Rumsfeld’s Management Failures

The Defense Secretary fails to manage effectively and efficiently the largest and most well-financed bureaucracy in history.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is under fire once again for the strategic blunders that have characterized the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The latest salvo comes from a flurry of books, led by Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial,” that depict Rumsfeld as a failed deputy commander in chief who did not ensure that our country’s military operations were planned and executed properly.

What these accounts overlook, however, is that the U.S. defense secretary has two major responsibilities. In addition to acting as the deputy commander in chief, the other, equally important responsibility is to manage effectively and efficiently the largest and most well-financed bureaucracy in history. Unfortunately, Rumsfeld’s tenure has been marked by failure in this area as well.

The latest sign of Rumsfeld’s difficulties is his recent decision to remove himself from a key step in the defense budget process. After Gen. Peter Schoomaker, Army chief of staff, defiantly withheld his mandatory 2008 budget proposal on the grounds that the Army is being egregiously underfunded, Rumsfeld responded in unprecedented fashion: He simply removed himself from the process by empowering the Army, Navy and Air Force chiefs of staff to petition the Office of Management and Budget directly.

As a result, Rumsfeld has effectively washed his hands of his duty to reconcile the competing budget demands of the respective services. The Navy and Air Force chiefs certainly will not suggest that they ought to cancel any of their weapon programs — however outdated — to provide additional funding to the Army, which is shouldering the burden of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such hard reallocation decisions need to be made by the secretary of defense.

Yet, since coming to office, Rumsfeld has done away with only two major weapon programs, ironically, both Army systems. He has not canceled multibillion-dollar weapon programs like the Air Force’s F/A-22 fighter, the Navy’s DDG 1000 destroyer or the Virginia-class submarine, which is designed to meet threats of a bygone era. Moreover, the Pentagon’s 26 largest acquisition programs are, on average, 40 percent above planned costs and 80 percent behind schedule. Had Rumsfeld kept these costs under control, he could have given the Army the additional funding it needs.

Nor is the problem the size of the regular Pentagon budget. During the past five and a half years, the regular defense budget, excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has grown by more than $100 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. The budget is now at a post-World War II high.

The problem is that Rumsfeld has allowed each of the services to maintain the same share of that budget as they did when he took the helm. Bungling the budget process is only one of Rumsfeld’s major management failures. He also did not ensure that the Army had integrated personnel and financial systems for the forces sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, some 1,300 killed and wounded soldiers mistakenly received combat and separation pay after they had left the theater. He compounded the problem by failing to stop collection agencies from hounding many of the wounded soldiers and their families to repay these funds.

If Secretary Rumsfeld is unable or unwilling to manage such issues, he ought to have selected a deputy at the outset who could do so. Unfortunately, he tapped Paul Wolfowitz on the basis of his support for Bush’s foreign policy agenda and his skills as a strategic thinker. Wolfowitz’s management experience did not extend beyond that of an academic dean.

Wolfowitz’s background contrasted starkly with that of two of the United States’ most effective wartime deputy defense secretaries: David Packard and Don Atwood. In 1969, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird announced that he was seeking the country’s best manager to serve as his deputy, and after a search selected the famous co-founder of computer maker Hewlett Packard for the job. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush also sought someone with extensive management experience for the job. He appointed the vice chairman of General Motors, Don Atwood, even before he had appointed a secretary of defense.

Both Packard and Atwood focused their attention on ensuring the Pentagon had a fiscally realistic modernization program, and that decisions made by the president and defense secretary were implemented by the military departments and defense agencies. Packard managed the redeployment of nearly 600,000 troops from Vietnam and reformed the Pentagon’s procurement system by instituting the “fly-before-you-buy” review procedure. Atwood handled such complex reform and oversight matters as the post-Cold War drawdown of the U.S. force structure, a major aircraft review, and a Defense Management Review specifically aimed at improving management effectiveness by “cutting excess infrastructure, eliminating redundant functions and initiating common business practices.”

Ultimately, President Bush may not want to fire Rumsfeld over his mishandling of Iraq because it would be perceived as an acknowledgement that the war has been a debacle. The issue of Pentagon management, however, may provide the president with the cover he needs to make this important and necessary personnel move.

Reprinted with permission from Defense News.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow

Pete Ogden

Senior Fellow