November 24, 2015

Introducing Agenda SecDef

By Loren DeJonge Schulman, and Shawn Brimley

One year from now, somewhere in a small suite of offices at the Pentagon, a team of civil servants, military officers, and a smattering of outside civilians will be hard at work preparing for the arrival of the next secretary of defense (SecDef) and his or her top advisors.

Republican or Democrat, the next SecDef will face a daunting set of challenges. He or she will inherit ongoing operations in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, rising military tensions with Russia and China, a global counterterrorism campaign, and other inevitable global hotspots.

The next SecDef will also assume management of one of the largest organizations in the world. The Department of Defense (DoD) employs nearly 3 million uniformed and civilian personnel; spends more than $600 billion a year; contains dozens of huge organizations like the military services and regional combatant commands; and sustains a massive logistics architecture and a global network of military bases — all of which enable the use of American military power. A new SecDef will simultaneously assume responsibility for managing a $50-billion healthcare system, preparing for contingencies ranging from natural disasters to cyber attacks to conventional war, and signing the orders to send men and women in uniform into harm’s way. No preparation will ever be adequate, but preparation is key nonetheless.

Both of us have lived through the transition process between presidential administrations. Loren was a part of the DoD transition team and, later, a special assistant to Secretary Robert Gates. Shawn served on the incoming team that prepared Michèle Flournoy to transition into the Pentagon as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. We had front-row seats as President’s Bush’s senior defense advisors left and President-elect Obama’s senior defense officials began to trickle into the Pentagon.

Based on these and other experiences, we are convinced that the next SecDef (and any cabinet-level official for that matter) must come into office with a well-defined agenda and a detailed “must do” list. This must be paired with an understanding of the levers that move the Pentagon and the critical players within it. If he or she fails to do so, they will quickly be overwhelmed, losing the ability to shape the priorities of the department from the start. Instead, he or she will simply become a passenger in a river of process, memos, bilateral meetings with counterparts, travel, and endless trips to the White House.

We are pleased that War on the Rocks shares our view that thinking openly and publicly about the next SecDef’s agenda and the means by which to implement it is smart. Neither of us pretends to hold expert-level views on the full range of the issues the next SecDef will face. But we do believe that the readership of War on the Rocks can help, collectively, to craft and refine an agenda that will prepare the next SecDef to provide the best advice to the next commander-in-chief and manage the defense enterprise. So, help us craft that agenda.

Starting in early 2016, twice a month we will cover an issue we believe the SecDef has a unique responsibility to lead on, with whatever insight we have to offer on the tools he or she will have available to do so. In late October 2016, WOTR and the Center for a New American Security will jointly publish these columns (and perhaps some other contributions from readers) as a single report designed for the next SecDef and his or her team. Some of the issues we plan on covering include:

  • Overall U.S. defense strategy. What is the purpose of our military power? What ought to be the major priorities for the next administration?
  • Use of force. The SecDef has a unique role in preparing and overseeing decisions of where, when, and how to send uniformed personnel into harm’s way. How should the next SecDef think about this issue and how should he or she work with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also has a unique and important role?
  • Defense roles and missions. What constitutes the right division of labor between and among the military services, combatant commands, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and other elements of statecraft while preserving healthy friction? And how to affect that division?
  • Defense budget and planning. What are the major contours of the ongoing budget battles, and what is the right range of military spending given the security environment? How best can the Department of Defense ensure alignment of spending against priorities and in appropriate balance with the rest of federal discretionary spending?
  • Force development. How should U.S. military forces evolve? What are the desired characteristics of future military capabilities (e.g., range, speed, survivability etc.), and which are more important than others? What is the best way for the SecDef and his or her team to engage in the critical processes that shape the future force?
  • Scenarios and contingency planning. The SecDef regularly approves detailed contingency plans that anticipate how U.S. military forces will fight major wars, as well as a suite of defense planning scenarios that guide the development of military capabilities. What are the major contingencies and scenarios that the SecDef should flag for review early in his or her tenure, how should these be adjusted, and how should the department manage to these efforts?
  • Investment and modernization. What are the key military capabilities that should form the core of the next SecDef’s investment portfolio? What should we make of current Pentagon efforts (e.g., the Defense Innovation Initiative and the so-called “third offset strategy”)?
  • The defense reform agenda. Whether it is the rising cost of military retirement and health care, the need to consider a new BRAC round, or Secretary Ash Carter’s encouraging Force of the Future initiatives, what should the next SecDef aim to achieve, and what nascent reforms should he or she protect?
  • Global basing and posture. The shape of America’s overseas military posture is a key feature of the military balance in key regions. How should the next SecDef prioritize DoD’s presence, lay the groundwork for enhancing global access and associated partnerships, and maintain balance between forward-stationed and rotational forces?
  • Building partner capacityThough a critical component of our current defense strategy, the cost, risk, and long-term effectiveness of efforts to strengthen the capacity of partner security forces has come under scrutiny. What is the appropriate emphasis on this mission in our strategy, and how can the Department of Defense best apply lessons from past efforts
  • Defense governance. How should the next SecDef run the Pentagon? How should he or she make key decisions and hold his or her team accountable to the president’s priorities, and what are the best (and worst) examples of how the world’s largest bureaucracy makes decisions?
  • What should the next SecDef make of the oft-cited “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific? What opportunities exist to strengthen key alliances and partnerships, ink new military access agreements, and re-posture U.S. military forces? How should the next SecDef understand the rising tensions with China?
  • Middle East. How has the ongoing fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State changed the nature of our defense strategy in the Middle East? How should the Department refine its presence in the Middle East to prosecute that fight while remaining conscious of regional dynamics and keeping watch on Iran?
  • Europe. Russia’s military modernization and interventions in Ukraine and Syria have reshaped the contours of the transatlantic conversation on defense, as has the demand for crisis response capabilities on the Mediterranean. Should the United States change or increase its military presence in Europe?
  • Civilian–Military relations. Perhaps the most critical issue is how the SecDef — literally embodying the principle of civilian control of the military — will manage his or her relationship with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the combatant commanders, as well as interface between the Pentagon and the White House.

Nota bene — we are cognizant that it is still 2015, there is a year left in the Obama administration, and there is a very capable SecDef and a top team of military and civilians working hard right now to manage ongoing operations and prosecute an ambitious agenda. We hope in this column to identify what they are doing well, areas of investment and innovation in which they are forging new ground, and some ongoing initiatives that the next team should continue (and how best to do so).

The next SecDef, Republican or Democrat, must come to office as prepared as possible. There will be precious little time for introspection and agenda setting after the ballots are cast and the president-elect comes calling. Now is the time to assemble a comprehensive agenda for the next civilian tapped to lead the Pentagon, and to prepare to implement that agenda from day one. Help us do that. We look forward to the conversation.

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