Niskanen Center’s Matthew Fay writes, “Put the Army, Navy and Air Force in competition with one another for money and missions, and they will happily inform civilian overseers about the wasteful practices of their brethren.”
“Competition spurs innovation. Sapolsky’s (Harvey) MIT colleague Owen Cote has found that military organizations seek new technologies—or new ways of using existing technologies—in competition over missions.”
Nearly two decades ago, with the joint force Goldwater-Nichols produced still struggling to define its post-Cold War identity, Harvey Sapolsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) saw three advantages inter-service competition provide for defense management. They are even more applicable today.
First, inter-service competition provides information for civilian oversight. At his confirmation hearing, Carter acknowledged that the “taxpayer cannot comprehend” the amount of waste at the Pentagon, and lent his rhetorical support to legislative efforts to audit the Department of Defense. It remains unclear, however, whether the Pentagon will meet its 2017 deadline for audit-readiness or what exactly a one-time audit will accomplish, other than confirm what is already known: the military wastes tremendous amounts of money. Inter-service competition on the other hand provides a mechanism for an immediate and ongoing audit. Put the Army, Navy and Air Force in competition with one another for money and missions, and they will happily inform civilian overseers about the wasteful practices of their brethren.
Second, service competition provides civilians leverage in their oversight role. While Robert McNamara did a great deal to centralize defense management during his tenure at the Pentagon, he wisely left himself leeway to play the services off one another. He cultivated allies in the Navy and Army while cancelling two Air Force bombers and capping the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles the service could possess. At the post-Goldwater-Nichols Pentagon, such cancellations are uncommon as the services present a “joint” front to protect favored programs. A problematic program like the F-35 continues with no fear for its existence seeing as the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all have skin in the game.
Third, competition spurs innovation. Sapolsky’s MIT colleague Owen Cote has found that military organizations seek new technologies—or new ways of using existing technologies—in competition over missions. Military services are famously conservative institutions, but they will discard preferred weapons and doctrines rather than become irrelevant. The Department of Defense is currently investing in an innovation initiative, with $12 billion dedicated to the effort in its current budget request. But money alone is no incentive to innovate. It takes considerable risk to change the status quo. In psychology, prospect theory says that people risk more to prevent losses than they do to achieve gains. Thus, profligate spending and bureaucratic comity only perpetuate current service preferences. Service competition instead works in concert with Budget Control Act spending limits to provide powerful incentives to innovate.