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US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter Wants to Fix Everything Wrong With the Pentagon

Before a new administration takes over, Carter is pushing to deeply change an immense bureaucracy that happens to have the power to end civilization.
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US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is racing against the clock to push some pretty far-reaching reforms in the Department of Defense.

On the one hand, fundamental structural changes in the world's most expensive military are important, and ripples from these changes will be felt for years and decades to come. On the other hand, this stuff is boring as hell. But in Washington, it turns out that being boring is one of the best forms of camouflage available.


Carter has found himself in a bit of a bind, in terms of his job. Sure, he's qualified, interested, and enthusiastic; people have said he's "genetically engineered to be defense secretary." But he came in late and has very little time on the clock before a new administration takes over.

Nonetheless, he's been pushing what seems to be one of the most aggressive reform agendas the Pentagon has seen in decades. A great swath of changes were kicked off with this year's defense budget (which is the only budget that Carter has true control over before the next election).

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The last really enormous bout of reform in the Department of Defense, or DoD, was the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. At a very basic, fundamental level, the Goldwater–Nichols Act is a major reason that everything in the DoD works the way it does today.

In a speech this week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Carter outlined his main goals in trying to overhaul those reforms to bring them up to date for a post-Cold War, post-9/11, post-Iraq world. So let's bop through those changes quickly.

First, when different regional commanders (so-called combatant commanders) need to coordinate because some particular problem is widespread, right now, they have to go through the Secretary of Defense's office to do it. It's easy to see that commanders in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East might need to work together on various threats — one obvious example is the Islamic State.


But if they have to coordinate all that through the office of the top guy in the Pentagon, it's obviously not the easiest way to do things. So, in the future, they'll be allowed to coordinate under the watchful eye of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the top military advisors to the president and the Secretary of Defense). The chairman of the Joint Chiefs will continue not having anyone under his or her direct command, in order to play a role as unbiased and independent advisor, mediator, and referee on all things military.

Watch VICE founder Shane Smith interview US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter:

Second is that there's going to be a little rejiggering among those combatant commands. One of the changes will be to elevate cyber stuff to its own command, putting it alongside commands like logistics and special operations, rather than having it live under US Strategic Command (who are essentially the people in charge of launching the nukes).

Along with all this streamlining, the DoD is trying to reduce the number of managers, bureaucrats, four-star generals and admirals, and other people. That means a 25 percent cut in overall headquarters staff and then lots of "integrating functions" and "eliminating redundancies."

One area of reform that shouldn't be a huge shock is acquisitions — how the Pentagon buys, builds, and otherwise acquires stuff. The lousiness of the Pentagon acquisition system borders on legendary, but nobody's been really able to beat it into submission because it's a big, hairy beast.


Carter, back in the days before he was running the DoD, ran acquisitions. When he did that, he kicked off reforms called Better Buying Power and wants to continue with them, even ramping them up. Acquisitions will also be spruced up by bringing back the "service chiefs" into the process. The service chiefs are the top military commander in each branch. They got booted out of acquisitions when the Goldwater-Nichols Act passed 30 years ago. The thinking here is that bringing them back in the process will help bring in user input more effectively; they are, after all, the people doing the shooting, and being shot at, with the stuff the Pentagon buys.

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These service chiefs will be included in the Defense Acqusitions Board, which is, like the name says, the board that manages acquisitions for the DoD. So Carter will be putting service chiefs on the board, but taking other people off, since it's already enormous.

The final area is a raft of stuff about personnel. This has been an ongoing effort by Carter, called "Force of the Future," to bring human resources and personnel management practices out of the Pleistocene Era, and at least get them in a form that would have been considered modern at some point in the last century.

Along with the whole bucket of Force of the Future stuff, Carter also wants to give military folks more credit for playing nicely with others. Or as he says it, "Proposing to broaden the definition of positions for which an officer can receive joint duty credit, going beyond planning and command-and-control to include joint experience in other operational functions, such as intelligence, fires, transportation and maneuver, protection, and sustainment, including joint acquisition."

So, exciting? Sorry, but no. Important? Well, it's shifting the direction and behavior of an immense organization with the power to end civilization as we know it. What's it all mean? Not sure yet, and precisely because the organization it affects is immense, it will take a while to find out. But what's sure is that it will be very interesting.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via DVIDS