Some Practical Problems in the Pentagon

Dec. 1, 1958
Sometimes reorganizers get so enthusiastic reorganizing that they lose sight of the purpose for which the organization they are reorganizing exists. That seemed to be true of many suggestions we received for the organization of the Department of Defense. Its fundamental purpose of defending the United States had been forgotten. Let me give a few examples.

The suggestion that military personnel be economized by using civilians for activities not requiring combat training overlooks the fact that civilians cannot be ordered overseas and can quite when they choose. So if the Army, Navy and Air Force are to deed, clothe, and administer themselves in an overseas theater or in case of a domestic disaster, they must have military personnel who know how to perform these noncombatant functions. The services can, and do, use many civilians, but the military must retain a substantial participation in the “housekeeping” activities of their service.

Another suggestion was that the usual two- to four-year rotation period of military personnel should be abolished in many fields, so that officers would become more skilled by staying longer on one job. But this cannot be applied too broadly. History proves that military personnel tend to go to sleep on the job if they are kept too long at one assignment. Further, to a substantial extent officers must be “jacks of all trades,” so that in the time of war casualties will not cripple any given activity.

The suggestion that military hospitals which have empty beds and skeleton staffs should be consolidated into a few efficient units overlooks the fact that even in a limited war there would be no empty beds, and in case of a nuclear war we would be woefully short of beds.

The same considerations apply to suggestions to disband the tanker fleet of the Military Sea Transport Service and the planes of the Military Air Transport Service.

In the research and development field the suggestion that civilian scientists should replace the research organizations of the Army, Navy, and Air Force overlooks the necessity for military men to possess real scientific knowledge in order to hit upon ideas which will meet particular service needs, to develop the full potentiality of new weapons to meet service conditions, and, most important, to devise tactics and strategy which will take full advantage of those potentialities.

The suggestion that a single Chief of Staff should replace the present Chairman and four service Chiefs of Staff ignores the danger of relying for the solution of problems involving national life or death on the fallible judgment o one individual who would have the power to suppress differing opinions.

These and other examples too numerous to mention here demonstrate that the Pentagon is full of cross-pulls. I do not mean cross-pulls arising from interservice rivalries. I mean those, which arise from the desire for efficiency on the one hand, and the necessity of instant readiness for war on the other. These cross-pulls bedevil the ablest Secretary of Defense. It is rarely possible for him to establish a general rule without also establishing exceptions. As a corollary, he faces a major administrative problem in preventing the services from converting the exception into the rule when they so desire, and so defeating his efforts to avoid duplication and waste.

All this has a bearing on why the Department of Defense does not; as many citizens expect and demand, operate with the same efficiency as a private industrial concern. The huge size of the Department is another reason. It is many times the size of our largest industrial concern. But, important as they are, none of these considerations seems to me to be controlling. There are other factors, which, in my view, make it hopeless to expect that the Department of Defense ever will attain the same degree of efficiency as a private company.

In the first place, it is a fundamental national policy that our military establishment be under civilian control. In the absence of special legislation (such as was enacted for General Marshall) no professional military man can be Secretary of Defense. That is like insisting that the president of a steel company cannot be a steel man. He can be anything else, but not a steel man. To the business world this seems an odd way to go about obtaining efficiency, but it is the price we pay for this policy.

In the second place, both the Secretary of Defense and his “vice presidents” (service Secretaries and Deputy and Assistant Secretaries) are political appointees in the sense that they are appointed by the President with the approval of the Senate. Able as they generally are, their average term of office is less than two years. That hardly compares favorably with the life training most industrial vice presidents have received.

I have mentioned the service Secretaries. Let me digress for a moment on them — the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Theoretically, they are the principal assistants of the Secretary of Defense in carrying out unification as laid down in the National Security Act. Actually they must be advocates of their particular service, o else they will lose the confidence of that service and become useless. Talk about conflict of interest! The difficulties Mr. Wilson and many others have encountered under the co-called “Conflict of Interest Statutes” pale in comparison with the conflict of interest faced by the service Secretaries. I happen to be one of those who think the service Secretaries are very important person. They are the immediate bosses of the three major segments of the Department of Defense. Each segment has numberless problems which are purely its own. If the service Secretaries were abolished, or even if their title was changed to “Undersecretary of Defense,” many of these problems could not be settled short of the Secretary of Defense, because “everyone wants to see the boss.” So the service Secretaries do take a great load off the Secretary of Defense, in spite of their conflict of interest. In my judgment, the ultimate full success of the Department of Defense depends in large measure on the skill with which the service Secretaries maintain the confidence of their service and at the same time respond to the efforts of the Secretary of Defense to avoid duplication and waste.

There is a third major obstacle to efficiency. The rank-and-file administrators of the Department of Defense consist of military officers and civil servants. As I have said the officers rotate their jobs every two to four years as a general rule — a far shorter period on the job than in industry. Further, in non-combat jobs the military do not always put their heart in their work. They are trained to fight and understandable many find it difficult to generate enthusiasm over desk jobs. With the civilians rotation is not a problem, but there is an automatic process of selection working against the government. Able civilians are drawn off into private employment by much higher salaries, leaving the less able behind. To some extent this also applies to military officers.

From the point of view of manpower, therefore, to expect the Secretary of Defense to run the Department of Defense with high efficiency is like expecting a man who is not a carpenter to make a fine piece of furniture with blunt tools.

And there is still another important obstacle to high efficiency. Throughout our history cases of graft and dishonesty in the spending of public money have periodically been uncovered. As a result, the laws governing the spending of public money have been buttressed with provisions designed to prevent dishonesty. Inevitably such provisions deprive government buyers of discretion. While lack of discretion dos not materially hamper routine buying much of defense buying is not routine. And without discretion, initiative withers. No one dares to take a chance. Judgment is replaced by paper work. Form governs substance. Efforts to improve the situation have given partial relief, largely in the field of new weapons, where competitive bidding will not work and costs cannot be ascertained in advance. But the chances of the spending rules being changed so that buying may be done with initiative and shrewdness comparable to threat in industry seem dim. In government the same rules must govern the able and honest buyer and the incompetent or dishonest buyer; at least that is so to date, and no satisfactory mechanics have yet been devised to segregate the two. The numbers and semi political considerations involved make the difficulties too formidable.

The situation is aggravated by the so-called “do-good legislation” — certain laws which have a social purpose. In addition to requiring that government contractors pay prevailing wages and practice no racial discriminations, these laws requires that varying degrees of preference be given to American shipping, to American manufacturers, to small business, to dispersed plants, to distressed areas, and even to distressed businesses in non-distressed areas. Further, there is often potent political pressure to establish, or continue, activities in the area where constituents of various members of Congress are located, even though that may not be the most economical thing to do.

All this adds up to a pretty gloomy picture. And I have not covered such well-publicized problems as interservice rivalries. Fortunately, however, interservice rivalries, which reach a high enough pitch, to be harmful are largely confined to the Pentagon. There the future of the service is at stake, so competition for money and position is at its keenest. In the field service rivalries are rarely a problem; when there is a job to be done, cooperation is first rate.

Fortunately, too, the gloomy picture I have painted deals almost exclusively with “housekeeping” matters. I have not considered the combat efficiency of our services. And in my view that is high. I have the greatest admiration for the fighting skill, morale, and general character of our officers. They justify a high degree of pride on our part.

Then, too, I have been comparing the efficiency of the Department of Defense with the best in private industry. That is a high standard. My real point is that it is too high a standard for you and me to use. We should be satisfied with a reasonable degree of efficiency — reasonable in view of the unsolvable difficulties I have outlined. I think this is ultimately attainable.

About the Author

Mr. Coolidge, as Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, has been studying some of the problems he enumerates with a group of military and civilian people of the Department. The material from which the above is condensed appeared originally in the Harvard University Bulletin. It is printed in Air Force with special permission.