Top general: 5 bad habits for the Pentagon to fix

The Pentagon has not had to do any serious belt-tightening for years, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the nation's top military officer, says some budget discipline could be beneficial.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor/Staff
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks at the St. Regis Hotel on April 30 in Washington, DC.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the nation’s top ranking military officer, says there are at least five areas in US defense operations where bad habits have developed, which tighter Pentagon budgets will force the military to fix.

General Dempsey, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, earlier this month told The New York Times that, “We’ve been living with unconstrained resources for 10 years, and, frankly, we’ve developed some bad habits,” which he vowed to overcome.

At a lunch with reporters hosted by the Monitor Tuesday, Dempsey was asked to be specific about the bad habits he saw. He immediately listed five areas which, he cautioned, were “not an all inclusive list.”

Here, in the general’s own words, is the list, in the order he gave it.

  • “In our acquisition programs … there is certainly room to become more efficient.”
  • “Over the years, our health-care costs have exceeded expectations in a, no-pun intended, unhealthy way.”

  • “On infrastructure – and these are places where we could use the help of the United States Congress, actually – we haven’t had to reduce the scope and scale of our infrastructure accounts. I think we will have to do so under the budget authorities that we see coming our way.”
    • “Even in operations, I think there [are] times when we probably overinvested. We might be able to accomplish the task in different areas of the world with fewer resources, if we forced ourselves to think about how to do that.”
    • “Our reliance upon contractors is excessive, in particular in certain aspects of the use of contractors.”

    Dempsey noted that under the Budget Control Act of 2011 “we were tasked to find $487 billion” in savings. In addition, the budget sequester will cut defense spending another $42.7 billion in the current fiscal year and, if it continues until 2023, “takes you to another $500 billion,” Dempsey said.

    “It is not just a cliché to say that when you have all the resources you need, you no longer have the responsibility to think. So we are thinking,” Dempsey told a roomful of reporters. “We are trying to think our way through this challenge. And I think we will find opportunities to retain our level of effectiveness while becoming more efficient.”

    But the general warned that, at some point, efficiency savings would be insufficient to meet the budget targets, and defense capabilities would be affected. “You know, you can’t wring that towel out too tightly,” he said of efficiency gains. And speaking of the combined cuts imposed by the Budget Control Act and by sequestration, he added, “There is a point at which you just can’t do that by becoming more efficient.”

    Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Dempsey to conduct a review of strategic choices facing the Pentagon with a target completion date of May 31.

    “What you will see come out of the [Defense Secretary’s] strategic choices management review is that we will have to look at those places where we have grown most and decide whether that growth is justified, and my suspicion is we will find that, in many cases, it is not all justified,” Dempsey said. 

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