How the Pentagon Designs Its 21st Century Strategy

Once-rival chiefs work as a unified board to shape plans using 40,000-square-mile 'eyes' and precise tactics

TWO seismic changes are under way inside the Pentagon. Currently subterranean as far as most people outside are concerned, they will nevertheless move to the forefront of debate on what military force is good for, and what kind of military forces we need.

One change is substantive. It's the American "revolution in military affairs"; that is, a development of new US military capabilities that will be as significant to foreign policy as nuclear capabilities were nearly half a century ago.

The second is essentially procedural. It's driven by a new willingness of the senior military to act jointly on programming and budgeting issues. As such, it marks the first real complement to the planning process Secretary Robert McNamara built in the early 1960s, the Defense Planning and Programming System.

These changes in procedures and substance are linked, for it is hard to bring about a revolution through existing decisionmaking processes. And it is nearly impossible to replace bureaucratic styles without a new vision.

First, the substance. The American revolution in military affairs stems from decisions made over the last year to accelerate certain military technologies that, together, will provide the capacity to see (or "sense") most of what is militarily significant in a large geographical area (say, about 40,000 square miles); to understand what is occurring in this area; and to communicate that understanding to forces that can do terrible things, very quickly and with great precision and accuracy, to opposing forces. The steps involved in this sequence have been pursued by militaries for centuries. The new aspect is the lead the US military is gaining in the capacity to step through the sequence.

The lead does not come from the kind of high-performance aircraft, tanks, and ships usually used to gauge military prowess, although the United States does quite well in such measures. It comes from more esoteric investments in sensors, communications, and precision weapons. Space surveillance platforms and sensors are clearly important here, but so are Tier II+, Tier III-, REMBAS, DISM, ATACMS, and the plethora of other acronyms that stand for particular programs. Not everyone in the Pentagon can list or explain them all. But some of the highest military and civilian officials believe that together, they offer a new system of systems that can revolutionize US war-fighting capabilities.

For two years, this group has shepherded the components of this emerging system through declining military budgets, growing public disinterest in national security strategy, and widespread bureaucratic reluctance to change.

"Revolutionize" gets overused a lot. But the change-pushing group believes this effort meets the criteria of revolutions: big changes that take place quickly and spread through institutions, modes of thought, and patterns of behavior. Long-held theories of deterrence on which the US-based deployments, choice of weaponry, and views on use of military force are about to be markedly revised.

Existing procedures and decision processes are notoriously inept at causing big changes. And that's what pulls the architects of the revolution toward changing the Pentagon planning process.

The primary focus of this effort lies in something called the "JROC," Pentagonese for Joint Requirements Oversight Council. It's composed of the four service vice chiefs and chaired by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. JROC chairman Adm. John Owens, backed by Gen. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has driven the JROC into the center of Pentagon action, making it the primary source of Shalikashvili's recommendations on program and budget. And those recommendations, called for by the Goldwater-Nichols Act, have grown teeth, in effect emerging as a true alternative to the separate service programs - and to the simple adding up of those programs that constitutes existing Defense budgeting.

Both the existing system and the JROC system seek the same goal; namely, adjusting the parochial interests of separate military services to produce a better whole. Yet, the two systems start from different assumptions. When he created the existing system, Secretary McNamara believed that asking for cross-service trade-offs was asking for an unnatural act from military professionals. Each had spent 30-plus years in a single military service, and now sat at the top of his respective service's interests.

The new JROC system, still in its infancy, is founded on an assumption McNamara rejected: that senior military leadership can act as members of a corporate board, in addition to their individual roles as defenders of service interests; that the military can shift funds from one service to another in the context of a non-zero-sum game.

The JROC process, however, is built on the notion that senior military leaders cannot do this unless they circumvent normal staffing procedures. The process does, in fact, differ significantly from what normally happens inside either individual service staffs or joint staffs. Having the right people address the right issues, over the right amount of time is the central tenet of the new JROC process.

Accordingly, the amount of time members of the JROC spend together in meetings is extraordinary: on average, about 10 hours a week (not counting preparation or debriefing). The JROC sessions accompany an unprecedented number of off-site, all-day discussions of the Joint Chiefs, the unified commanders, and the JROC members devoted to identifying joint military requirements.

The discussions are candid, sometimes heated, and in-depth. And, unlike much of what happens in Pentagon meetings, they have been devoid of staff-prepared talking points, written by the "iron majors" and other defenders of orthodoxy.

The four-star military discussants in these sessions act as a military board of directors, in addition to their roles as defenders of service interests.

BUT the important point of all this is, of course, whether it makes a difference in the way the military interacts. (Are they able to make significant cross-service resource transfers?) Also, does the JROC process generate different recommendations to the secretary of defense than would have come from the existing system?

Over the last year the JROC reduced some of the redundancies in the services. And, in the most recent Chairman's Program Assessment (October 1995), the military argued in favor of significant funding shifts toward recapitalization and further acceleration of the revolution in military affairs, with the explicit acknowledgement that other programs would have to be cut. The amounts of the proposed shifts would total in the hundreds of billions of dollars over the next six-year planning period, beginning next fall, shortly before the presidential election.

It is still too early to reach any conclusions on the JROC process. If the defense secretary agrees with the thrust of the most recent set of chairman's program recommendations, then, clearly, at least the beginnings of a de facto new system are present. The recommendations - including significant cross-service funding shifts - came from the military itself.

One of the major issues over the next several years, then, will be how the Pentagon ought to integrate these two planning and programming systems. And the Pentagon can't resolve it with an either/or decision, for both the Pentagon's present system and the JROC system have strong rationale on their side.

But even some synthesis of the two systems will carry a broad set of additional questions.

What, for example, is the proper role of the large superstructure built over the last three decades to identify and bring about cross-military service resource trade-offs, if, in fact, the military can do it on its own? And how should the large analytic support and staff inside the Pentagon be allocated between the civilian and military structures?

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