Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has focused Washington’s attention on management headquarters and command relationships through a series of hearings that the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has held in recent months. The senator has vowed to make major changes, so the national security community is paying close attention. These prospective changes are sometimes referred to as “Goldwater-Nichols 2.0,” envisioned as a follow-on to the original, and highly influential, Goldwater-Nichols legislation of 1986. That legislation made major changes, such as designating the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be the principal military adviser to the president, making joint service mandatory for general/flag officers, and strengthening the combatant commanders.
More than 30 top experts in the national security community testified at these SASC hearings. Their testimony covers a lot of ground. In an effort to identify common themes, CSIS analyzed the testimonies (and some related work) and categorized the recommendations into nine areas. CSIS is publishing the resulting spreadsheet to help the dialogue within the national security community. (See the last paragraph for a technical description of the spreadsheet.) This analysis is part of a broader CSIS effort on defense reform.
The testimonies overall. The most striking insight arising from the hearings is the lack of a common problem statement as there was before the original Goldwater-Nichols legislation. In the 1980s, there was a clear consensus that joint operations of the armed forces needed to be improved. Interservice coordination failures at Desert One (the failed 1980 raid in Iran), the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon (1983), and the invasion of Granada (1983) convinced many that changes were needed. Today, although the experts identified a variety of shortfalls and weaknesses in the defense enterprise, no such common theme emerges.
The testimonies by category. CSIS divided the proposals into nine categories, which are analyzed in detail below.
- Military Personnel and Training. There were several recommendations to make officer selection, management, and promotion more flexible but no single recommendation about how to do this. There was also concern that the large number of required experiences for general and flag officers, including the requirement for joint duty, creates a system that moves officers through assignments too quickly.
- General Staff/Joint Staff. Probably the most controversial recommendations would change the Joint Staff into a General Staff in order to improve strategic thinking. The best-known model of a general staff is the German general staff as it existed from the early nineteenth century to 1945. That consisted of a cadre of specially selected and trained officers who spent their entire careers focused on military plans and operations. Russia has had a similar system.
A related recommendation would put the chairman into the chain of command. Although military advice often comes through the chairman, the operational chain of command actually runs from the regional combatant commanders to the secretary and on to the president, specifically excluding the chairman.
An opposite recommendation would give service chiefs more authority for military operations and operational planning. Currently, service chiefs have responsibilities for organizing, training, and equipping forces but none for their operations. That is exclusively the domain of the combatant commanders as a result of the original Goldwater-Nichols reforms.
Also noted is that the tenure of the chairman and vice chairman is two years, but renewable. This is shorter than the four-year tenure of service chiefs and may put the chairman and vice chairman at a disadvantage.
- COCOM Structure. One set of recommendations focused on additions and consolidations to COCOM structure. Possible additional COCOMs were cyber and space. Currently, both are elements of Strategic Command. The argument for separate COCOMs is that these new domains require more focus than the current command structure allows. Creation of a CYBERCOM had particularly strong support. To reduce overhead, some suggested that NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM could be merged since SOUTHCOM has few forces assigned. Similarly, AFRICOM could be merged back into EUCOM, from which it was originally established. However, others opposed such consolidations.
Another group of recommendations focused on the tension in COCOM missions between war-fighting and peacetime engagement. Although evolving out of war-fighting headquarters, regional COCOMs have taken to creating subordinate joint task forces to conduct military operations. One recommendation was to create such task forces where they do not now exist, for example in the Pacific. An opposing recommendation would refocus COCOMs on war fighting, such as by restructuring them as joint task forces, and leave peacetime engagement to others, such as the Department of State.
A final group of recommendations grew out of concerns that the COCOMs have become too large. These recommendations proposed eliminating service component headquarters and withdrawing COCOMs from department-wide processes like the Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution System (PPBES) and acquisition, which would reverse some of the original intent in Goldwater-Nichols.
- OSD/Civilian Management. Several recommendations proposed cutting the number of civilians, for example, by consolidating service secretariats and service staffs. Other recommendations included moving jobs from military to less-expensive civilians (an effort undertaken in early 2000s under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) and reauthorizing the A-76 process to allow contracting out of government activities (used extensively in the 1990s and early 2000s but suspended by law in recent years).
- Defense Agency Reform/Overhead. Many recommendations grew out of concerns about excessive overhead. Defense agencies tend to be the focus of such concerns. Proposals included organizational delayering, another round of base closings (Base Closure and Realignment Commission [BRAC]), additional outsourcing, and reductions to inefficient health care systems. Organizational changes included creating a second deputy secretary focused on business transformation (an idea discussed in the past). Although there was broad interest in reducing overhead, no single organizational change had a consensus. The default has been to implement across-the-board reductions, for example, the requirement in the FY2016 defense authorization bill for a 25 percent cut to headquarters. Several recommendations focused on greater flexibility in managing the civilian workforce and either increasing or, conversely, decreasing its size.
- Strategy Formulation. There was widespread concern that the strategy formulation process was not working well but no consensus about how to fix it. Proposals included instituting something like President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 Project Solarium (a strategic planning exercise involving teams of experts from inside and outside the government), replacing the Quadrennial Defense Review with a more focused product (beyond the changes already directed in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act), and providing training to civilians in strategic thinking.
- Acquisition. Although these hearings are not the primary venue for acquisition reform (both armed services committees made changes in last year’s authorization bill, and the process continues), several proposals for acquisition reform arose. Some were consensus best practices: using competitive prototyping, revising contract incentives, increasing transparency, reducing documentation requirements on program managers, and taking firm action on programs that are failing. Sitting government executives asked for more flexibility in the form of program management reserves and talent management tools.
- Congress. Not surprising for a group of experts whose experiences were largely in the executive branch, some recommendations highlighted the need for timely and predictable congressional action on defense budgets. Several recommendations would make it easier to bring business leaders into government and, in the process, change the SASC’s approval process for executive branch nominees.
- Force Structure. Although not, strictly speaking, an issue of management structure, there were several recommendations for increasing the size of various forces: ground, naval, or air. Other recommendations would reduce overlap between missions or, conversely, encourage competition for missions. There was a recommendation to make SOCOM a separate service and, conversely, a recommendation to not make any new services.
The spreadsheet. The spreadsheet contains both a summary and the full list of recommendations that CSIS gathered from SASC testimony and related documents. The first page of the spreadsheet summarizes the recommendations, with a row for each of the 37 experts and a column for each of the nine categories. Further tabs (one for each of the nine categories) contain the full text of the experts’ recommendations. For additional Goldwater-Nichols related resources, go to the Defense360 document cloud.
Mark Cancian is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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