The world’s most powerful military capability is often referred to as simply “The Pentagon.” It is also the world’s largest office building. Liberty Nation has frequently covered decisions, both good and bad, that have originated from the E-Ring of the Pentagon, but recently the good have paled compared to the bad. So does this spate of Defense Department missteps and blunders portend similar behavior in the future and does it mean the Pentagon as an institution is broken? Americans are entitled to ask if this trend can be stopped or whether recent miscalculations, gaffes, and poor leadership herald what will be the norm.
For context, the Pentagon is as the Defense Department historical office describes; three in one: “a building, and institution, and a symbol … above all a metaphor of American power.” Situated in Arlington, Virginia, on the Potomac River, the facility encompassing over six million square feet of floor space is a working home for more than 25,000 people.
On the Inside
The building is pentagon-shaped, hence the name, five stories high above the ground and a mezzanine and one floor below ground. Working space is made up of five concentric rings, with the A-Ring closest to the center courtyard and the E-Ring furthest away. Each floor has corridors that run perpendicular to the rings from the A-Ring to the E-Ring, making it easy and relatively fast to get from one office to another. The four original military services, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, all have their leadership offices on the E-Ring. The latest military services included in the Defense Department, Space Force, and U.S. Coast Guard (the U.S. Coast Guard is managed and directed by the Department of Homeland Security during peacetime) are billeted in other locations.
Often maligned for its ponderous, glacial, process-laden approach to getting things done, the people are, for the most part, dedicated and capable. But make no mistake, the action side of the Pentagon is a hierarchical bureaucracy. That is simultaneously both its strength and its stifling weakness. The decision-making is hierarchical. That means that the individuals who know the most about a program or operation or national security issue are at the bottom of the decision pyramid.
Those that know an ever-decreasing amount about any one subject are those in positions higher in the decision pyramid. The decision-tree phenomenon, if left unattended, will guarantee that the persons with the decision rights will be the least knowledgeable on the subject they are deciding. The result is that it takes as much effort to promote and accomplish a good idea as it does to kill a bad one.
Consequently, there are those who are continually finding the Pentagon failing, and are quick to offer remedies. Generally, those “quick fixes” fail to grasp the core culture of the Defense Department workers, both civilian and military. On the other hand, critics land on a single element of the Pentagon’s gigantic bureaucratic system they believe if “fixed” would ensure the bastion of military power for the western world would work swimmingly. An example of the first approach – the broad view – is represented by a recent “point of view” article by Zachery Tyson Brown and Kathleen J. McInnis in Foreign Policy. The authors’ commentary is titled, “The Pentagon’s Office Culture is Stuck in 1968.”
Brown and McInnis claim there is “a workplace revolution of sorts underway, one that’s overturning more than a century of management theory.” The authors maintain:
“Partisans of this revolution call it by many names — agile, lean, and design-thinking, to name just a few. They can be found in nearly every sector of the knowledge economy – from the usual suspects in Silicon Valley start-ups to newer converts you might not expect, including stalwarts of the manufacturing, finance, information technology, and consumer services industries.”
No Corporate Solution
With the comparison between the private sector and the Pentagon, Brown, and McInnis make a critical mistake that disqualifies their argument. Their case is predicated on the supposition that the Pentagon and military, by extension, are an institutional equivalent to the private sector corporate cultures. They are not. Hewlett Packard, Apple, Walmart, General Electric, Tesla, and Amazon do not have responsibility for suiting up their employees to take on the battlefield’s violence with life-or-death consequences. Nor do they have accountability for developing winning strategies in which the hostilities of combat take place. Likewise, the Department of Defense (DOD) is not a microcosmic representation or moral equivalent of U.S. society, and it should not be.
But because the U.S. Armed Forces don’t look like Costco, does it mean the institution is broken? Candidly, Americans must expect more from the military and civilian defense leaders than can be expected from the diverse citizenry of the United States. To suggest otherwise is naïve and wrong-headed.
Equally fallacious is the notion that solving one isolated problem faced by the five-sided building will effectively solve systemic maladies of the E-Ring. Though not claiming to address a panacea of the perceived Pentagon ills, Representative Ken Calvert (R-CA) raises a caution that goes to the one common denominator that does permeate the Defense Department institution; money.
The Civilian Problem
In government generally, and no more so than the DOD, it’s about the money. It’s always about the money. Calvert, the ranking member of the powerful defense panel of the House Appropriation Committee, makes the case that an element of the money problems Defense faces is the amount of funding that sustains the civilian workforce. According to Travis Tritten writing for Military.com, “The number of civilian workers compared to military service members is the highest in the history of the Pentagon, and that’s unsustainable.” Calvert states, “I don’t see how we can afford to maintain the current civilian workforce into the future if we’re forced to balance those costs with procurement and research efforts, which are absolutely necessary.”
Calvert has a point, and the DOD cannot spend money for a civilian workforce that it cannot now or in the future afford. But does this one aspect of the Pentagon constitute being broken? Do too many defense civilians constitute a severe fissure in the Pentagon’s capability to function? Should the Pentagon more closely mirror the American private sector, with its innovative management scheme du jour, rather than retain its purpose-built unique hierarchical leadership and management? Does it require immediate structural remedy?
Over decades, numerous attempts at reorganizing and restructuring the Pentagon have taken place, from the Packard Commission of the 1980s to former Secretary Mark Esper’s 2019 “Defense-Wide Review” to reduce the cost of defense. However, the one lasting, immutable feature of the Department of Defense is that it responds to skilled, experienced leadership and competent management. People make policy. People execute operations. People make decisions.
Qualified, capable people can, more often than not, develop appropriate defense policies. Clever, intelligent, and seasoned people will generally be successful in executing military operations. And when it comes to making decisions, people of moral character, sensitive to the consequences, and having made tough decisions in the past, will excel. Choose people for important leadership and management positions based on merit, and critics will have less ammunition to say the Pentagon is broken.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
~ Read more from Dave Patterson.