performance or costs. As the chief architect of DOD's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review as the Pentagon's under secretary of policy, she showed little interest in or understanding of how the building actually operates at the basic level.

As undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics and then as deputy secretary of defense, Ashton Carter has shown little ability to master the bureaucracy. In fact, he let slide far more problems than he has done anything meaningful about. That is all too clearly the case with, for example, the Pentagon's most expensive program ever -- the F-35 -- which remains both unaffordable and a gigantic performance disappointment after four years of Carter's ministrations.

The vast chasm between conventional wisdom and reality on drones, their costs, and what is and is not working at the tactical level is replicated in myriad ways in the secretary of defense job portfolio -- from assault rifles to missile defenses to arms control and especially to questions of war and peace. What we need least is yet another dilettante who specializes in politics of the moment and fancy words.

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National Security

Quagmire on the Potomac

The Pentagon is a hot mess of known unknowns.

Amidst the many uncertainties and machinations in the negotiations in Washington on the "fiscal cliff," a few things are beginning to emerge as certain. Among them: the defense budget will be going down. Another is that none of the parties to the negotiations is seeking the kind of change that the Pentagon must undergo to survive effectively, even prosper, under significantly reduced budgets.

The new, post-election reality of a declining Department of Defense (DOD) budget was signaled by a conglomeration of mainstream think tank pundits, Capitol Hill staffers from both political parties, industry and executive branch defense specialists, and retired military officers put together by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments: They opined on not whether the defense budget was about to decline significantly but on how to do it. (Some of them had some pretty horrible ideas; more on that later.) The new reality of less money for DOD was also made clear in a provocative summary of five different think tanks reports at Foreign Policy by Gordon Adams.

The emerging view on the dimension of the coming DOD cuts, summarized by Adams, is they will be substantial, perhaps "as much as another $500 billion below the 10-year forecast Secretary Panetta offered last February -- making the overall reduction, including his budget request, at least $1 trillion." These new cuts will not be the automatic, across the board ones scheduled by Congress in the Budget Control Act of 2011, now known as sequestration, but instead will be more gradually implemented and perhaps even lower, ultimately, than those programmed in the sequester.

To meet the clamor for plans, multiple think tanks are putting out their cut lists, and many of them are also specifying goodies to protect: Anything with the words "cyber security" or "unmanned" top those lists. The authors mostly seem to assume that it is reasonable to prepare for an austere Pentagon by simply eliminating and/or paring back a selection of programs and to dial back, perhaps a little, national strategy. They are doing little more than maneuvering over what is on and off the cut lists and how to wordsmith the next White House declaration of national security strategy.

They are laying the groundwork for the same Pentagon as the one we have now, just at somewhat lower spending levels with several fewer programs -- and more of the remaining ones funded at unrealistically lower levels than usual.

All through the George W. Bush and first Obama terms, we witnessed dramatic growth in the Pentagon's "base" budget, adding about $1 trillion to planned DOD spending for non-war basics -- that is not including the additional monies spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With 44 percent more money, the Navy's fleet shrank by ten percent; with a budget 43 percent larger, the Air Force's air combat fleet shrank 51 percent. And, in both cases, their equipment inventories became older, not modernized. The Army grew by a grand total of two brigade combat teams as its base budget grew 53 percent in real terms.

How on earth is a Pentagon that permits most of its forces to shrink and age with increased budgets going to be a healthy asset for national defense with smaller budgets? All the negative trends will accelerate: the shrinking, the aging, the underfunding for training and readiness, and much more at increased cost -- unless three simple but fundamental things change in the Pentagon.

The needed changes involve coming to 1) understand what the Pentagon does with its money, 2) put the health of the combat forces, people, and equipment above all other considerations, and 3) have DOD leadership that effectively insists on the first two things.

Sometimes it is the simplest things that are the hardest to do.

Today, the Pentagon does not know how it spends its money; neither does anyone else. As the Government Accountability Office, DOD's Inspector General, and even Congress have reported for decades, the Pentagon cannot pass an audit. It is not just a question of satisfying a pedantic desire for tracking pennies. Today, the Pentagon does not reliably know if it has paid contractors once, twice, or not at all: we rely on those friendly contractors to tell us if there is a problem. We don't have a provable record of where all the ships, tanks, aircraft, and all other equipment are, and which items need what repair parts -- a real problem, for example, in Afghanistan. We never get audits of any of the Pentagon's 83 Major Defense Acquisition Programs, which according the last tabulation cost $1.618 trillion -- itself an unverifiable estimate.

Twenty-two years ago in the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, Congress required the Pentagon to clean up its financial management act; it has yet to comply. There is a plan to fix some, but not all, of this: by 2014, the Pentagon says it will have an auditable record of its incoming budget resources, and in 2017 it promises to have an accurate count of all its physical assets. It should not surprise you that DOD has slipped its previous deadlines for these, which constitute watered down goals, and that the DOD Inspector General has real doubt the 2014 deadline will be met.

How can you responsibly save money if you don't know where it came from, where it went, and what it did when it got there? How can you effect the unending proposals to reduce overhead, bloat, waste, fraud, and abuse if you don't know where it is, how much of it is there, or even what it is? In Washington, none of that is needed: It's much more important to be a player with a plan.

It's not just that we don't know what programs and policies in the Pentagon actually cost, we don't seem to care how well the weapons work or whether the battle-readiness of our forces is going forwards or backwards.

Accept or reject, as you please, the arguments I and others make about what we regard as ineffective weapons at unaffordable prices; that is not the point. What is indisputable is that the Pentagon's leadership commits to their purchase and buys prolific numbers of them before any battlefield-realistic testing is even begun, let alone finished. Pick an example from DOD's list of major weapons programs. Try to find a single one where large-scale production did not precede the operational testing. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a compelling example: over 350 will be purchased before the operational testing starts in 2017; it will be over 500 when that testing, the empirical basis for a competent, ethical production decision, will finish its initial stages. Don't be distracted by all the failures already uncovered by the F-35 flight testing to date -- that's just the "developmental," or laboratory, testing. The rigorous part -- and plenty more horror stories -- are yet to come. Think the Navy is any different? It and Congress are rushing ahead to buy 20 of the 55 planned Littoral Combat Ships while the program still has a long way to go to finish its preliminary, developmental testing.

They call this acquisition behavior "concurrency," and my favorite, "spiral development," but it is really what one DOD manager called "acquisition malpractice;" better to call it gross incompetence, if you don't want to address the broken ethics of it all.

Similar perverse thoughtlessness pervades even more important issues, such as the readiness of our forces to fight and otherwise perform their missions. In 2010, the Navy, to its credit, completed a blistering review of the readiness of its surface fleet. The Balisle Report found ship maintenance went underfunded and had been declining for years; fewer than one-half of deployed combat aircraft are fully mission capable at any given time; training throughout the surface fleet has been inadequate; and ships are routinely undermanned and cannibalized for parts to keep others running. The fleet was in substantially worse shape than it was in 2001. GAO found several of the same problems. Even one of the Navy's biggest stalwarts, Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA), reported in 2012, "The Readiness trends for full mission capability rates suggest less than satisfactory performance." And yet, that new CSBA report mentioned above came to the remarkable conclusion that readiness is so high throughout the military services that money can be shifted from those spending accounts "with little risk" to free up cash to buy hardware. (Whether that hardware should actually be realistically tested before it is bought is an idea that seems to have escaped the report authors' purview.) Nonetheless, the CSBA report is sure to be taken most seriously in Washington; it gives decision-makers an easy out for keeping hardware programs -- and their multiple constituencies in the Pentagon, industry, Congress, the press, and think tanks -- fat and happy.

Putting hardware through the testing wringer on a schedule that makes a difference, refusing to cheat maintenance and training to maintain forces ready to fight, and insisting on knowing what things cost -- along with where all the rest of the money went -- are fundamentally important things that don't typically happen in today's Pentagon.

Acute awareness of such matters should be the acid test for who should replace Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta when he leaves the Pentagon in 2013. That is not going to happen; given the names reported to be under consideration in the White House, the issues raised here are very clearly quite irrelevant.

Four names are reported to be at play; all four fail my criteria badly. Two of the names are senators, John Kerry, the current Democratic Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (from Massachusetts) and Chuck Hagel, the retired Republican senator from Nebraska, who was also a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Both are veterans of the Vietnam War, but as senators neither has evidenced serious interest in DOD issues and certainly not at the nuts and bolts level where knowledge and toughness are so clearly needed. Indeed, as politicians, both are the kind of individual that the Pentagon bureaucracy loves to have at the very top: having lived professional political lives, they are all too frequently satisfied to subsist at an extremely superficial level of knowledge on the kinds of questions that cost billions of dollars in the Pentagon. The bureaucracy has a term for these people when they come to DOD: "mushrooms," and as they say, "we keep them in the dark and feed them bulls-t." As long term denizens of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, either Kerry or Hagel can be presumed to have the knowledge base to operate as Secretary of State, but in the Pentagon, they will be little more than potted plants as the bureaucracy runs circles around them.

Another widely reported candidate to be SecDef is Michèle Flournoy, the founder of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and a recently retired undersecretary of defense for policy. Showing herself to be intelligent and articulate on policy issues in, for example, congressional hearings where she handles superficially informed and politically driven questions quite easily, she too is more than out of her element as the master of the Pentagon bureaucracy on the kinds of issues addressed here. She made that all too clear as the driving force behind DOD's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which was supposed to be a top-to-bottom review of Pentagon strategy, programs, and policy. Chuck Spinney, a Pentagon veteran who is more than well informed on these kinds of nuts and bolts issues, wrote a devastating critique of that same 2010 QDR, which evidenced its authors to be quite oblivious to the core issues.

One might think that people like Kerry, Hagel, or Flournoy can compensate for their absence of meaningful expertise and program-related bureaucratic skill in the Pentagon by appointing people below them who are. Unfortunately, they each have a well-documented track record of not doing that, instead selecting staff that reflect their own background and outlook, rather than compensate for their weaknesses. I and others have known many of the people with whom they each surround themselves; my lack of optimism on this dimension is experience-based.

Lastly, Ashton Carter, the sitting deputy secretary of defense who has worked in the Pentagon for years, is also reported as a candidate to succeed Leon Panetta. Finally, you might say, a master of the Pentagon bureaucracy. Unfortunately, that very clearly is not the case; he is more a product of Pentagon bureaucratic behavior than the master of it. As the man in charge of the acquisition bureaucracy in his previous job as undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics, and as the top administrator as deputy secretary, Carter has been the one who has laid before Congress and the public the various plans that retain the fundamentally concurrent nature of F-35 and Littoral Combat Ship acquisition plans, the inadequate, overdue financial management plans, and all the rest that have added up to a shrinking, aging, less ready to fight force -- at increasing cost. Moreover, he is not one who on the inside fought the negative trends, only to have to be the one who reluctantly talks gently about them to the outside world. He has been observed up close and personal in meeting after meeting by other insiders, and the back channel reporting on his performance is not exactly heartening.

The obvious question is: Who should lead the Pentagon into the coming, extremely difficult changes that are needed to prosper in an era of lower budgets? Clearly, someone with a successful background in downsizing from the corporate world or someone from inside the Pentagon who has demonstrated mastery of the bureaucracy's perverse games is needed. These people do exist; however, for someone like myself who is frequently regarded as a gadfly by the people at the top of government on such matters, it would be the kiss of death for me to be the one floating their names.

The cuts in the defense budget are coming; they will mean an acceleration of decades-long, negative trends. Expect stunning amounts of shrinking, aging, and declining readiness throughout the force. It should not have to be this way, but it is going to be. The people who are likely to be the ones making the decisions do not operate at a level of knowledge to outsmart the mushroom farmers, and they do not have the demonstrated bureaucratic spine to face down business as usual, or even the moral courage to head in directions to which conventional wisdom in Washington is not already pointing.

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