INTERVIEW: Harold Brown, Jimmy Carter’s Defense Secretary

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Bert Lance and Harold Brown. (White House Photo)

In December, I had the opportunity to sit down with Harold Brown, defense secretary for President Carter. Brown, who is now a counselor and trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was in Washington to talk about his new book, Star Spangled Security, which he wrote with Joyce Winslow. Below are some excerpts from the interview and we’ll be bringing you more on Intercepts throughout the week,

Q: How do you think defense makes out in the sequestrations/fiscal cliff battle?

A: I think it gets cut, but I don’t know how much. The real problem is it’s unlikely to be cut efficiently. The problem is that one person’s waste is another person’s income. The Congress, which usually has the last word in these matters, acts on the basis of: ‘Yes cut, but not in my district and not to my contractor.’ That’s kind of pessimistic and maybe I’m not really that pessimistic, I still have hope that a combination of pressure and wisdom will manage defense cuts so that it is waste that gets cut, but that remains to be seen.

Q: Where are the best places to cut defense?.

A: I would try to change the procurement process so that we don’t have as many reviews where you pull the plant up by the roots every year or two to see how it’s doing. I would try to change the process so that judgment was allowed rather than reviled. We used to do it that way a long time ago, but the concern about undue influence has reduced that process to a numbers game where you check off the boxes and whoever loses brings suit and the courts decide in the end. That’s silly and extremely expensive. What I would try to do, and again I’m not sure that I or anybody else could succeed, would be to say: ‘OK. Here’s what we want. Here are the general characteristics. You contractors … see how you would try to balance between these. And by the way, this is the amount of money you’re going to have to do it with.’ They come up with different designs and you get a group to express judgment, a group that includes operators and technologists and experienced procurement people and they pick the winner. That’s just the opposite of what happens now.

Q: Other areas?

A: Clearly personnel costs are getting way out of line. For example, healthcare costs for the military amount to something like $50 billion. That’s a lot of money. It’s eating up money that could go to defense. Now that’s not the biggest problem in our healthcare system, but it shows up very strongly in the military.

Q: In your book, you advocate for a procurement service. What would that look like? Would it be uniformed or civilian?

A: It’d be a mix. The French actually have a system like that. Originally it was headed by a uniformed military person. More recently it’s been headed by a civilian. But, I think it could be either. In the end it reports to a civilian authority at the secretary of defense’s office. I think that way you could count on having people who spent their career in procurement, including military people. That happens now, sort of, but by accident.

Q: You see a mix of uniformed and civilians?

A: You have to look at it in a balanced way. If you don’t have any operators in the mix then what happens is the designers get infatuated with some sort of design and they don’t pay enough attention to the real world. So you need a mix.

Q: Do you believe DoD is investing enough in research-and-development projects right now?

A: It’s hard for me to know. I’m not clued in enough to know exactly how it is now. I think there is a risk that we are under-investing in some far-out ideas. But DARPA exists for that purpose and I do believe that they still keep coming up with ideas. The question is, are the right ones followed up? I don’t have any judgment about that. I do worry … that if defense cuts are made in a substantial way that R&D will suffer, again because what’s preserved are the jobs, manufacturing jobs especially because those are the ones that the members of Congress are most aware of.

Marcus Weisgerber
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Marcus Weisgerber

Senior Pentagon Correspondent at Defense News
I write about broad-ranging policy, acquisition and budget issues affecting the US military.
Marcus Weisgerber
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