WASHINGTON: In a remarkably non-partisan moment amidst the current strife over budget cuts and Chuck Hagel, Ronald Reagan’s Navy Secretary and George W. Bush’s Chief of Naval Operations told a Republican-helmed committee that the Navy’s real problem was not the Obama administration’s budget but decades of creeping bureaucracy that have eaten every budget’s buying power.

“I hate to say anything particularly in praise of this administration’s defense policy,” said John Lehman, Navy Secretary from 1981 to 1987 and national security advisor to Mitt Romney in 2012, at a hearing of the seapower panel of the House Armed Services Committee, chaired by Rep. Randy Forbes. But, Lehman went on, a recent report by the Defense Business Board really shows “how to get at the bureaucracy and the overhead.”

The chairman of that study, retired Marine general Arnold Punaro, told Breaking Defense at the time that its recommendation for the Pentagon procurement system was, in a phrase, “put a match to it.”

Lehman was hardly less harsh. “We have been for some considerable time now disarming unilaterally,” he told the legislators, because ever-increasing overhead and inefficiency in the procurement system raises the cost of weapons systems — for all the services, not just the Navy — and decreases the number the military can buy. Just upping budgets won’t fix the problem, he emphasized: “The more money you put in, if the system is not functioning, the less capability you get out.”

On the flipside, cutting every budget function indiscriminately and across the board, as in the sequester due to start on Friday, will not target the real inefficiencies. “There is a huge amount of overhead fat in the defense budget,” Lehman said, “but I don’t see sequester providing the flexibility to remove and cut that overhead.”

Indeed, sequestration and the separate set of spending restrictions called the Continuing Resolution may well end up costing the government more money than they save, said Lehman and his fellow witness, retired Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead. To save money, the Navy is cancelling maintenance on dozens of ships from carriers to destroyers and ordered the USS Harry Truman not to deploy to the Persian Gulf. But that work will have to made up later, when maintenance problems have been compounded by neglect, and the ships forced to stay at sea longer to make up for others not sailing on schedule will require extra maintenance when they finally do come back.

“We’re going to have pay later for what’s being done because this has a ripple effect throughout the entire carrier force,” said Roughead. “The schedules of maintenance and operations are very carefully synchronized.”

Having joined the fleet in 1973 and served in the infamous “hollow force,” Roughead remembers the last time the US military cut corners on maintenance and training, and it didn’t go well. “I recall a time when we didn’t have enough money to maintain ships [and] we didn’t have enough time between deployments to train the new sailors,” he said, “and I’m fearful we could return to that time.”

Unlike in prior drawdowns, moreover, the industrial base that does the maintenance work — especially the smaller second- and third-tier suppliers — has shrunk to the point where it lacks the “depth” to endure a downturn, Roughead said.

Between the direct effects on the fleet and the indirect effects on the industrial base, if sequestration goes into effect and the Continuing Resolution is extended for the rest of the fiscal year, Roughead said, “we’re in a very, very rapid downturn” that may not be possible to reverse: “You are…. going to have a different Navy than the nation has had since the end of World War II.”

That said, preventing the sequester is necessary but not sufficient, Lehman emphasized. “Even if sequester doesn’t happen, you are still faced with a major crisis because we are unilaterally disarming,” he told the subcommittee.” We’ve got to fix the procurement system. It is fixable.”

The Virginia-class nuclear submarines, said Lehman, offer a rare ray of light: “The submarine program has been the best managed of any procurement program in the Pentagon over the last couple of decades,” he said. “This is a model.”

There’s a certain irony in a leading architect of the Reagan buildup arguing for efficiency in defense procurement, and at times Lehman sounded as if he were refighting the battle he and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger lost over the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. Lehman and the traditionally independent-minded Navy were particularly resistant to the centralization of authority in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff, which Lehman sees as costly bloat.

“It’s much more in the independent agencies and OSD than in any of the services,” Lehman said of the overhead and inefficiency in the procurement system. “A huge mistake made by Congress in passing the Goldwater-Nichols Act 30 years ago was to take the Chief of Naval Operations and all the service chiefs out of procurement.”

“Power has been drawn up into OSD and independent agencies and into the joint requirements offices,” he said. “It’s like swimming in treacle because you have all this oversight… [but] nobody’s in charge.”

“It really gets down to accountability,” agreed Roughead, “and I really do believe it is at the service chief level where you set a requirement and that service chief is responsible.”

That said, holding service officials and program managers responsible for the success or failure of procurements does not require a risk-averse approach with zero tolerance for trial and error, Roughead said. Indeed, Congress or the Pentagon often compound a program’s problems by layering on more oversight and more requirements after every shortfall, cures that are often worse than the disease.

“Failure in test is not failure of a program. We need to be able to not add more requirements because something did not quite perform as we anticipated,” Roughead said. “Making progress sometimes involves having a failure or two along the way.”

The subcommittee spent some time on the perennial favorite topic of seapower advocates, the number of warships in the fleet, but the two witnesses were refreshingly dismissive of the bean-counting game.

“It is not just numbers,” Lehman said, but rather “the larger picture of naval requirements.”

“It’s not just a question of where you want to be but what the mix is,” agreed Roughead, and how that mix of ships matches the missions. “We could drive to a high number if we just built a bunch of LCS’s [Littoral Combat Ships] but that’s not going to meet the nation’s need.” The Navy needs the right number and types of ships to respond to the unfreezing of the Arctic Ocean, new tensions between China and its Pacific neighbors, abiding instability in the Persian Gulf, and ongoing aftershocks of the Arab Spring in the Mediterranean. “We have been able in recent years to essentially be absent in the Mediterranean,” Roughead emphasized, but that can’t last.

Ship numbers, types, and budgets all have to be driven by some underlying strategy, Lehman said. Unfortunately, he went on, “there is not a coherent strategy coming from this administration — and, I must say, the last administration.”

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