Rather than tackle the real inefficiencies in military spending -- most of which are caused by Congressional mandates -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates jumped on the feel-good bandwagon whose occupants gaily call for eliminating the “fat” from the Pentagon’s budget.
Last week, Gates signed off on a forty-plus page memorandum trumpeting “savings” to be wrung out of the armed forces. One of the more puzzling cuts was in the Office of Net Assessment, which plans to “[r]educe study and analysis budget by 15% given the demand by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.”
For those unfamiliar with the legend and lore of the Pentagon, the Office of Net Assessment was established to deal with “black swans”—the unanticipated national security surprises no one else in Washington thinks about. In 1971, President Richard Nixon created a “net assessment team” within the National Security Council. Dissatisfied with the level of integration of his intelligence contributors and defense analysts, Nixon formed the group from scholars at the RAND Corporation, a federally funded research and development center, and had them report directly to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. The unit was led by Andrew Marshall, a RAND analyst.
In 1973, Marshall’s unit moved to the Pentagon, and he was named director of the Office of Net Assessment, a post he has held during every subsequent Administration. Through the years, Marshall’s team has provided cutting-edge analysis for leaders in the Pentagon where the urgent often crowds out the important.
Apparently, Secretary Gates thinks it’s no longer very important to think about surprises before they happen—an odd position for someone who finds himself scrambling desperately to deal with an unexpected war with Libya, a earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown in Japan, and a wholesale makeover in the Middle East.
In its first day of supporting the no-fly zone in Libya, the Pentagon spent about 100 times the proposed cut ($1.3 million) to Net Assessment’s study budget. If a study by the office could help avoid one surprise like that, Marshall’s men would pay for themselves many times over.
In this case at least, Gates’ savings come from cuts to the brain, not the fat, at the Pentagon. That's no way to lose weight.