For decades, the Defense Department has been a symbol of inefficiency to the US public. In 1954, a wire service story on a military plumbing crisis began: ``Today, water flowed in the Pentagon like money.'' Most attempts to reorganize the defense bureaucracy haven't gotten very far. But powerful forces now are proposing vast change in the way the United States military does business -- affecting everything from the way the US buys weapons to who offers military advice to the president.
The latest voice to call for reform is President Reagan's Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management -- better known as the Packard Commission, after its chairman, industrialist David Packard.
Last July, the President established the panel at least partly to help deflect the publicity from horror stories about $7,600 military coffee pots and the like. But its report, released Feb. 28, is far from a whitewash of Pentagon actions. Among its recommendations:
Better planning in the military budget process. The Defense Department would submit its budget to Congress every two years, instead of annually, as is now the case. The funding process for major weapon systems would be streamlined.
Shake-ups in the military chain of command. The powers of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) would be strenthened by naming him principal uniformed military adviser to the president. The JCS chairman would also be allowed a larger staff and given a four-star vice-chairman to assist him.
In addition, the Unified Commanders (chiefs of the large field units of the US military, such as Southern Command in Panama) would be given more authority. They would, for instance, be able to hire and fire their subordinates -- something they can't now do.
New ways of buying big-dollar military items. The Packard Commission recommends creation of a new Pentagon position: Under Secretary of Defense, Acquisitions. This official would set all policy for weapons procurement and research and development. In addition, the panel urges the military to make more use of ``off the shelf'' items, instead of insisting that almost everything it buys be custom-made to Pentagon specifications. More testing of prototype weapons is recommended, as is greater use of multiyear procurement contracts.
Greater vigilance over defense contractors. The Defense Department and Congress must better coordinate their oversight of contractors, says the Packard report. In addition, big defense companies should have vigorously enforced codes of ethics, such as the one General Dynamics recently adopted.
``I'm absolutely sure we're going to save billions if we get these things done,'' said chairman Packard at a press briefing Friday.
Other study panel chairmen have said that before him. Since 1949, there have been 35 reports that dealt at least partly with the need to change the Pentagon's organization. Though some suggestions were implemented, many more have been forgotten. Will the Packard recommendations end up on an Oval Office shelf, gathering dust?
The climate on Capital Hill suggests it may not. ``You've got many people in Congress who are much interested in defense reform,'' says Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware, a key figure in forming the Packard panel.
The chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are reform enthusiasts, for one thing.
On Feb. 26, House Armed Services chairman Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin introduced his own defense reform legislation. The bill's main thrust is to give more power to the JCS chairman and the unified commanders.
Senate Armed Services head Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona has loudly championed Pentagon changes for months. His committee produced its own reform study, and reportedly has approved legislation that closely mirrors the Packard recommendations.
The President reacted favorably to the Packard report, both when the commission handed him the study on Friday and in his radio address on Saturday. But Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger is likely to be less than keen on implementing all the report's suggestions. In the past, for instance, he and top uniformed officers have told Congress they did not think reform of the Chief of Staff system was necessary.