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  • Writer's pictureDavid James Connolly

Reflections: Looking Back at the Need for Goldwater-Nichols



The Congress is again turning to the challenging question of whether changes in the international system require amended organizational structure in the Department of Defense. The Senate Armed Services Committee has launched far-reaching hearings to solicit views from knowledgeable experts on the problems facing the Defense Department. Almost every witness has argued that there are problems that need to be fixed.

In this inaugural essay, I will reflect on the situation we faced back in the early 1980s that led to passage of the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act. I was a member of the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee and was involved in Senate deliberations that led to Goldwater-Nichols. CSIS played a critical role at that time. Senator Sam Nunn led a major effort at CSIS to examine the organizational problems at the time in the Defense Department. That work became the foundation for much of the subsequent review undertaken by the two Armed Services Committees.


The impetus for reform emerged after we assessed the failure of Operation Eagle Claw. Operation Eagle Claw (more frequently Desert One, the logistics staging point inside Iran where we confronted serious mechanical problems) was a military effort to fly deep into Iran and rescue 52 diplomats held in captivity. On April 24, 1980, that operation confronted serious difficulties, leading commanders to abort the mission. The after-action assessment showed how poorly prepared we were for joint operations. No one service had the capabilities to undertake the mission, but they were not used to operating complex interdependent missions.


The sense that the Defense Department had structural problems was reinforced by Operation Urgent Fury, when the United States invaded the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada. The Marine Corps and the Army effectively divided the island and conducted parallel operations in isolation. Commanders couldn’t communicate because radios were not interoperable. Stories circulated about military officers using commercial telephones to contact each other and report back.


The impetus for defense reform came from failure in the field. The Armed Services Committees could examine failed operations, vividly demonstrating why major changes were needed in the Defense Department. Even then, the reform agenda was controversial. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was strongly opposed to legislative changes. General David Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, courageously argued that changes were needed. While the Army and Air Force could not publicly champion reform, they were quietly encouraging major changes, while the Navy and Marine Corps were openly fighting the legislation. (At one point during markup in the Senate Armed Services Committee, I learned from an Army friend that the Navy had created a “war room” to fight the bill being drafted in the committee. I called the number he gave me and the voice answered “Navy War Room.” I gave the telephone number to Senator Barry Goldwater, who called it and became predictably enraged.) The committee was deeply divided. When the crucial vote was held, the poll reflected a one-vote margin for serious reform.

… the basic concept in the legislation was to create a healthier balance between “supply” and “demand.”

While we didn’t frame it this way at the time, the basic concept in the legislation was to create a healthier balance between “supply” and “demand.” To strengthen demand for joint capabilities, the legislation strengthened the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and gave him a vice chairman who was number 2, not number 6, in protocol stature on the Joint Chiefs. The law clarified that the chain of command came from the president to the secretary of defense on to the respective joint commander in the field, not through the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The service chiefs of staff were stripped of operational responsibilities for war fighting. In addition, the legislation established a requirement that officers in combat arms specialties could not be promoted to flag/general officer rank without preceding tours of duty in joint billets.


Taken together, these reforms had an enormous salutary benefit in reshaping the Defense Department. The U.S. military today is the finest fighting force in the world and in all of history, thanks largely to the structural changes and incentives established by Goldwater-Nichols.


But support for these reforms was mobilized because of visible failure in the field. Today the military is highly capable in the field. There is great controversy over whether or not we should have entered into war in Iraq in 2003, but the military performed exceptionally well in that war. The military didn’t operate nearly so well in rebuilding Iraq after the war, handicapped considerably by bureaucratic failings here in Washington. But over time our military forces did become accomplished in post-conflict reconstruction efforts.


Reforming major government institutions is exceptionally difficult, but it was made possible in 1986 because of the recent history of failure in military operations in the field. That is not the case any longer. The U.S. military today can respond very quickly with significant and meaningful impact. So what motivates reform today?

… these reforms were mobilized because of visible failure in the field. Today the military is highly capable in the field.

There are a few capable defense analysts who argue that we are failing today to cope with the much more complicated nature of security threats. The war-fighting structure of the Defense Department reflected the geopolitics and modalities of warfare of 1946. Today we face ambiguous military threats (often called “gray zone” threats) and actions by other governments that avoid clear and objective redlines for predictable response. We face irregular threats (like ISIL) that operate within civil society and stretch over multiple command areas of responsibility (AORs). We confront the prospect of cyber warfare that has no boundaries and, with little warning, can destroy facilities in our homeland.


The government is struggling these days with these new security challenges. In my view, we have a tactical approach to ISIL, not a strategic approach. The wars of the last 12 years have highlighted the problems with our interdepartmental coordination process (a topic for a future essay in this series). The Defense Department also has not always performed brilliantly, but I do not consider the challenges we face today to be a failure of organization. The Defense Department remains a highly competent fighting machine. The Defense Department is not broken, but it is extraordinarily inefficient in using resources. In real purchasing power terms, the defense budget today is just as great as it was in 1986 when Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols reform. But we are operating a force only two-thirds the size. Personnel and operating costs have increased greatly. We can’t afford to keep current practices given the growing demand for defense capabilities in the future.

It took objective and significant failure in the field to mobilize reform that resulted in Goldwater-Nichols. Today we have a highly effective Defense Department that is highly inefficient. Will that provide sufficient impetus for major reforms? And what are the guiding principles for reform this time? These issues will be explored on this website in coming weeks and months.








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