Pentagon Bracing for Yet Another Round of Turf Battles

By Sandra I. Erwin

Does the United States need two land armies? Must each branch of the military operate its own air force? Why does the military have multiple agencies in charge of cyber-security?

These and other notoriously touchy issues about the division of labor within the Defense Department have, in years past, triggered turf battles that would make Machiavelli proud.

Now the Pentagon is bracing for yet another round of infighting in preparation for a congressionally mandated “roles and missions” review that must be completed by early 2009.

In its wisdom, Congress decided that it is now a good time to launch one of these reviews — which historically haven’t accomplished much substantive reform in the way the Defense Department apportions resources among the services.

The deadline for this latest roles-and-missions study happens to coincide with the due date for the submission of the 2010 Pentagon’s funding request. This can only be seen as a warning to the services to prepare for serious budgetary trench warfare.

But Pentagon officials already are cautioning that this review is not supposed to degenerate into a money grab.

“It’s an assessment of roles, missions, and assigned functions,” said one senior military official who did not want to be quoted by name. “We think that we’ve modeled this somewhat successfully in the Quadrennial Defense Review.”

Congress directed the review in the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act in order to identify “unnecessary duplication of capabilities and efforts across the department’s components.”
A more plausible explanation for why Congress ordered the review is that lawmakers became frustrated by the pettifoggery witnessed among the military services in recent years. Exhibit

A: The constant bickering over whether the Air Force or the Army should be in charge of operating surveillance drones in war zones. Exhibit B: Air Force and Army squabbles over the procurement of new cargo aircraft.

Maybe if the services had resolved these issues amicably instead of airing their grievances on Capitol Hill, Congress might have chosen to spare the Pentagon the drama of a major roles-and-missions review.

In addition to unmanned aircraft and cargo planes, the review will examine cyber-defense responsibilities among the services, irregular warfare missions, internal Defense Department governance and interagency roles.

But the larger subtext to this entire review obviously is how they will decide what constitutes “unnecessary duplication of capabilities.” Cyber-defense is a case in point — the Air Force says it is in charge, but so does U.S. Strategic Command. Tactical aviation is another hot-button topic. Some defense officials and outside experts have questioned the need for each service to operate its own fleet.

Realistically, what are the chances that the Pentagon will challenge the status quo? A defense official who briefed reporters on the roles-and-missions review said the intent is to come up with an objective way to measure duplication. “That’s one of the goals … to be able to define specifically what unnecessary means,” he said.

The “interagency” roles and missions seems like the most compelling issue that this review should address, given the troubles that the military encountered after the invasion of Iraq. Namely, what stability and reconstruction duties belong in Defense and which ones in the State Department?

“The biggest challenge in roles and missions is the ‘national security missions’ that require the capacity of the whole government and not just the military,” said Michèle A. Flournoy, president of the Center for a New American Security.

The Pentagon, however, will not include the State Department in this review. “This will not be an interagency product,” the defense official said.

At the end of the day, the most significant shortcoming of this roles-and-missions study is that it will be led by officials — at least on the civilian side — who will be departing no later than January when the next administration takes over. That means it will be up to the new leadership to decide who the winners and losers are in the battle for resources.

One has to wonder how an incoming administration will be poised to tackle the inter-service turf wars in addition to a growing list of problems that seem far more urgent, such as the stress on the force from five years of non-stop deployments, the care of wounded and disabled veterans, dilapidated military housing, contracting fraud and abuse, not to mention figuring out a troop drawdown plan for Iraq.

The situation brings to mind one of Ashleigh Ellwood Brilliant’s best one-liners — “I don’t have any solution, but I certainly admire the problem.”

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Topics: Armaments, Defense Department, Defense Watch, Interagency Issues

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