Open Letter on Defense Reform

WASHINGTON – Former top Defense Department officials and retired top-ranking military leaders call for defense and national security reform, saying the time is now—30 years after Congress approved the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act—to consider the new challenges to our defense establishment and find 21st century solutions to address them. Under the auspices of CSIS, the signatories to the open letter, among others, will work to provide insights on major reforms to Congress and the administration over the coming year.

The open letter, provided below, will be posted on CSIS’s Defense360 site (, and its contents will be discussed at a conference on defense reform that CSIS is hosting today. CSIS provides a reliable source of analysis on defense reform, strategy, forces, budget, and acquisition at


This year marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act. The landmark 1986 legislation sought to improve the quality of military advice, enhance the effectiveness of military operations, and strengthen civilian authority. The subsequent improvements in U.S. military effectiveness are global benchmarks for other militaries. Recently, President Xi Jinping of China announced a set of military reforms for his country that mirror the approaches taken by the U.S. Congress in 1986.

For all its merits, we believe the time is right to reexamine the Goldwater-Nichols Act and national security reform more generally. We should leverage the interest in defense reform to focus on the most important challenges facing our national defense, which are different than those that drove change at the height of the Cold War. We find two broad problem areas most compelling for reformers.

First, the complexity of the security environment and the speed with which it changes is unprecedented. Adversaries and potential adversaries are adapting to this environment in ways that affect U.S. interests, from the broad use of information campaigns and political warfare to the game-changing spread of militarily significant technologies around the globe to the blending of conventional, unconventional, and strategic approaches to deny U.S. access. Moreover, many challenges are transregional and multifunctional in nature, increasing demands for integration in the national command structure. Against this challenge set, the Defense Department, and even more so the broader U.S. national security complex, appear sclerotic in their planning, prioritization, and decision-making processes. We should identify better ways to pace and get ahead of this changing environment.

Second, the defense enterprise is too inefficient. These two problems are intertwined. There appears to be significant duplication of responsibilities and layering of structure, which contributes materially to the perception that we are at risk of being outpaced and outwitted by adversaries. Moreover, our military and defense civilian personnel systems, requirements and acquisition systems, security cooperation and foreign military sales systems, and strategy, planning, programming, and budgeting systems reflect twentieth-century approaches that often seem out of step with modern best practices. Enterprise inefficiency is all the more problematic because the gap between our goals, as set forth in national strategy documents, and our means, as manifested in defense resourcing levels, is growing. Defense and national security reform alone will not create the needed dollars for defense—we must have adequate and stable funding for the military. Nevertheless, reform can help improve efficiency in ways that both create a better value for the American taxpayer and increase military effectiveness.

Each of these problem areas requires significant refinement to validate and scope so that possible solutions can be considered. We believe efforts now underway inside the Defense Department and on Capitol Hill are spurring such inquiry into clearer problem definition. Over the next nine months, we likewise plan to focus ourselves individually and, under the auspices of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, collectively on helping to advance understanding of these two problems, clarify associated problem statements, and promote open-minded and innovative approaches to devising possible solutions. Our goal is to provide the Congress and the administration with our insights into possible major reforms.

We have the finest military in the world and the strongest civilian defense expertise. Reform efforts should seek to build on and expand these advantages. As we go about our efforts, we will keep two central principles of our national heritage in mind. First, we must sustain civilian control of the military through the secretary of defense and the president of the United States and with the oversight of Congress. Second, military advice should be independent of politics and provided in the truest ethos of the profession of arms. We urge those in the Pentagon, those advising presidential campaigns, and those on Capitol Hill to keep these principles at the forefront of any reform discussions.

Michael Bayer

President and CEO, Dumbarton Strategies

General James E. Cartwright, USMC (ret.)

Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Former Commander, U.S. Strategic Command

Hon. Rudy deLeon

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense

Hon. Michael Donley

Former Secretary of the Air Force

Hon. Eric Edelman

Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy

Admiral William J. Fallon, USN (ret.)

Former Commander, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Pacific Command; Former Vice Chief of Naval Operations

Hon. Michèle Flournoy

Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy

Admiral Edmund Giambastiani, USN (ret.)

Seventh Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Former First Supreme Allied Commander Transformation; Former Commander, U.S. Joint Forces Command

Lieutenant General Wallace Gregson, USMC (ret.)

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs

Hon. John J. Hamre

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense

Hon. Kathleen H. Hicks

Former Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy

Frank Hoffman

Former Deputy Director, Office of Program Appraisal, Department of Navy

General James Jones, USMC (ret.)

Former National Security Advisor to the President of the United States; Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Combatant Commander, U.S. Europe Command; Former Commandant of the Marine Corps

Hon. William J. Lynn

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense

General Duncan McNabb, USAF (ret.)

Former Commander, U.S. Transportation Command; Former Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force

Thomas Mahnken

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning

Hon. James Miller

Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy

Hon. Judith Miller

Former General Counsel of the Department of Defense

General Jack Keane, USA (ret.)

Former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army

Hon. Sean O’Keefe

Former Secretary of the Navy; Former Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and Chief Financial Officer

Major General Arnold Punaro, USMC (ret.)

Former Staff Director, Senate Armed Services Committee 

Robert Rangel

Former Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense and the Deputy Secretary of Defense

General Robert RisCassi, USA (ret.)

Former Commander, UN Command, Combined Forces Command, and U.S. Forces Korea; Former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army

Admiral Gary Roughead, USN (ret.)

Former Chief of Naval Operations

General Norton Schwartz, USAF (ret.)

Former Chief of Staff of the Air Force; Former Commander, U.S. Transportation Command

General Walter Sharp, USA (ret.)

Former Commander, UN Command, Combined Forces Command, and U.S. Forces Korea

General Larry Spencer, USAF (ret.)

Former Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force

Hon. Dov S. Zakheim

Former Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and Chief Financial Officer


The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.