Military-transformation agency at crossroads after Cebrowski

The Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation (OFT), a small shop dedicated to alternative views of the military’s future 20 years from now, until recently could open doors with the sheer force of its director’s name: retired Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski.

Known in the Pentagon, Congress and defense industry as the transformation czar for his remarkable intellect, Cebrowski, a former president of the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., has built the OFT around his famous name.

But now this small avant-garde office finds itself at a crossroads, fighting to keep its relevancy and impact in the Department of Defense and Congress without the famous backing but simply through its work.

Cebrowski, a Navy aviator who flew combat missions in Vietnam and served in Desert Storm, is battling health problems and retired in January. Some in Congress believe that the OFT, without the big-name backing, needs to change to have more impact on decisionmakers.

“They need to be in a structure where they can’t be ignored,” said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Projection Forces Subcommittee. “It is too easy to be ignored, and they were not ignored under Art Cebrowski.”

Bartlett, a supporter of the OFT who has had continual dialogue with Cebrowski, said he is concerned that the office could now be overlooked if it does not revamp.

The OFT regularly faces pressure from the Joint Forces Command and the office of the Joint Chiefs. About every sixth month, the suggestion is made to move the OFT to Norfolk with the command or fold it under the office of acquisition, technology and logistics, according to a Pentagon source.

Amid U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon’s 2005 sweeping review of capabilities and growing problems with the defense industrial base, the OFT is trying to stay in high demand for its perspectives that to some may seem too far in the future, 15 or 20 years from now.

“We are at the intersection of unarticulated need and inconsequential change. The portfolio is quite broad,” said Terry Pudas, the OFT’s acting director. A naval aviator himself who served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Pudas has been OFT’s deputy director and Cebrowski’s right hand since October 2001.

“There are people who look at us through the technology lens, but we are not just another technology shop,” he said in an interview at the OFT’s office in Rosslyn, Va. “We are trying to understand the emerging global security environment.”

He describes the OFT’s “core products” as new logic and new rules to assist decisionmakers as well as to create “new knowledge.”

For instance, Cebrowski often spoke of the United States as a “systems administrator,” responsible for keeping the global system humming. Those places not connected to the global system — parts of the Middle East, Africa, South America and parts of Central Asia — were those most likely to see U.S. military engagement at some point.

The OFT has provided two key analyses at Congress’s behest. One, the alternative fleet-architecture design, addresses the endemic problems in shipbuilding and is looking at alternate ways to build up the Navy’s fleet. The study concludes that the Navy should invest in a larger number of smaller and cheaper ships, connected by robust communications networks. The second study, the Operational Responsive Space Initiatives, looks at ways to view capabilities in space.

But the office strives to be more than a think tank or policy adviser. An OFT experimental endeavor that is getting traction in Congress is Project Sheriff, or in its technical name the “Full-Spectrum Effects Platform,” which is designed to provide troops with more options to survive the chaos of urban combat.

The Sheriff system, integrated in a light-armored vehicle, such as a Humvee, or the Stryker, promises to withstand rocket-propelled grenades, improvised explosive devices and small-arms fire while also being able to engage hostile crowds without the use of deadly force.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a strong supporter of the project, urged the Defense Department to accelerate it. In the House version of the 2006 defense authorization act, Project Sheriff was allocated $10 million.

In the past couple of years, the OFT also made itself instrumental to the defense industry. Major contractors seek the OFT’s advice for ways to streamline, and small businesses use the OFT as a window to the Defense Department, Pudas said.

He said that his office also contributed to the Pentagon’s quadrennial defense review, a sweeping analysis of military capabilities. “If we have something to contribute, we come forward,” Pudas said.

And the office does not mind ruffling some feathers with its ideas, such as its alternative fleet-design study or its strategic transformation appraisals.

“The office is enjoying a certain degree of credibility. Clearly we created the office around a certain personality and a certain name, but it is more than a cult following for a certain individual,” Pudas said.

The Pentagon eventually will need to find someone of Cebrowski’s stature to take the helm of the office, said Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“The person you put in charge says something about the value the secretary of defense places on the office,” he said. “Right now, the situation is probably acceptable, but for an ideal situation you need to go and find a new Art Cebrowski.”

Pudas, who has been acting director for six months, said he believes the office has grown into its own. “We have all been at this for quite some time,” he said. “There has been no decrease in activity since [Cebrowski’s] retirement in January.”

Krepinevich agreed. Even though Cebrowski was the “heartbeat” of the OFT, as director for four years he had a chance to set the office up with suitable people and establish a sturdy basis for the office’s research projects.

Pudas said he was not certain whether the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, is actively looking for a replacement.

The office has a staff of 18 people, of which 11 are military officers and seven are civilians. It is careful how it applies its $20 million annual budget, Pudas said.

“We deliberately keep the office at a size where it can maintain some agility,” Pudas said. “We did not want to create a bureaucratic organization [because] the focus is substance.”