McChrystal backs McCain’s Pentagon reform proposal

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The Senate Armed Services Committee got a boost Tuesday from retired Army Gen. Stan McChrystal, who testified in support of Pentagon reforms the committee backs. 

The panel, led by Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), has proposed in its 2017 defense policy bill that the Pentagon create six cross-functional teams dedicated to the highest-priority defense missions. All Pentagon teams are currently organized by function.

{mosads}The Pentagon opposes the reforms. But McChrystal said in testimony to the committee: “It does have to take place, Mr. Chairman, I think you’re exactly right.”

“Every time that I can think of when you have a very complex difficult problem, you form some form of a cross-functional team,” said McChrystal, who introduced transformational reforms to the Joint Special Operations Command when he took over in 2003.  

Jim Locher, a former committee staffer who helped author the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, said the proposal would “initiate a long overdue revolution in defense organization.”

“If successful, resulting improvements in performance would be transformational,” he said. 

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson also testified in support of the idea, adding that “cross-functional teams are simply considered a necessity in most industries today.” 

Another committee proposal would direct the Defense secretary to identify one combatant command and organize it around joint task force headquarters, as opposed to service headquarters. 

McCain said the Pentagon’s current hierarchal planning and decision-making processes too often results in “lowest common denominator recommendations to senior leaders,” and what former top defense official Michele Flournoy characterizes as “the tyranny of consensus.”

“We no longer confront a single adversary, which an industrial-age bureaucracy could manage,” McCain said. “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.” 

Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) agreed, characterizing the current structure as “silos” of functional expertise. 

“DOD’s burden in this regard is heavy — its ability to integrate horizontally to create sound strategies and effectively execute missions acutely affects the national security,” he said in his opening remarks.  

Pentagon leadership has chafed under the proposals, calling them micromanagement by Congress. 

McCain joked that judging by the Pentagon’s response, “you would think that we had eliminated parking at the Pentagon.”

“Though disappointing, this reaction is not surprising. Change is hard. And reforms that empower the Secretary and improve the mission at the expense of entrenched bureaucratic interests are often resisted,” he said. 

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