Goldwater Nichols ‘86 in the Post-Post-Cold War Era

Galrahn’ Information Dissemination is always a good place for some deep thinking. Especially since we so often disagree with him. Keeps us on our toes, as it were.

And G’s added another contributor to his site, Lazarus. Lazarus’ first piece takes a look at the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 that established our current Department of Defense organization and how the Joint Chiefs and the regional Combatant Commanders interact and interface with the civilian National Command Authority.

A good example of a piece of history that ought to be re-examined by historians is the defense reform movement of the 1980s and the notable legislation it produced. The effort’s primary product, the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 has for all intents and purposes become canon law for the U.S. military. It is referred to reverently in U.S. Defense publications as if it were the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta. Its legislative creators thought that empowering the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and his staff to manage service issues would end inter-service bickering, prevent future Vietnam wars, and free the nation from the tyranny of military novices like Lyndon Johnson picking military targets over lunch. Critics like Navy Secretary John Lehman countered that the legislation would not cut defense costs and would prevent the individual military services from effectively allocating resources and personnel to their respective areas of warfare expertise. What resulted was more of a compromise. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) gained considerable power at the expense of the military service chiefs but the organization of the JCS remained unaltered despite the efforts of reformers to replace it with a council of retired officers who would not have service-centric views.  Although intended to improve Cold War military planning and organization, it made its strongest claim for legitimacy in a post-Cold War conflict. Goldwater Nichols was widely touted by its legislative backers as one of the keys to victory in the 1991 Gulf War by preventing excessive service chief and civilian meddling in the conflict and organizing the disparate U.S. military service into a victorious joint force. Buoyed by these pronouncements Goldwater Nichols sailed on through the 1990s and 2000s, unlike many other Cold War-era programs and organizational doctrines without significant review.

One change G/N brought was that the Chairman of the JCS became the sole primary military advisor to the President, as opposed to the individual service chiefs. The idea was to reduce interservice rivalry. As Lazarus notes, it has been a shift from rivalry to simply protecting each service share of the defense dollar pie.

It also greatly increased the command authority of the combatant commanders (COCOM)  in the field. Effectively, while the Chairman is the principal military advisor, he has no command authority over the COCOMs. In operational command, he’s just the messenger between the NCA and the COCOMs.  The chain runs from the President to the SecDef to the COCOM.

The individual service chiefs, such as the Chief of Staff of the Army or the Commandant of the Marine Corps likewise have no command authority over operations. Instead, they are responsible for providing ready, trained, equipped forces to the COCOMs to fulfill their missions.

G/N had two other major influences. First, “jointness” was greatly stressed, in an effort to increase the interoperability of the services. This has lead to a requirement for officers wishing to advance to flag rank to serve time on a Joint Staff.  To some extent, reducing parochialism is a good idea. But it has also lead to a fair amount of “make work” postings, inventing jobs so people can get their ticket punched. And there is a risk that time spent outside a warfare specialty will lead to a dilution of the very skillset these officers are prized for. Tom Clancy once had one of his characters, Bart Mancuso, asking himself how serving on a joint staff better prepared him to serve as COMSUBPAC, the commander of all Pacific Fleet subs.

G/N also greatly pushed for a more centralized planning in procurement for the DoD. Intended to reduce duplication of effort, we would argue instead that the need to justify every Program of Record through the Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD) has merely added complexity to an already byzantine process.  Some commodity areas are well suited for centralized procurement, such as foodstuffs and medical supply. But can we not safely assume that when it comes to major end systems, the Navy is probably better suited to determining what they need in a new destroyer than a panel of civilians backed by a staff from all the services?  How many votes at the table should the Air Force get when the Army starts looking at what it wants from its next generation Ground Combat Vehicle.

Among the “working class” officers of the services, mostly field grade officers, there is a strong sense that G/N has lead to an explosion in the numbers of General Officer/Flag Officer positions (and of course, their bloated staffs!) that is wholly inconsistent with the smaller actual field forces available to the country. The easy example is our Navy currently having more Admirals than ships. All the services are somewhat guilty.

Is it time to scrap Goldwater/Nichols? Probably. I mused at Information Dissemination that the organization should probably be shuffled every 20 years or so just to shake things up.

But the question isn’t so much “Should we replace G/N?” but rather, “What should replace G/N?”

I’m certainly open to suggestion.