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Reforming the Pentagon

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People have been getting rich by cheating on army and navy supplies since before ships had sails. Today’s artful dodgers of defense seem to thrive in two extreme circumstances:

--When there is so much money for arms that nobody notices a few dollars disappearing into someone’s pocket.

--When there is so little that suppliers will lie, cheat and steal for information that they need to land new contracts.

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Scraping crumbs off defense contracts may be too commonplace for any President to stop entirely, but President Bush can slow it down with changes in defense decision-making that would at the same time improve national security.

Bush inherits the blueprint for such change from President Reagan, who responded to it more than two years ago with far more admiration than action. The report came from Reagan’s Blue-Ribbon Commission on Defense Management, appointed during a flood of cases involving the Pentagon’s paying of $600 for toilet seats and $900 for cargo-plane coffee pots.

With David Packard--a California industrialist and former undersecretary of defense--at its helm, the commission bypassed supply and went directly to the heart of American defense planning. Existing procedure in which the Pentagon sets defense objectives, figures out what it will cost to achieve them and sends the package around to the White House should work the other way around, the commission said.

The correct first step, the commission said, would have the National Security Council and the President decide what the nation’s national-security goals should be and estimate their fair share of federal income. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would draft strategy within the White House framework--warning the President, of course, if the original plan might leave defense too thin here and there.

One reason Congress keeps sticking its nose into the fine print of Pentagon budgets--micro-managing, as it is called in Washington--is that Congress knows that the planning process works backwards and that defense budgets may not be even loosely joined to reality.

In a recent speech Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Americans are wrong if they assume that Washington sets defense policy by choosing among alternative military structures. They are, he says, also wrong to suppose that defense planning includes figuring how America’s allies might help, comparing the cost of different ways of putting defense forces together and how the cost might “affect the economy and the other things we’d like to do in this nation.”

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Congress might well be less interested in picking defense budgets apart if it knew that the commission’s approach was in effect and that the dollar amounts had some meaning.

Putting the White House back in charge of national security would not by itself stop cheating on defense contracts, but it could reduce the incentive. The nation probably would buy fewer weapon systems that it did not really need, and the opportunities for “goldplating”--pushing performance criteria, and costs, far beyond reason--would diminish.

The Packard commission dealt with the little picture in as much detail as the big picture. It said that the way to get a professional job of buying supplies was to hire professional buyers. Layers of stifling regulations designed to substitute for true market forces, which cannot be done, leave too little room for judgment, the commission said. In that atmosphere government cannot expect to keep professional buyers, and regulation alone will not prevent second-rate executives from making mistakes.

Now may be the chance of a generation for such profound change in the way American goes about deciding where it is threatened in the world and how it should meet the threats. Bush’s national-security adviser, retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, was on the commission and would not have to send out for details about what it meant. There would be resistance from the Pentagon, but that would be the case even with trifling change.

Bush has more than enough challenges, more than enough things to do in his first week on the job. But none are more crucial than getting back to the basics of the Packard commission report.

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