The four military services in the Defense Department differ in their roles, missions and skills — which are good reasons to retain their separate identities. But as the duties of the uniformed service chiefs have converged with those of the civilian secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, the latter have become redundant appendages. Eliminating those positions would save money and streamline management, a good example for the rest of government. In today’s climate of fiscal austerity, cutting overhead is better than cutting defense programs.
Reciprocal loyalty between a civilian secretary and a military service chief represents the best relationship. The secretary can present the service’s case to the defense secretary and Congress while shaping the military organization to fit better into national strategy. In principle, the secretary provides an extra layer of civilian oversight and political insulation. But typically, that person is little more than a mouthpiece for his military subordinates; otherwise, the military goes around him to the media or contractors who have the ear of lawmakers. Any political insulation is undercut by the provision of law granting the military chiefs direct access to Congress.
I’ll have to cogitate on this one for a while. But my immediate reaction is to think that instead of eliminating the service secretaries, reduce the scope and power of the Office of Secretary of Defense.
The first SecDef to really use OSD to control the individual service bureaucracies was McNamara, in the early 1960s. And arguably, ever since, procurement management and operational management have become ever more sclerotic.
To be sure, a certain level of “purple” oversight is needed to keep the services in alignment for joint warfighting. But the need for the services to justify every procurement through OSD leads very long periods of time spent merely defining a platform, and a large part of the process isn’t defining what the service wants the platform to do, but jiggering the requirements to ensure it will pass OSD muster.
Like every system, overcentralization leads to a lack of agility.