Restructuring National Security Organizations and Decisionmaking

On May 12, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) released its long-anticipated proposals for reform of organizations and processes in the national security enterprise. The proposals come on top of earlier proposals by the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. The proposals are not entirely consistent. But even if just a few are enacted, they would change how government makes decisions about strategy, forces, budgets, operations, and the use of force. Here’s a quick look at the proposals, a table showing where the SASC, HASC, and Carter agree and disagree, and a look ahead at what might happen next. (Note: the SASC’s acquisition reform proposals are significant enough that they are covered in a companion Critical Questions.)

Q1: Why is the government now thinking about such large changes to organizations and decisionmaking?

A1: It’s been 30 years since the last major restructuring, the Goldwater-Nichols legislation of 1986, and many experts believe that the world has changed enough that another review is needed. In particular, the experience of 15 years at war have indicated weaknesses in both organizations and decisionmaking processes. Senator John McCain, chairman of the SASC, also has a personal interest in launching reforms before the 2016 elections change the political landscape.

To build intellectual capital, the SASC asked over 50 experts in the national security community to provide their views in a series of hearings last fall and into the winter. Their testimony covered a lot of ground, which CSIS analyzed in March. Although the experts identified a variety of shortfalls and weaknesses in the defense enterprise, no single common theme emerged. There were, however, widespread concerns about strategy formulation, interagency coordination, excessive overhead, and the structure of combatant commands (COCOMs).

Q2: What did the SASC propose?

A2: Senator McCain’s press release described his proposals. These would make major changes to organizations and structures but leave out some of the more controversial ideas that had been discussed in the hearings. (The bill and report are not yet posted, so the descriptions below, based on the press release, may be incomplete.) The proposals were as follows:

  • Limit the National Security Council (NSC) staff to 150. The staff had grown from 50 under President George H.W. Bush to 400 under President Obama. As a result, the staff had gone beyond its original function of coordinating policy to being an independent agency of government. Former defense secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta both complained in their respective autobiographies about the staff’s micromanagement.
  • Clarify the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs by allowing him some authority to move forces across COCOMs to better handle cross-regional and cross-functional challenges and clearly authorizing him to provide advice on a wide variety of strategic and operational issues.
  • Change the role of the COCOMs:

o Specify their mission as “executing the national defense strategy” and thereby “focusing [them] more clearly on their core missions of warfighting excellence” without prohibiting them from performing other missions. The concern had been that COCOMs had become involved in too many non-war-fighting functions. Exactly what the change entails will not be fully clear until the bill and report are available to provide more detail.

o Require a pilot program in one COCOM that converts a service component command into a joint task force. Service component commands have been criticized as administrative overhead and, sometimes, as service “lobbyists” at COCOM headquarters. This would test the concept of shifting COCOM support structures toward joint war-fighting missions.

o Create a “Combatant Commanders Council” to better integrate planning and coordinate execution of operations. This enshrines an existing practice of periodic COCOM meetings with the chairman, vice chairman, and secretary.

  • Reduce the number of general and flag officers. The number had increased even as the size of the force had decreased. Many analyses have shown that the number of troops per general has steadily decreased since World War II. Specifically:

o Reduce the number of four-star generals from 41 to 27, whose specific billets are spelled out. Most, or potentially all, the service component commanders—like U.S. Navy Europe or U.S. Army Pacific—would lose four-star rank as would the heads of several managerial headquarters.

o Cut the number of other flag and general officers and civilian equivalents (the Senior Executive Service) by 25 percent.

  • Create cross-functional “mission teams” in the secretary’s staff (the Office of the Secretary of Defense) to better integrate strategy and policy.
  • Create an assistant secretary of defense (ASD) for information, with oversight of cyber, information security, and space policy, to be dual-hatted as chief information officer (CIO).
  • Reduce overhead by continuing the ongoing 25 percent headquarters reduction and limiting exceptions.
  • Restructure the strategy process by replacing the Quadrennial Defense Review (and the 2015 revision, called the Defense Strategy Review) with a classified top-down National Defense Strategy, classifying the National Security Strategy, and streamlining the National Military Strategy. The notion is to move from collaborative, and highly watered down, documents to documents that are clearer and more able to direct changes. By making the documents classified, they would be more useful in identifying trade-offs, acknowledging risk, and providing guidance.
  • Require a variety of studies and reviews: an independent assessment of forces needed to execute the national strategy, an independent study of aircraft mixes, an assessment of ground forces, and modeling of a proposed Army reconnaissance group. These look to be major efforts. It may be a bad time to be a general, but it’s a good time to be a force structure analyst.

Left off the list were some especially controversial proposals from the hearings like making the Joint Staff into a General Staff, putting the chairman into the chain of command, and creating or eliminating COCOMs.

Q3: What have the House Armed Services Committee and Secretary Carter proposed?

A3: The SASC proposals were not made in isolation. Both Secretary Carter and the HASC have made their own proposals.

On April 5, Secretary Carter laid his ideas out in a speech at CSIS. He made several proposals, which have some overlap with the SASC but are much more limited:

  • Clarifying the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs;
  • Reducing the number of four-star generals, particularly service component commanders in the COCOMs;
  • Easing joint duty requirements by expanding the jobs eligible and reducing the minimum time in billet;
  • Conducting further reviews to identify organizational duplication and overlap.

He opposed putting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs into the chain of command and merging COCOMs like NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM or EUCOM and AFRICOM. Although he noted the importance of the cyber and space domains, he did not propose elevating CYBERCOM and SPACECOM to be independent COCOMs. (Currently, both are subordinate to Strategic Command.)

Secretary Carter twice noted that the original Goldwater-Nichols legislation had taken four years to prepare. This may have been his way of saying that there was no need to rush.

Representative Mac Thornberry, chairman of the HASC, put out that committee’s proposals in early April. Consistent with both the SASC and Secretary Carter, he proposed the following:

  • Clarifying the role of the chairman.
  • Reducing COCOM service component commanders from four stars to three.
  •  Easing joint duty requirements (in Carter’s proposals but not the SASC’s).

In addition, he proposed:

  • Extending the tenure of the chairman from two years to four, to be consistent with the tenure of the service chiefs.
  • Elevating CYBERCOM to full status as a COCOM.
  • Changing the department’s strategic documents, along the lines of the SASC proposal. In addition, there would also be a Defense Strategy Commission of outside experts, similar to the current National Defense Panel, established every four years at the beginning of an administration to provide an independent perspective.
  • Requiring that the national security adviser be confirmed by the Senate whenever the National Security Staff exceeded 100 personnel (proposed in a floor amendment, not in the original markup).

Q4: How much overlap is there in the proposals?

A4: The table below summarizes the proposals and gives assessments about their likely acceptability.




Secretary Carter/ Administration

CSIS Assessment

Proposals likely to be accepted

Clarifying role of chairman




The proposals are not identical, but there seems to be enough agreement that something will be worked out.

Reducing number of generals

25 percent cut


Other staff are being cut 25 percent, so this is consistent.. Gates and Panetta instituted the original HQ cuts, so this is likely to be acceptable politically. Might be hard for the services, however.

COCOM mission statement



Not controversial as long as existing activities are not constrained.

COCOM pilot on joint task forces



The concept is a big change but doing a pilot is limited.

COCOM Council



Consistent with current practice.

Easing joint duty requirements




Widespread agreement that officers have too many career “gates” to move through; SASC would need to accept apparent weakening of “jointness.”

Extending the tenure of the chairman




Conforms to current practice where chairman’s tenure is routinely extended to four years.

Creating OSD “mission teams”



Likely to be considered worth a try.

Creating ASD for Information



Creating another ASD will look like more bureaucracy, but dual-hatting the existing CIO will mitigate those concerns.

Continuing 25 percent headquarters cut



Continues existing policy and consistent with widespread desire to cut “overhead.”

Revising strategy documents




Broad agreement that current documents are not as useful as they should be, and change is needed; but there will be concerns about making too much classified and taking it out of public view.

Studies and assessments



Politically, studies are easy to accept because they do not commit the department to any course of action.

Proposals that will be controversial

Reducing number of four-star generals

Reduce from 41 to 27

Reducing COCOM service component commanders from four stars to three. (Would affect about 6 billets.)

Reducing the number of four-star generals, particularly service component commanders in the COCOMs

All three agree that some reduction is needed. The discussion will be about how many. SASC cuts a lot more than the HASC or Carter.

Limiting size of NSC staff

Yes, limited to 150

Yes, Senate confirmation required if over 100

No—National Security Adviser Susan Rice has indicated opposition

The White House will likely oppose because it is such a large change. The change will, however, affect only the next administration, so there may be some flexibility.





There is widespread concern about cyber vulnerabilities, but creating a new COCOM also creates overhead. Establishing an ASD for information, including cyber, creates less overhead and may be an acceptable substitute.

Q5: What will happen next?

A5: This is only the first step in a long process. There are a lot of issues on the table, which will engender a lot of discussion as the process moves forward.

Now that both the House and the Senate Armed Services Committees have made their recommendations, their respective chambers need to pass authorization bills. Expect a vigorous debate about the issues that have been raised and, perhaps, of flurry of amendments from other members. Once both chambers have passed bills, there will be a conference to harmonize the two versions. The conference bill will then need to be passed by both chambers. Once passed, the bill needs to be signed by the president. So it’s a long path to enactment.

These restructuring proposals are not the most controversial elements of the bills. The House bill, but not the Senate, has a controversial provision on war funding that would increase defense spending without increasing domestic spending. When the Congress proposed a similar provision last year, the president vetoed the bill. Other elements, such as the handling of detainees at Guantanamo, are also controversial with the administration. So the bill may never be signed or even be brought to the floor of the Senate.

Then there are the elections. The conventional wisdom is that this Congress will be reluctant or unable to pass annual authorization and budget bills before a new Congress and administration take office in January. That would delay final action until the spring of 2017.

Mark Cancian is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions 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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