John Lehman’s contradictory laws

John Lehman, one of the leading candidates to be secretary of defense in a Romney administration, has laid down the law. Or, in fact, two laws. Or, to be even more precise, laws that directly contradict each other.

The first law is that it is high time for a military buildup. In an interview with Defense News published over the weekend, he boldly put flesh on Gov. Romney's commitment to buy 15 ships a year (we have been averaging around 8-9 a year for the past 20 years). Lehman not only promised 15 a year for ten years, but he said the goal was a 350-ship Navy (right now it is around 286).

He endorsed building an additional aircraft carrier wing, even though, with one carrier regularly in overhaul, ten is enough. He promised to start a new frigate program (the Navy has no requirement for one), to increase the rate at which the Navy buys submarines and destroyers, to start a completely new missile defense ship, and to buy all the amphibious ships the Marines could possibly want (even though the size of the Marine Corps is planned to shrink over the next three years).

He didn't offer any justification for this Navy expansion (perhaps a former secretary of the Navy doesn't need to). More important, he ducked when he was asked how it would be paid for: "I wouldn't put a number on it until we see what kind of -- we're not talking about we're going to run faster, jump higher, be more efficient." Seems to be a quarrel he has with former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates about being more efficient.

But, as a former DOD official, he knows the problem, and it is about the enormous size of the Pentagon's overhead: "There's just a huge amount of bloat that has developed over the years. The bureaucracy itself has almost doubled what it was during the Reagan administration." The answer, Lehman's second law, sounds every bit as vague as the promises secretaries of defense have made for the last 50 years or more: "We're talking about fundamentally changing the method of doing business." Sorry, folks, no details on this law, just eliminate the bloat.

So his procurement plans would require multiple billions more funding -- he put no number on it, but Romney has talked about keeping defense at 4 percent of GDP, which would add $2 trillion to the current defense budget projections over the next decade. (A totally unrealistic promise, if Romney is going to fulfill his commitment to solve the deficit problem in the same time period.)

An increase of that kind would be a disincentive to any reform plans a Secretary of Defense John Lehman had in mind. Adm. Mike Mullen, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs stated it clearly in January 2011: "The budget has basically doubled in the last decade. And my own experience here is that, in doubling, we've lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades."

Lehman is dead right about the bloat. He's dead wrong about the solution; the bloat would continue because, with a lot more money, the services would have no incentive to do otherwise.



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