The country has two seemingly contradictory goals: Cut the amount we spend at the Pentagon but don't weaken the national defense. In this newsmaker interview, someone who's been there offers a prescription for cutting costs without losing military effectiveness.
Since 9/11, the Pentagon has been as poorly run as at any time in decades, and needs someone with strong executive experience to set things straight, according to former Reagan assistant defense secretary Lawrence Korb.
In a newsmaker interview with the Washington Guardian, Korb praised Chuck Hagel, whose nomination hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee begin Thursday. "Chuck has more management skills than 90 percent of the people ever selected to be secretary of defense,” he said.
But Korb, an analyst at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, sees the key to fixing the Pentagon’s management issues in the selection of Hagel’s deputy, since Hagel will have to spend all his time on policy and travel.
“It's the deputy secretary of defense. The number-two person. And when the Pentagon is run well, we've had great deputies.”
Korb, who worked for a Republican administration and the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute before joining CAP, says in the Bush and Obama administrations, a string of deputies with weak managerial skills has allowed costs to skyrocket beyond what the nation actually needs.
“I've been in the Pentagon, I was in the service, I have never seen it so badly managed as I have since 9/11,” he said. “I mean, the cost overruns on our weapons systems -- unbelievable. Close to a trillion dollars. You spend $50 billion on weapons you've canceled!"
Korb doesn’t like the budget sequester scheduled to go into effect in March because it cuts everything by the same amount. But he’s not uncomfortable with the actual spending level it sets -- approximately $500 billion per year.
“If you can't run the Pentagon for $500 billion, you don't deserve the job,” he said.
“Before 9/11, we were spending less than 300 [billion per year]. War is separate. We're not talking about the war funds. We're talking about the baseline budget. No, what it will force you to do is make tough decisions,” he added.
With experience as a naval flight officer during the Vietnam War, as vice president of corporate operations at Raytheon, and as an academic with connections to institutions across the political spectrum, Korb brings broad qualifications to his analysis of how the Pentagon can cope with looming budget cuts.
“We've been spoiled because, after 9/11, the top came off of the budget, and it went up much more rapidly. Do you know, we were spending -- controlled for inflation -- more than at any time since World War II?”
He suggested that Hagel, if confirmed, find a strong business executive to take control of the Pentagon bureaucracy.
"I'd go out and I'd say, 'Who runs Google? All right, you're going to come in and run this place here for a while.' That's what you really need, and until you get that, you're not going to make the tough decisions. Now I hope Chuck Hagel, when he gets in there, recognizes that, and gets the right person to help. Because even though he's a good manager, you can't do it all yourself."
Citing the example of David Packard, the Hewlett-Packard co-founder who served as deputy defense secretary during the Nixon administration, he suggested, “Hey, Meg Whitman, hey, come on in."
Korb was critical of Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates for selecting deputies with weak managerial credentials.
"Don Rumsfeld, who's his deputy? Paul Wolfowitz. He was an academic, OK? ... That was not a manager. He's a policy-maker, a bright guy, I like him, I respect him, but he was in the wrong job. When Gates decided to stay, he turned down -- because I made, you know, the White House counsel called me and I named them some big managers -- he didn't want anybody to take the light from him, so he put in Bill Lynn -- again, a nice fellow, but he's not David Packard."
He said he is optimistic that management of Pentagon will improve. “I think all of the stars are aligned right now, because we're war weary, Americans are willing -- we know we've got problems here at home.” He added that Hagel’s experience in the military will give him credibility in making hard choices to lower costs.
“You've got a president who basically wants to move in that direction, so I think basically this is the time. And the Republicans, many of who are for a strong defense, also want the budget under control."
What would he say to the American public about the need to cut the budget in a world full of threats?
"We're going to be better stewards now. We're going to take a look and say, 'what are the threats, what do we really need, and you know, it's not just what we're spending. We spending more than the rest of the world combined. We don't have an existential threat now, like the Soviet Union. So we're going to be careful with your taxpayers' money. and we're going to make sure that we spend it correctly. And it's been done before.”
Sequestration is the automatic set of spending cuts that will take place in early March under present budget law. As part of the agreement to raise the debt ceiling in 2011, Congress mandated a series of deep cuts -- half in defense -- if it didn't come up with a deficit reduction plan that could pass both houses and that President Barack Obama would sign.