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
DEFENSE & SECURITY ANALYSIS
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.
2 BOOK REVIEW
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