Civilians unacquainted with the ways of the Building have only vague ideas about what it is the Pentagon does. They think the real business of the Pentagon has something to do with defending America. But it does not. The real business of the Pentagon is buying weapons.
As a general once said, "Our job is to see that the flow of money to the contractor is not interrupted."
Strategist John Boyd, Colonel USAF, was not only a fighter pilot but an ace bureaucratic desk jockey as well. Some of the battles he fought in the Building can teach you a lot about our military, bureaucratic, and corporate systems.
Boyd was the chief planner behind the F-15 and F-16 fighter planes and envisioned the Light Weight Fighter specification that led to the F-16 and F/A-18.
He believed the Pentagon always leaned toward Bigger-Higher-Faster-Farther within a contracting system designed for "protecting the farm," the billion dollar weapons systems contracts and contractors, more than serving the needs of the soldiers, the mission, and the nation.
The weapons-buying business has few checks and balances; from beginning to end it is an advocacy proceeding. Not only do military rewards and promotions go to the officer in charge of a major program but he almost always finds a high-level job in the defense industry upon retirement, often with the company whose project he ushered through the Pentagon. This is the true nature of the Building.
Study after study has shown that the higher in rank a military officer ascends, the less likely he is to make trouble, let alone change. Boyd made plenty of change but he never made General. How could he, in a Pentagon system which conducts tests not to save the lives of American servicemen but to buy more weapons?
In the long fight over adequate testing of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle [how's it performing in Iraq and Afghanistan?], Boyd advised the point man, Jim Burton, to follow three rules:
The first was the most difficult and most familiar to anyone who had worked with Boyd. "Jim, you can never be wrong. You have to do your homework. If you make a technical statement, you better be right. If you are not, they will hose you. And if they hose you, you've had it. Because once you lose credibility and you are no longer a threat, no one will pay attention to what you say. They won't respect you and they won't pay attention to you."
The second thing Boyd told Burton was not to criticize the Bradley itself. "If you do, you are lumped in with all the other Bradley critics. It is the testing process you are concerned with."
While Boyd and Burton might make such a distinction, the Army could not. To them, criticizing the testing process was the same as criticizing the Bradley. But the difference in the two approaches is not at all subtle. By staying focused on the testing methodology, Burton was protecting the lives of American soldiers; he held the mental and moral high ground.
Finally, Boyd counseled Burton not to talk to the media or to Congress, to stay inside the system. If you go outside the system, he said, you will be viewed as just another whistle blower. And whistle blowers get no respect; they get others to help them do something that they can't do themselves.
The issue of testing is key: does the system perform? We all know the military and their contractors have long reputations for not giving value for the dollar, the latest example being the Coast Guard refitting fiasco featured on "Sixty Minutes" tonight [5/20/07].
The real business of the Pentagon is buying weapons. And the military has a pathological aversion to rigorous testing procedures because in almost every instance the performance of the weapon or weapons system is far below what it is advertised to be and, thus, far below the performance used to sell Congress on the idea in the first place. Weapons development is inherently risky and the costs can be difficult to predict. But the big problem is what Spinney calls "front-loading," the practice of deliberately underestimating the costs in order for Congress to fund the program. The weapons-buying business has few checks and balances; from beginning to end it is an advocacy proceeding.
One of Boyd's fundamental dictums when waging bureaucratic war was to use the other person's information against him. One application was understating everything in a negative report on a defective weapon so that any revisions would only make the conclusions more damning. Another was the "reverse pump":
He told Burton to keep in mind that when he wrote a memo, it was not for the person to whom it was addressed, but rather to the generals. Boyd called this a "reverse pump." Burton was feeding information to the people spying on him. This meant that accuracy in everything Burton said and wrote was even more critical. Again and again Boyd came back to one of his earliest admonitions to Burton. "Do your homework. If they hose you one time, they will never again respect you."
a third was responding to an avalanche of paperwork by generating more paperwork back up the chain of command.
Boyd fought for the right tools for the right job, arguing not so much against technology as against the improper use of technology.
But the Pentagon was a place where:
The Air Force has never made a serious study of warfare because every historically based effort to do so has come to the inescapable conclusion that the use of air power should be consistent with or - better yet - subordinate to the ground commander's battle plans, a conclusion that argues against the existence of an independent Air Force. And since Air Force doctrine is hardwired to the idea of independence from ground forces, this branch of the service remains unable to do any original thinking about how airpower should be integrated into the strategy of war.
Turf wars broke out because "We don't care what the Russians are doing. We only care about what the Navy is doing."
And Boyd was the only one in the Pentagon actually studying strategy, tactics, and how to win wars.
Boyd and his group of Reformers, the Acolytes, followed his mantra:
"Machines don't fight wars, people do, and they use their minds." He also preached, "People, ideas, hardware - in that order." Thus, machines and technology must serve the larger purpose.
Boyd's brief, "Patterns of Conflict,"
laid out a framework for assessing different technological approaches. It promoted the application of scientific and engineering knowledge to human needs. "Patterns" is about the mental and moral aspects of human behavior in war. That technology should reinforce that behavior, not drive it, was the argument of the Reformers. The Reformers believed that America's technological advantages were being used incorrectly and had, in fact, become a liability.
Boyd also believed "You can't change big bureaucracies until they have a disaster."
I read about Boyd because I don't want to wait for that disaster.
Notes from John Boyd; The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram
Boston; Little, Brown, 2002