Challenges Ahead for New Administration

By Arnold L. Punaro

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It is with a great sense of humility and excitement that I begin my second two-year tour as chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association.

For over 100 years, NDIA has been the organization that has connected government and industry in ways to enhance national security.

We are entering a period of unprecedented challenges. China’s activities — in military, economic, technological and diplomatic terms — present a more comprehensive and serious challenge than any we have faced since the Cold War. China is eroding our technological edge both on and off the battlefield and its economy and defense spending continue to grow, all while its economic espionage and clandestine efforts have continued unrestrained. We also continue to face a resurgent Russia and a belligerent North Korea and Iran.

We have a defense establishment that itself needs substantial improvements. Over the years, the fully burdened costs of the all-volunteer force and the Defense Department’s overhead costs have risen substantially. Accordingly, as the topline has expanded, the warfighting force has contracted. We simply are not getting the most out of the dollars we spend in defense.

And over the past year, across American society we have struggled to address the full implications of a pandemic that has caused disruptions across the country. The defense industrial base has had to deal with the challenges of the COVID crisis — challenges impacting the safety of the workforce, the stability of supply chains, and the ability to meet the expected delivery of new capabilities to warfighters. Unlike other sectors, the defense industry has benefitted from having a customer that pays its bills and has taken steps to assist rather than abandon its suppliers.

Everyone would agree that the complexity of the strategic environment, the increasing threats, and the daunting budgetary condition presents us with significant challenges. But they are not insurmountable.

We are facing some old challenges in new times regarding the overall national security environment, along with some changed conditions.

First, the recent election of President-Elect Joe Biden will certainly change the immediate dynamics. We will have a new administration and a new Congress. Though there are predictable patterns we have seen based on the control of each chamber, national security has remained a largely bipartisan issue. We can expect that this tradition of bipartisanship under a President Biden and in the Senate Armed Service Committee under the chairmanship of either Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., or Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., will continue — and the same can be said for the House Armed Services Committee and the two appropriations committees.

All will have to address a daunting challenge: mainly that the 3 to 5 percent real growth in the defense budget that is required to implement the existing National Defense Strategy is unlikely to be achieved, so adjustments are necessary.

Today, we have the world’s finest military for three reasons: we recruit and retain the highest quality personnel, we give them constant and realistic training, and our industry provides them with cutting edge technology that ensures they never face a fair fight. But all three of these fundamental aspects are under strain.

We have to recognize that the 17- to 24-year-old population — the heart and soul of the future fighting force — is not motivated in the same ways as past generations, while our personnel management approaches are still too mired in the antiquated up-or-out system.

And in industry, we have to ensure that key emerging technologies are developed and converted to capabilities on an accelerated timeline and at affordable costs. NDIA will provide leadership in this respect with our new Emerging Technology Institute, spearheaded by Chairman Emeritus Dick McConn.

I want to take a moment to thank the current Pentagon leadership for their excellent working relationship with industry, led by Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord and the acquisition executives in the services and their teams. It has been a model of a strong, collaborative partnership between industry and government and we urge the incoming leaders to build on this positive record.

We will be dealing with a new set of national security leaders as the Biden administration fills its ranks. We will very likely see adjustments to the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. There will always be a tendency to attempt to do more than is budgetarily possible or technologically feasible.

New officials need to take a hard look at the current reform efforts within the Defense Department and keep us steady on that course to ensure we start getting more bang for the buck. The department needs to recognize that Congress continues to have the power of the purse and the responsibility to provide for the common defense. Congressional leaders need to ensure that the Defense Department has a timely and reliable source of funding, and also allow it to make tough choices when necessary.

Meeting these objectives will take a united effort from all of us within NDIA and the broader national security community. I know that we have the knowledge and the motivation to make a difference as we move forward, and I ask for your support in doing so.

Arnold Punaro is chairman of NDIA’s board of directors.

Topics: Defense Department

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