Can the Defense Department change its ways?

That’s the question that comes up as Pentagon leaders face a challenge — the deficit — that, unlike previous military problems, can’t be overcome by throwing money at it.

Just the opposite.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) got it right last Tuesday when he called for an “end to the department’s systematic tendency to spend the taxpayers’ money in a manner that is far too often disconnected from what the warfighter actually needs and what is in the taxpayers’ best interest.”

He went on, “This will require not just good leadership; it will require a change in the culture at the Defense Department.”

Part of that culture over the last 10 years, McCain said, is that “senior Defense management has been inclined to lose sight of affordability as a goal and has just reached for more money as a solution to most problems.”

The recipient of McCain’s lecture was Defense Undersecretary for Acquisitions Ash Carter, who was before the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of his confirmation process to become No. 2 at the Pentagon, deputy defense secretary.

McCain offered examples to prove his point: a $1.1 billion cost overrun on the first 28 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; a $560 million overrun in building the newest nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford; $10 billion in reprogramming requests to Congress the past two months to reallocate money to cover cost overruns and “authority to start dozens of new programs never before presented to Congress.”

He cited the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting report that said at least $30 billion had been wasted on ill-conceived and poorly overseen contracts and grants in Iraq and Afghanistan. McCain also pointed to a study of procurement which said over $3.3 billion “had been wasted by the Army every year since 2004” for developing weapons that eventually were canceled.

“A culture that has allowed massive waste of taxpayers’ dollars has become business as usual at the Department of Defense,” McCain said.

He also discussedhow solving these problems may face another hurdle: “The revolving door of retired flag and general officers, top Pentagon officials and mid-level bureaucrats who had overseen weapons procurement programs before leaving government to join [the] private sector defense industry.”

The only revolving-door groups he left out were former members of Congress and congressional staffers, but that’s understandable.

Carteragreed the situation as described was “intolerable,” and there were “some additional actions we’re going to need to take to get better value for the defense dollar.”

But “some additional actions” come nowhere near solving the problem. Rational reductions in defense spending will only come with cutting down what this country expects its military to do. That means taking some of the hot air out of what politicians promise to do to keep the U.S. as “the world’s only superpower.”

Initially, it means rethinking national security strategy, which in turn could lead to reducing the roles and missions of the military services. Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last May started a Defense Department process which he said would entail a “fundamental review of America’s military missions, capabilities, and security role around the world.”

Last Wednesday, Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, delivered frank and thoughtful views on the budget review from the Navy’s vantage point at an Aspen Institute roundtable discussion. He started off saying the Navy is at 284 ships, adding, “That’s the smallest it’s been since 1916.”

Later, despite that low number of ships, he admitted, “We enjoy a degree of overmatch [with any potential adversary] that is extraordinary.”

He conceded that when he assumed his Navy post four years ago, he saw the service had been “riding an inflated high longer than we should have” and recognized a budget dive coming which is now a steeper dive than he expected. With the currently legislated reduction of some $400 billion over the next 10 years, Roughead said, “Some of current activity will be reduced” and the demands on the fleet and its personnel will be greater “unless we as a nation elect not to be present in certain areas” where we are today.

Where the Navy is today reflects a maritime strategy that Roughead said was adopted four years ago, which began with the concept that the Navy’s function was “as important to prevent war as it was to win war.”

It focused on the Western Pacific and the Middle East as areas where the greatest security challenges will come from. The capabilities it required were to deter both nuclear and conventional wars and therefore to have forward forces “deployed globally.” It also had to address control of sea lanes and be able to project power anywhere when needed. Beyond that, Roughead said there was the maritime security role: to deal with pirates; and humanitarian and disaster assistance.

That ambitious strategy justifies why U.S. Navy ships are deployed in as many areas as they are today. But can the United States afford to continue it?

Roughead’s answer is the “credible presence” of U.S. Navy ships “could shape events before they become problematic.” My additional question is, where historically did our Navy presence shape recent events before they happened?

It’s time we realize that as useful and important were strategies such as the one Roughead adopted in the past, the present economic situation requires narrowing goals, reducing capabilities and therefore military roles and missions to those more directly associated with protection of the United States. It is time for the United States to use diplomacy rather than the military to meet some of these problems.