Pentagon undergoing defense-wide review for inefficiencies

The Defense Department is going over itself itself with a fine-toothed comb to see if it can identify money, time and manpower to reallocate to its highest priorities.

An August 2 memo signed by Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist calls for a comprehensive, zero-based, program and budget review for 2021 to 2025. The review will also make adjustments for 2020 where feasible.

The memo was first obtained by Inside Defense earlier this week.

“The review will also support a longer-term focus on structural reform, ensuring all defense-wide activities are aligned to the National Defense Strategy while evaluating the division of functions between defense-wide organizations and the military departments,” the memo states.

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The longer-term focus will produce additional savings in support of future budget cycles.

Norquist will lead the effort, along with the DoD chief management officer, the comptroller and the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Office.

The memo informs defense agencies and military departments that the offices will contact them directly for further guidance and collect data to inform weekly decision meetings, which will be chaired by the defense secretary. The first of those meetings will be on August 10 and will focus on the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

“We will begin immediately and move forward aggressively, as all defense-wide organizations, appropriations, funds and accounts will be included in the zero-based budgeting review,” the memo states. “Given the variety of defense-wide organizations and functions, we will tailor the review approach as needed. The review will consider all ideas – no reform is too small, too bold or too controversial to be considered.”

The memo tells all leaders to review their budgets carefully and ensure that every dollar is spent wisely and is focused on increasing lethality.

The review is the first large undertaking by new Defense Secretary Mark Esper. DoD was hampered from conducting reviews and making hard cuts to programs after former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced he’d be leaving the position at the end of 2018. DoD went more than half a year without a confirmed official at its helm.

The power vacuum only grew larger after the exit of former Deputy Defense Secretary and previous acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

After Shanahan’s departure, the Senate Armed Services Committee scheduled a quick succession of confirmations, basically forcing the Trump administration to officially nominate a defense secretary, deputy secretary and chief management officer. Those nominations often came in just a day or even hours before the hearings.

The National Defense Strategy, which was created by Mattis, put new emphasis on the lethality of the military force as it turned its attention more toward near-peer competitors like China and Russia.

The strategy’s third pillar calls for reforms to DoD for greater performance and affordability.

The new memo seems to be falling in line with that effort.

DoD has been able to bask in increasing defense budgets for the past few years, but the Pentagon isn’t holding its breath that those will keep up, which is why the review is protecting its most important assets.

Esper said in his confirmation hearing that DoD is facing an era of mounting fiscal challenges and competing demands.

The department has also taken fire from watchdog groups who point to the fact that the military failed its 2018 audit and will likely fail for years to come.

Lawmakers like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) are hesitant to give DoD a blank check when it can’t be accountable for the money it has been given.

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