Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, CEO of Punaro Group and member of the Defense Business Board, is interviewed during an editorial board at Gannett Government Media in Springfield, Va., on May 21. (Mike Morones/Staff)
Arnold Punaro is a fixture in Washington’s defense circles, a rare bridge between the military and civilian worlds who is simultaneously a consummate insider and ardent critic of the status quo. A retired Marine Corps Reserve major general and a former Capitol Hill staffer, he is currently a member of the Defense Business Board and chairman of the Reserve Forces Policy Board. He has been an influential adviser to the secretary of defense for the past several years.
In a recent meeting with Military Times reporters and editors, Punaro sat down and offered pointed thoughts on the big decisions facing today’s top brass and the civilians who oversee them. Excerpts from the 90-minute conversation:
Q. The Pentagon says cuts to the future defense budget pose a threat to force structure. Do you think we’re going to see the active-component force fall below its current target level of 1.4 million?
A. I think the active military is going to get smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. It could easily go under a million people, which I think would be the wrong answer for our national security.
Q. In the debates about personnel reform, the retirement system gets most of the attention. What else needs to change?
A. You have to change the up-or-out promotion system. ... If you find an aircraft maintenance squadron major [who] is the best they ever had and that is all he ever wants to be, why can’t he stay for 25 or 30 years? Why do we have to have a system that assumes every officer has to compete and train for and be educated to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs? ... They need to keep people in these jobs longer. ... You cannot learn some of these jobs in 18 months, and then you are gone in six months. ... Skills and performance — that is what the pay system ought to be based on.
Q. There is mounting evidence that the reserve component may offer a less expensive way to provide many military capabilities. What are the implications of that for future force structure?
A. The Guard and reserve is going to be a bargain for the taxpayer, because you do not pay them to be on duty 365 days of the year, and they do not have the huge infrastructure tail that you have for the active-duty forces, [such as] the barracks and family housing, and hospitals and tactical equipment shops. ... I am not one that is advocating for cutting the size of the active military or increasing the size of the Guard and reserve. I think that ought to be determined by what missions we need our military to perform. However, if you are living in a constrained-resource environment and the active-duty military is going to get smaller and smaller and smaller, as I believe it will … then we ought to be thinking about not losing that capability altogether, but preserving it in the Guard and reserve.
Q. You’re talking about fundamental changes that the Pentagon’s bureaucracy has traditionally resisted. How will changes like this occur?
A. If you look at most of the fundamental reforms of the Pentagon [in the past several decades], they have come from outside the Pentagon. ... I am not sure we have those kinds of voices on the outside that we had in the past to help the Pentagon reform itself and make some of the tough decisions.
Q. Historically, many of those outside advocates for change came from Capitol Hill. How would you rate the Congress’ performance today?
A. Congress is broken. It is not badly bent, it is broken. ... It just pains me as a retired military guy ... to see the abject failure of our body politic put at risk our national security. That is what is happening today. There is no getting around that. Anybody that says this is not hurting our national security is just flat lying.
Q. What is the first step toward making these fundamental reforms?
A. The first thing that has to happen is the Department of Defense has to do some serious, sober, analytical work on the three main valves that affect personnel: pay and compensation, up-or-out promotion system and retirement system, including health care.
Q. Do you think that is happening?
A. They are behind the power curve right now.
A. That is a tough question, I think it is a combination of factors. I think that there is a tremendous reluctance on the part of our uniformed leaders and other people to talk about reforming personnel systems, pays and benefits, when the troops are in harm’s way and they are taking rounds and they are getting hurt every day. … No. 2 ... there are a lot of people who like the current system. ... and three, they also look and see that there has been no sentiment in Congress to make any of the tough calls or tough changes. So, if you are sitting there in the Pentagon, you are thinking to yourself, “Why am I going to stick my head up when there is shrapnel hitting around the foxhole?” However, the point is that that is their duty and their responsibility.
Q. For now, the Pentagon is facing across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, resulting in the reduction of planned spending increases. What do you think is the impact on readiness?
A. The sequester does not fix any of these things. ... Our military readiness is going down every single day. ... Once that readiness deteriorates, as is absolutely happening today, you do not get it back in two to three months by flipping a switch. It takes much longer and costs much more money. ... We are putting the young troops in these units at greater risk because we are not supporting them in terms of the training they need, the technology they need and the caliber of the people that should be with them when they are going to go at a moment’s notice.