In his new autobiography, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld describes the Pentagon as “an institution that moved with all the speed and dexterity of a half-million-ton oil tanker.”
And that’s when it moved at all.
Rumsfeld is talking about his efforts to get the U.S. military to shed its Cold War legacy systems and become a more agile, more adaptive 21st century fighting force. His main aim, unlike today’s debate about Pentagon budget cuts, isn’t to save money. In fact, he argues the United States could afford to spend more on its military, and during his term from fiscal 2001 to 2006, defense spending rose from $366 billion to $654 billion.
Nonetheless, Rumsfeld’s often frustrating attempts at Defense Department transformation — and the mixed results they produced — serve as an instructive backdrop to the present-day challenges of Pentagon reform. Like Rumsfeld, Pentagon strategists remain concerned with getting the U.S. military more prepared to deal with a world of heightened uncertainty, of small wars as well as possible big ones, of multiple contingencies, and of unconventional threats. This puts a premium on developing more flexible forces and more precise weapons.
Robert Gates, who succeeded Rumsfeld as defense secretary four years ago, has done more than his predecessor to cull troubled programs. He also has put greater emphasis on the need for fiscal constraint, moving to cut overhead costs and reduce personnel and contractor expenses. But the savings Gates has generated have been intended mainly for reinvestment in other, more promising capabilities and programs meant to ensure more effective U.S. forces.
Recruited to Reform the Pentagon
As he notes in his book, Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld was not in the circle of national security experts who in the 1990s advocated for a revolution in U.S. military affairs. He was drafted into the fight. George W. Bush had made the notion of Pentagon transformation a central theme of his 2000 presidential campaign, and after choosing Rumsfeld as defense secretary, instructed him to reshape the armed forces.
Rumsfeld, who had a history of rescuing troubled companies, embraced the mission of changing the Pentagon with much the same hard-charging approach he had shown as a corporate chief executive. Within months of becoming secretary, he managed to alienate many senior officers and a number of key members of Congress, who regarded him as overbearing and inclined to dictate rather than negotiate a new vision for Defense Department programs, weapons and force structure.
An Institution Set in Its Ways
Rumsfeld, in turn, was put off by what he considered deep-seated institutional resistance to change. He writes that he found the “iron triangle” of Congress, the defense contracting industry and the permanent Pentagon bureaucracy “as strong as ever.” Any aggressive effort to alter the status quo, he suggests, was bound to provoke anger and animosity.
He acknowledges that his own tough management style didn’t help. “It was clear that there were some in the department who felt I was brusque or asked more questions than made them comfortable,” he says.
But he cites old-fashioned inertia as the main impediment to his reform efforts. “In a large bureaucratic institution,” he writes, “Newton’s laws of physics apply: A body at rest tends to remain at rest, and a body in motion tends to remain in motion. I was determined that the Department of Defense accelerate forward.”
By the fall of 2001, the betting in Washington was that Rumsfeld would soon be gone, having antagonized too many important people. The 9/11 attacks saved him. His blunt talk and forceful presence suddenly proved very popular with Americans looking to the Pentagon to lead them into the battle against al Qaeda.