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Experts give House positive reviews on DoD reforms

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The Senate’s plan to reorganize the Defense Department still needs the approval of the House before it can reach the President and today may have moved the bill one step closer.

A triumvirate of former Pentagon officials gave the House Armed Services mostly positive reviews of the Senate plan to change the way DoD operates.

That’s an important step for advocates of Goldwater-Nichols reform, considering members of the House Armed Services Committee need to be won over in conference for the provisions to stay in the bill.

The Senate held a series of hearings over the past year on what’s wrong with the structure of DoD and wrote into the 2017 defense authorization bill some of the biggest changes to the department in 30 years.

The House committee held a July 7 hearing on reforms to the 1986 law to better inform itself on the issues it will work with the Senate on in conference.

The most shocking provision, breaking down the Pentagon’s acquisition, technology and logistics (AT&L) office, got the thumbs up from the testifying military experts.

We have “decapitated the head of the innovation ecosystem within the department. The Director of Defense for Engineering and Research was the capstone that put superior hardware into the hands of our soldiers. We lost that,” said John Hamre, former deputy defense secretary and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I don’t think you can turn the large organization of AT&L… they will never become an innovation organization, they are a compliance organization. If we are going to restore innovation to the department, we have to create a lean superior position.”

The Senate version of the bill aims to reinstate a position similar to the director of engineering and research in hopes of prioritizing innovation in the Pentagon. That way the United States can keep its technological edge over its adversaries.

The bill would basically turn the current AT&L position into two positions. One would focus on research and engineering acquisition, the other would deal with the day-to-day procurement DoD needs.

Defense Business Board member Dov Zakheim echoed the Senate’s concerns about the acquisition office.

“When you have a system that created its own rapid acquisition system to get around itself, which is what DoD did, something is fundamentally wrong,” Zakheim said.

The AT&L reforms were the most universally accepted by the panel experts. Another area of consensus rested on the Senate’s provision to cut the number of flag officer positions.

The bill calls for a 25 percent across the board cut. Hamre cautioned against that, however.

Instead, he said Congress should offer DoD a year to strategically cut the 25 percent. If DoD failed to do so, then Congress could inflict across the board cuts.

Some lawmakers were alarmed by the idea of the cuts.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) said the director of the Missile Defense Agency position would be reduced to a three star position if the law passed, which concerned him.

The experts said they did not agree with the demotion of the MDA position, but mostly agreed with a reduction in four-star billets.

Former U.S. Africa Command chief Carter Ham said the reductions would only create a meager savings due to staff reductions, but would mostly better the downward flow of information through the ranks and free four-stars for more important duties.

One area where the former officials disagreed with the Senate bill was in the duties of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A provision in the Senate bill restricts the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from ever becoming chairman. Zakheim said that makes the vice chairman a lame duck the day he starts his job.

The experts were even more concerned about a provision that would partially insert the Joint Chiefs of Staff into the chain of command in order to do small administrative tasks.

“This is an issue of almost constitutional significance,” Hamre said. “Democracies always struggle. How do you control authoritarian organizations with guns? That’s what the Defense Department is; it’s an authoritarian organization. … The way we have handled that problem in this democracy is by civilian control [of the military], started by George Washington who insisted on civilian control. Civilian control is to make sure the president can never escape accountability for decisions to go to war. You don’t put the military in the way that confuses that either to give him clouded judgement or an excuse … I’d say civilian control is a toggle switch, either it’s on or it’s off.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter previously asked Congress to give the Joint Chiefs more authority to work on cross functional administrative tasks, but explicitly asked they not be inserted in the chain of command.