Speeches

Washington, D.C. - U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released the following remarks today at the Bipartisan Policy Center on military personnel reform:

"Thank you for that kind introduction. It is a pleasure to be here at the Bipartisan Policy Center among many old friends, like Leon Panetta, and a few old enemies…like Leon Panetta.  Leon, we miss you a great deal at the Senate Armed Services Committee. And I know how dearly you miss our calm and polite exchanges at the witness stand. You are welcome back any time.

"I suppose that to many people, an organization dedicated to promoting the best ideas from both parties and advancing the national interest seems quaint. And to be sure, you have your work cut out for you. But despite differences of party, we must never lose that sense of common purpose that has carried this nation through dark nights to brighter mornings. And thanks to your hard work, that spirit is alive and well here at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

"I welcome the establishment of the Center’s new Task Force on the Defense Budget and Personnel. It is an important recognition of the need to advance bipartisan reforms to the defense personnel system to better support our warfighters and their families. I am pleased to see some of the brightest experts on these issues have agreed to serve as co-chairs and members of the task force. I regret, however, that the bar was lowered to include a few scoundrels who served in the United States Senate. But I trust the task force will overcome their input.

"Our All-Volunteer Force is the greatest fighting force in human history.

"And it is the most basic purpose of defense personnel reform to keep it that way. That is easier said than done, because what is also true is that the All-Volunteer Force is more expensive, confronts more diverse and complex threats, and faces greater competition for talent than when it was created more than forty years ago.

"We cannot take America’s military superiority for granted. To preserve it, we must recruit and retain the best talent our nation has to offer. We have to design a personnel system and a defense organization that empower and take full advantage of that talent. We must uphold our commitments to the wellbeing of those that choose to serve and their families—from compensation, to healthcare, to education. And we must do all of this while ensuring we provide our service members the most important benefits of all—the resources, training, and equipment they need to accomplish their missions and return home safely to their loved ones.

"Our nation is blessed by the many fine, hard-working personnel, both military and civilian, in the Department of Defense. These are patriotic Americans who wake up every day to do difficult jobs, often foregoing easier careers and more lucrative opportunities, because they care about the mission of keeping America safe. And so many give their all to it.

"But too often, we all hear stories of the many excellent service members who are choosing, or being forced, to leave the military. This is a real problem, but it is made more complicated by the fact that so many talented officers and enlisted personnel continue to fill the ranks of our force. All of us meet them every day across the country and around the world. The question is whether our military is able to recruit and retain so many excellent Americans because of its personnel system, or in spite of it. I am concerned that, all too often, it is the latter.

"The Senate Armed Services Committee has taken initial steps in this year’s NDAA, which passed the Senate overwhelmingly this month, to help the Department of Defense recruit and retain the best civilian and military talent it needs to defend the nation.

"We provided greater flexibility for promotion boards to more quickly advance officers of outstanding merit. We allowed certain officers to defer promotions in order to continue developing their skills in positions they enjoy. And we gave the Department authority to directly hire talented students and recent graduates, and establish a public-private talent exchange.

"But there is still much left to do. In particular, we have to address the abysmal failure of the USA Jobs System to allow the Department to fill mission-critical positions with top talent in a timely manner.

"As we ensure the Department can continue to recruit and retain the best civilian and military personnel, we must also ensure that the Department is optimally structured to take full advantage of their talents. Unfortunately, I have yet to find an expert who believes that is the case today.

"Instead, the Senate Armed Services Committee has heard repeated testimony about decision-making processes dominated by the tyranny of consensus…a perverse bureaucratic culture that too often rewards parochialism, inertia, and risk avoidance…and layers of management and rigid functional siloes that force decisions to the highest levels.

"Put simply, the Department of Defense is struggling to do the vital work of strategic integration: marshalling the different functional elements of our defense organization to advance unified strategies and implement them effectively. The only two people in the Department capable of such integration are the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense. But in an organization as vast as the Pentagon, that is an impossible burden to put on any two people, no matter how capable.

"This is unacceptable. America no longer has the margin for error we enjoyed 30 years ago. We no longer confront a single adversary. Instead we face a series of global and enduring strategic competitions that all cut across our defense organization, which is often aligned around functional issues, regional geography, and separate warfighting domains.  

"To succeed in this strategic environment, we need to break down barriers to strategic integration and build flatter, faster-moving, and more flexible organizations.

"To move the Department in this direction, this year’s NDAA would require the Secretary of Defense to create six cross-functional teams to address our highest priority defense missions. A related provision would direct the Secretary to identify one combatant command and organize it around joint task force headquarters rather than service headquarters. The goals of both provisions are the same: to improve strategic integration.

"Successful cross-functional teams have proven effective when focused on a discrete priority mission…when they include members from every functional organization in the bureaucracy that is necessary to achieve that mission…and when their leaders are empowered to coordinate and execute the team’s efforts, build a collaborative culture, and provide clear accountability for results.

"That is why many organizations have adopted similar reforms to overcome difficult challenges, especially in the private sector but also in government—from the National Counterterrorism Center, to General Stanley McChrystal’s transformation of the Joint Special Operations Command, to similar reforms now unfolding at the National Security Agency and the CIA. If applied effectively in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, I believe the cross-functional team concept could be every bit as impactful as reforms in the Goldwater-Nichols Act.

"The reaction to these reforms in the Pentagon has been predictably hysterical. It’s the end of Western civilization as we know it. But the resistance of entrenched interests is to be expected on the road to reform. That was the case thirty years ago during the consideration of the Goldwater-Nichols Act. It is the case today. And it will be the case in the future.

"But despite inevitable resistance by the forces of the status quo, reform is possible. The Senate Armed Services Committee has shown that.

"Last year, the committee watched in astonishment as the Army slashed brigade combat teams, even after its headquarters staff had grown by 60 percent over the previous decade. The Air Force bragged to the committee in open testimony that it had completed mandated cuts to headquarters personnel ahead of schedule. We then learned the Air Force had actually avoided the cuts altogether by creating two new headquarters entities. Even after this discovery, the Air Force continued to complain it did not have enough personnel to maintain its aircraft.

"So the committee acted to focus limited defense resources on our warfighters. We overcame Pentagon opposition and enacted a 25 percent reduction in bloated headquarters staffs by 2019, a change that will save $10 billion for taxpayers.

"Last year, the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission pointed out that 83 percent of military service members were leaving the military with no retirement benefits whatsoever because they did not reach 20 years of service. This meant some service members who served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq were retiring from the military with nothing.

"So the committee acted. Under the new system created by last year’s NDAA, over 80 percent of military service members will now receive retirement benefits. What’s more, this reform is projected to save taxpayers approximately $17 billion in discretionary spending over the next ten years alone. Modernizing the military retirement system demonstrated that true reform can deliver better benefits to military service members and save taxpayer dollars.

"Building on the success of last year’s reforms, we have kept moving down the road to reform. We are continuing the effort to trim overhead and address a Pentagon that is short in the tooth and long in the tail. This year, the Senate NDAA includes a carefully-tailored 25 percent reduction in the number of general and flag officers, a corresponding 25 percent decrease to the ranks of senior civilians, and a 25 percent cut to the amount of money that can be spent on contractors doing staff work.

"And in one of the most significant portions of the legislation, the NDAA contains the most sweeping overhaul of the military health system in a generation. We have incorporated the best practices and recent innovations of high-performing private sector healthcare providers. Taken together, these reforms can improve access to, and quality of, care for service members, retirees, and their families…improve the military and combat medical readiness of our force…and reduce rising health care costs for the Department of Defense.

"This entails some difficult decisions. We made significant changes to the services’ medical command structures. We sought to right-size the costly military health infrastructure. And yes, we will ask some beneficiaries to pay more. But what we can promise in return is that our service members, their families, and retirees will all receive greater value—better access, better care, and better health outcomes.

"These are major reforms. But no one should think our journey on the road to defense reform is finished. Far from it. This will continue for years to come—as it must. Like Goldwater-Nichols and other previous reforms, the changes we are making will require dedicated follow-through by the Department of Defense and vigilant oversight by the Congress. It will also require energetic engagement from experts and activists like those at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Reform is not a singular event. It is a long, winding, and challenging road. And it is one we must walk together."

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