Defense and Security Analysis Review

American Defense Reform: Lessons from Failure and Success in Navy History, by

Dave Oliver and Anand Toprani, Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press, 2022,

310 pp., $104.95, £78.00 GBP (hardback), $34.95, £26.50 GBP (softback), ISBN:


American Defense Reform: Lessons from Failure and Success in Navy History is an excellent

book that should be read by anybody teaching or doing research in the areas of defense

reform, civil-military relations, or Department of Defense (DoD) contracting out. This

review, while at times critical due to the tremendous scope of the topics covered, is overwhelmingly

positive, and seeks to fill in material to supplement the already substantial and extremely

well documented (through personal experience of Oliver as well as books, articles, and

documents) information in the book.

The book, as stated on page XI, is “…a how-to guide for reshaping the Department of

Defense.” Focusing specifically on the Navy, the authors review in chapters 1–4, failures

and success in how the Navy was reshaped between WW II and the end of the Cold War.

Based on books, articles, documents, and Oliver’s personal interviews with three Navy

Chiefs of Staff (CNO) and one Vice Chief (VCNO), they stipulate on page 7 that successful

and lasting change requires three preconditions. First, a shock that challenges existing

assumptions and budgets. Second, military leaders who are flexible, open to new ideas, and

willing to share their knowledge. And third, clear guidance from civilian leaders who can

serve as disinterested arbiters among the services and whose approval is essential for

change in the services. The first four chapters cover the 1940s and the revolt of the admirals,

the 1960s, the McNamara revolution, the 1970s, mainly CNO Zumwalt, and unfinished

business, and the 1980s, specifically CNO Kelso, life after the Cold War. The title of the

book includes failure and success in Navy history. The last phase, under CNO Kelso, is by

far the most successful. However, judging from recent experiences of the Navy with ships

running into other ships, a nuclear submarine running into an underwater mountain, an

amphibious carrier destroyed by fire at the San Diego Naval Base, graft and corruption

exposed in the “Fat Leonard Scandal”, a large number of suicides by enlisted personnel at

the Norfolk Naval Base, and a less than positive evaluation by the Government Accountability

Office (GAO) of the preparedness of the Navy, success is not necessarily followed by success.

Indeed, the title of a recent article by Congressman Rob Wittman is telling. “Congress is

building a stronger fleet than the Navy”.1

Following the four chapters which end with CNO Kelso and the Cold War, there are two

chapters which are extremely rich in material for the study of U.S. civil-military relations.

They are chapter 5 on political appointees and chapter 6 on the Congress. A short

summary of the former chapter is found on page 151. “Experience has demonstrated time

and time again that political appointees are unlikely to succeed in unilaterally imposing

sweeping and long-standing change on the Department of Defense.” In this chapter the

authors compare and contrast the role of civilians with the military who constitute the

bulk of the key staffs and the senior officers who manage the service components or commands.

They also highlight the tendency to resist change characteristic of large bureaucracies.

The authors then identify on page 155 the main reasons limiting the capacity of political

appointees to impose constructive change on DoD. They are as follows: the scale of the


challenge, the absence of subject matter expertise, the dearth of organisational skills, and a

lack of leadership skills.

It must be stated in defense of the authors that they identify throughout the book civilians

who have been fundamental in improving DoD. These would include Jacques Gansler, Dov

Zakheim, Phil Odeen, and Andrew Marshall. This reviewer got the sense, however, that the

authors convey an opinion that somehow the military have an edge on civilians, political

appointees or not. It must be noted that political appointees are not the only civilians in

DoD. Admittedly, as a civilian I am somewhat biased, and as a professor of national security

affairs, aware of the huge number of graduate degree programmes as well as internships that

prepare civilians to assume roles, possibly including political appointees, in DoD. The late

Andrew Marshall, head of the Office of NET Assessment, was not a political appointee,

but he most certainly was influential. Further, as a civilian who worked with military

officers during 26 years at the Naval Postgraduate School, I found that not all military

officers are as accomplished and impressive as Rear Admiral Oliver. I find it amazing that

Oliver, as an 0–4, a lieutenant commander, was able to interview three CNOs and one

VCNO. These interviews compose the appendices, pages 243–74.

The chapter on the Congress, consisting of only 9 pages does not go into detail other than

to note that despite the U.S. Constitution, it is at a disadvantage in national security affairs in

contrast to the executive. While the authors highlight such luminaries as John McCain and

Ike Skelton, even mentioning that crook, Representative Randy Cunningham, encourages,

I am afraid to say, a common view among junior officers, who have never had a Washington,

D.C. tour, that the Congress is full of people like Cunningham. I believe it is telling, and

encouraging, that the Congress, including both the House of Representatives and the

Senate, and under control of one party or not, have produced a National Defense Authorization

Act (NDAA) for the past 62 years.

I recently published a book on DoD contracting out.2 Despite my experience in DoD over

26 years and research on DoD outsourcing for four years while writing the book, I had great

difficulty in comprehending why there has been no reform to DoD’s acquisition practices

despite the fact that everybody, in government and out, knows that, in the terms of the

Packard Commission, referenced on page 160, that DoD’s acquisitions processes “take too

long and cost too much”. I began to understand this conundrum in reading chapter 7 of

this book on private industry.

Following a very distinguished and high-level career in the Navy and DoD in the field of

acquisitions, RADM Oliver assumed high level positions, including in acquisitions, in the

North American division of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company

(EADS). He has, in short experience in the area of acquisitions in the U.S government and

in private industry. On page 185 the book states

The cultural differences between government and private industry go beyond individual

failings. Fundamentally, private industry, whether it is the defense sector, Big Tech, or

any commercial firm, has a completely different value framework (“incentive structure”

as economists might phrase it) than the military.

And, on page 186, the books states “The gulf between the motivations of the military and

private industry in unbridgeable in a capitalist society.” The book further explains that the

bridge is not only due to the profit motive motivating private industry, including the

defense sector, but also the incentives of the armed services and DoD. The book further separates

the defense industry sector, catering almost exclusively to the armed services and DoD,

and industry in general. This chapter was tremendously helpful for my understanding of

absence of reform of DoD acquisitions.


Following a chapter on change and impediments to it in DoD, the book concludes with a

set of recommendations based upon the experience of reform in the Navy following WWII

and the chapters on civilian political appointees, Congress, and private industry. These six

recommendations, found between pages 236 and 238, should be obligatory reading for

anybody – political appointee, member of Congress, general and flag officer- who have any

pretension to reform defense.


1. Defense News December 15, 2022.

See also GAO, ‘Military Readiness: Department of Defense Domain Readiness Varied

from Fiscal Year 2017 through Fiscal Year 2019’, Government Accountability Office,

April 2021, GAO-21-279.

2. Outsourcing National Defense: Why and How Private Contractors are Providing Public

Services (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2023).

Thomas C. Bruneau

National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA

© 2023 Thomas C. Bruneau

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