Irv Blickstein on Programming the POM and Strategizing the Budget

1980s Maritime Strategy Series

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC discussed the 1980s Maritime Strategy with Irv Blickstein, who at the time served in the senior executive service in the Navy’s programming office. In this discussion, Blickstein discusses the tradeoffs programmers help leaders understand, the role Navy Secretary John Lehman played in managing the Navy’s program, and to what extent the Navy’s strategists and programmers had a relationship.

Can you describe the environment in the Pentagon and Navy staff when the Reagan administration was coming in and larger budgets were on their way?

I came in 1982. We knew we were going to get more money as the Reagan Administration came into office and promised an increase in defense spending. We had so much money that as programmers we had trouble finding places to put it. We would actually take ships out of mothballs because we now had the money to repair them and make them available. We could afford to bring more sailors into the Navy. It was a very heady time for programmers in the sense that there was more money to do things that both the CNO and the Secretary of the Navy wanted to do.

John Lehman was clearly in charge. Let there be no doubt. On the civilian SES side, he moved numbers of the senior executive service who didn’t agree with him to far-flung locations hoping they would quit over time, and many did. It is something the Trump administration followed in the past four years. There was no doubt who was in charge in the Navy. In the programming meetings with the Secretary, you generally did not have the CNO present, and you rarely had the Commandant of the Marine Corps either. You had their vice chiefs, the VCNO and the ACMC were there. The chiefs didn’t want to be embarrassed by John Lehman talking down to them or opining on issues they didn’t want to opine on. It was a very tough, contentious setting. But overall, money was not an issue. It was flowing, especially in the first few years of the Reagan administration.

What was Lehman’s influence on the POM and how did he relate it to strategy?

Lehman extensively went through the details of the programming process. He understood the POM in great detail. We had to present individual line items or program elements and budget category items to him and he questioned their veracity in great detail to the Captain who was running this process. I don’t recall him moving money out. He wanted to know why we were spending money on certain things. He was looking to create cash to help fund his 600-ship navy.

The issue you run into is that you can spend money on things, you can buy 600 ships, but you may buy fewer sailors, you may buy less modernization, you may reduce readiness and maintenance funding. That has always been the challenge in the programming process. What’s leadership’s priority?

For today’s readiness, you could say I want X-percent of my ships and planes to be ready at a moment’s notice. Or I’m willing to let that drop because I don’t perceive a big threat in the world and I want to spend my money on new construction. Former Secretary of the Navy Mabus in the Obama administration rejected a POM when Admiral Greenert was the CNO, saying if you don’t buy ships then you’re not going to have any. Thus the Navy bought more ships and the readiness dropped. Secretary of Defense Mattis came in with the Trump administration and said our readiness is terrible. And he put more money into readiness and set goals and standards for mission capability, such as for aircraft, and made sure that they were ready for the near-term fight. Those kinds of pressures have always existed.

The questions that John Lehman was asking as he was going through all those line items and understanding where all that money is going, was A) could they justify this to me, and B) could I agree that we should be spending money on these things. Those were the meetings I sat through.

Lehman was right, the Maritime Strategy convinced the Congress that the Navy had a plan, it had a vision, the vision made sense, it made sense of the Soviet Union, and the Congress was generally supportive. The Office of the Secretary of Defense, not necessarily. Defense Secretary Weinberger was a little less enamored with John Lehman, and Lehman going directly to the Congress over his head. But yes, Congress was very supportive. And Lehman was a wonderful speaker to present his case to them.

If you look at the vision the Navy has today, nobody quite understands what they want to do, such as what they want unmanned vessels to do exactly. They are talking about maybe 40 percent of the future carrier force being unmanned, maybe so, maybe not. The Congress is not convinced, and they would like to better understand what the Navy’s plan is. And unfortunately, the people with vision are not running the Navy at the moment.

Were there people in analysis that said a 600-ship navy was unaffordable? Was there some tension and pushback?

The OP-96 people, Lehman basically fired them. He didn’t allow the promotion of the admiral who was in charge of OP-96 at the time. He was not a great fan of analysis. He had to prove his point, and if it didn’t prove his point, he was against it.

He truly believed what he said in the earlier interview: strategy, requirements, the POM, and the budget. In that order. Well, what if you build a strategy that is unaffordable? It’s easy to build a strategy that says I have lots of ships in lots of places. But you may or may not be able to afford them in the POM, because if you do, then they won’t have missiles or bombs, the planes won’t be ready, and they may not have enough people to crew them. Those were the tradeoffs that you had to have some sense of when you develop a strategy. Navy strategists never had to build a POM or budget. Opining is easy when money is considered “free.”

It seems like Lehman got his way, that they did make those tradeoffs.

Well, you still had to balance the POM. It still had to have something to get through the Secretary of Defense, who may say you’re buying too many ships, you didn’t buy enough readiness, so we are going to move the money. The Office of the Secretary of Defense’s program analysis and evaluation organization PA&E, now called CAPE, would evaluate it in great detail the Navy’s POM as it did the other services, in a contentious process. And once you finished all of that, now that you had a POM that the service and the Secretary of Defense is happy with, you now reverted to a budget process where the claimants came in. Pacific Fleet, Atlantic Fleet, people who own real estate who will sometimes say you don’t have enough money for items in the region of concern. And so the budget officer of the Navy then would have to adjudicate that and add money when it made sense. It may not have made Lehman happy at times, and they would have to have that argument before the budget would be submitted again to the OSD comptroller and then on to the OMB and the Congress.

If you want 15 carriers, you will have to afford them, you will have to find the money for them. They bought two carriers in 1983 and 1986 (as I recall). That was money that had not been spent in previous years; it is a loophole that has since been closed. But there was excess cash in the Navy’s program, and a very brilliant Navy civilian SES comptroller said we could use this money to buy two carriers. Lehman was convinced, they convinced the Secretary Defense, and ultimately convinced the Congress.

So there were things you could do, buying carriers, buying submarines, the Secretary could say what he wants to do, but if there wasn’t a path there, the programmers would say there is no use putting your money there to be lost in the PA&E review process and maybe go to another service or priority. We were buying four Los-Angeles class submarines per year those days. Electric Boat could build four per year, but not five. If you want to build-up to 100 submarines then you will have to build many submarines per year, but within the limits of the industrial base. If you put money into that without regard for that limitation, the Office of the Secretary of Defense would take that money and put it somewhere else.

I agree with what Lehman said, that having the U.S. Navy forward deployed scared the heck out of the Russians, and they couldn’t keep up with that. They were mostly landlocked and they were capable, but the U.S. Navy could forward deploy much more easily. We had allies, we had bases. China has a similar problem today.

How did the Maritime Strategy interface with the POM? What was that relationship like?

I confirmed this with some other people, there was almost no relationship between OP-06 and OP-090 and OP-90, which was the programming office, and less so with OP-96 which was systems analysis. So Ace Lyons was OP-06 somewhere in that timeframe, and he led the Maritime Strategy from the CNO’s office. Ace Lyons didn’t talk to OP-090, he just didn’t. I can’t tell you why.

People had a name for the strategists. The OP-06 people were called the “High Priests,” where essentially they would proclaim that “The world should be created in one day, and there shall be this and that.” And the “gladiators” were the programmers who had to fight in the arena for each dollar and to make the dollars work so somebody else wouldn’t take that money away from us. Our measure of effectiveness was: did the Office of the Secretary of Defense change our program? That’s who we cared about. Did the money go to the Army or the Air Force? We cared about keeping money inside the Navy. That was more important than building more ships. There was continuous pressure and tension between the strategists and programmers. But for the strategists, money was not something they evaluated as part of what they thought was important. In their case, it was mainly evaluated against the Soviet Navy.

There was no relationship. As the deputy programmer, I had no relationship with anybody in OP-06. And you’d think, well you’re building a POM and they’re in charge of the Maritime Strategy, shouldn’t you guys be talking all the time? The answer is yes, but did the Maritime Strategy have an impact on our programming work? It really didn’t.

What if something works programmatically, but it doesn’t make sense in terms of tactics, in terms of strategy? Did the programmers have some kind of role in saying something could be bought, but it did not make sense to buy it in that context?

They ought to have that role. With how the POM is built, in those days, there was a three-star baron in charge of each of the major elements. Submarine warfare was OP-02, it is now N97, it was a three-star, now it is a two-star. His job was to build as many submarines as he could, put people in the submarine force, arm the submarines, and get their technology. Same for the admiral in charge of the surface navy and the admiral in charge of aviation. That admiral owned the carriers and he owned the aircraft that flew off the carriers. These admirals were competing with each other.

OP-090’s job was to look for the best meld between them, given the Secretary’s and the CNO’s preference. So if they want to build 100 submarines, 100 frigates, or 15 carriers, is that affordable? It may be affordable if I don’t have any readiness, if I buy fewer people, if I don’t maintain my bases. That’s where the programmers come in and say this is a tradeoff and say this is what we’re going to have to do to get these things funded in the POM.

With the help of the analysts in OP-96 or N81 today, we could tell a particular type of warfare would not necessarily be successful against the Russians or the Chinese as proposed by the resource sponsor. Therefore you ought to move your money from system A to some other system. Those issues were briefed at the two- and three-star levels to the CNO and to the Secretary when Lehman was in office. That tension is running through the POM process all the time. These days it is a bit different because N9 owns the barons, the surface, submarine, aviation, and amphibious barons, the two-star barons are owned by a three-star, and he’s got an integrator, N9I. Admiral Kilby is the current N9, but before that he was the N9I integrator, where his job was to look across the warfare world. But he also owns the people, the maintenance, and the spare parts. In the Navy and the POM process, he owns it all, so it’s a very interesting setup. In those days, however, the barons were quite autonomous.

How would the politics of the communities be adjudicated? They had their preferences, and sometimes they would not want to buy things even if it made sense tactically, such as in the 1980s when the Surface Navy was resistant to fielding the Tomahawk missile.

It would be adjudicated by the two-stars, the three-stars, and maybe even the CNO. You’re buying Tomahawks versus a new missile for surface combatants, or a new missile for a submarine. Those are competing against one another, so which one has the greater firepower? In a wargame, in a battle with China or Russia, which would be more effective? The analysts at OP-96 and more recently at N81 would run those kinds of analyses, and the beginning of the POM process would describe what they believe are the best tools.

They weren’t looking at, “could I really build something that fast,” they were looking at what’s the probability-to-kill. If you’re sitting at OP-02, you had to watch what those analysts were saying about the weapons and the submarines you were building and were they effective compared to something else.

Did this sort of conversation mainly consist of operations research folks talking to systems analysts?

The operations research folks were sprinkled with military officers, like the admiral or the deputy. The chief analyst was for years a guy named Trip Barber. Trip was a great analyst and retired naval officer. I knew him as a Lieutenant Commander as a programmer. He retired as an O-6 and then became the chief analyst in N81 and was a very powerful person. He understood the analysis, what it had to do, where it had to go, what works and what didn’t. And when he spoke, the flag community paid a lot of attention to him. You didn’t have somebody like that back in the 80s. There was no one with the kind of clout he had.

Is that a good model for how it should work, is that how it should work in current times? Some have said that N81 during that time became perhaps too powerful.

If an organization succeeds wildly and people pay attention to them, there will be naysayers that say, “look what’s happened, we’ve got the analysts and the programmers now running the Navy.” I’ve looked at the Air Force programming system, and it’s different from the Navy’s, but in the final analysis, programmers still have to put a POM together, and still have to balance the accounts within them. It still has to work, and it still has to go through CAPE.

In the old days, CAPE was PA&E, and David Chu led it for about eight years. Brilliant guy, very brilliant. He questioned almost everything that we did, and we knew he was going to. We knew the arguments had to stand up. It couldn’t just be John Lehman opining. It couldn’t just be a strategy. Strategies are interesting, but show me the program, show me how effective these programs are against what we know the Soviet Union can do or the Chinese or what whoever can do. We would argue, “hey you can’t take this argument downstairs, they’re going to kill us. Here is what that argument is going to do.”

There were naval officers who worked in CAPE, so we had people who understood how they thought, what analysis was used. CAPE had its ups and downs over the years as well. It got very powerful. But there is an ebb and flow of power. But there are people who will attack those organizations. Our own measure of effectiveness was: did the money stay in the Navy? If they moved it that was one thing, but if it stayed in the Navy, we were happy.

It remains a continuous battle. They are talking about reducing carriers today. Particularly today, with the kinds of missiles the Russians and the Chinese have today. But being a floating base is a real advantage. A base is a fixed base, you know where it is, you know where it is going to be. In a wargame it’s a lot easier to fight against a base than a ship that can move at 30 knots.

In terms of the relationship between the strategists and the programmers, how should this work? Are there lessons from the 1980s on how this could work better today?

When the strategy is being built, you ought to have the analysts in N81 and the programmers in N80 involved in what they are doing. So that they can have a voice, and say, “I understand what you want to build, but what you are suggesting may not be executable. You can’t build at the rate you want to build.” That’s one set of questions. Another set is, if you do build even at the acceptable rate, you will have to find money to pay for other bills, and some of that comes out of shipbuilding.

Historically, there was no relationship between strategists and programmers, but I think it would be a good thing to have.

Irv Blickstein is a senior engineer at the RAND Corporation. He has 50 years of experience in the field of defense analysis and management with a specialty in planning, programming, and budgeting, as well as acquisition. He has served in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as Assistant Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (N8B) from 1996-2001, the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Acquisition & Technology) as Director, Acquisition Program Integration from 1994-1996, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as Associate Director for the Programming Division (N80) from 1984-1994, and in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations Systems Analysis Division (OP 96) as Branch Chief from 1976-1984. He received the Department of the Navy’s Meritorious Public Service Award in 2011 for his service on the CNO’s Executive Panel. He holds an M.S. in engineering management from The George Washington University.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: September 1, 1986 – A port quarter view of the amphibious assault ship USS INCHON (LPH 12) underway during NATO Exercise NORTHERN WEDDING 86. (U.S. National Archives photo by PHAN William Holck)

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