A new congressional committee is welcoming ideas for restructuring the agencies that are in charge of our national security. The Panel on Roles and Missions is a bipartisan group of seven House Armed Services Committee (HASC) members who spent six months examining the jurisdictional boundaries between the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. More importantly, the panel also is vetting ideas for reforming the full spectrum of U.S. hard and soft power. Read the panel’s initial report (PDF).
Despite the partisan discord in Congress, the panel has begun the process of fundamental change in our security establishment by focusing not on particular foreign or military policies, but on strengthening the organizational structure needed to implement any policy. The panel has divided the roles and missions issues into three categories:
Interservice rivalries, such as which service controls drones, airlift or infantry personnel.
Pentagonwide management problems, such as procurement and strengthening the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC).
Interagency tensions over nation-building and intelligence.
The panel’s hope is to improve management in each of these categories because these giant bureaucratic issues sometimes receive the least attention in the day-to-day activities of the Defense Department and Capitol Hill.
HASC Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., sees the need to rethink many aspects of the Pentagon, and convened the panel with the concurrence of Ranking Member Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. As a junior member of the HASC, Skelton had played a key role in passing the Goldwater-Nichols reforms of 1986 that, although strongly opposed by the military at the time, are credited with dramatically improving U.S. joint war-fighting capabilities. Now, as committee chairman, Skelton wrote specific roles and missions reforms in the 2008 Defense Authorization Act, in addition to creating this new panel. The new defense bill focuses on defining core competencies of the services; the panel’s efforts range much further.
Almost everything about the panel is new. As a panel, instead of a formal subcommittee, the seven members had the flexibility to cross congressional boundaries to get a broader view than the HASC alone could provide. Another benefit is that hearings could be informal, like small seminars, to elicit more candid information from witnesses. And panels are authorized only for six months at a time, forcing a strict deadline for completion of work.
The panel has chosen to open the reform process to our entire military by soliciting the input of AFJ readers. As relatively junior members of the HASC ourselves, the panel is interested in the views of all ranks, not just general officers. We feel that this is the first step in rethinking the roles and missions of both our armed and unarmed services. As Wikipedia and other open-source efforts have demonstrated, it would be a mistake to discount the individual and collective wisdom of junior officers and enlisted men and women. These uncredentialed, and sometimes anonymous, patriots have much to teach us.
The panel has taken this unconventional route because, unfortunately, past Pentagon reform efforts are not good models to follow. The two landmark successes since World War II — the National Security Act of 1947 and the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 — prove that restructuring is slow and clumsy. The greatest obstacle to reform is often the Pentagon itself.
If history is our guide, then the Pentagon changes only: a) after a string of serious but preventable military failures, b) when a four-star general decides to break ranks by advocating reform, c) when the opposition of at least two, and sometimes all, uniformed services is overcome, and d) when Congress votes in favor of new statutes, which are sometimes honored in the breach.
It is interesting that other variables such as presidential support or levels of defense spending have been less important factors. The entire reform process, from initial top-officer complaint to presidential signature, takes at least four years. If measured from the date of the first tragic military failures, reform can take decades. Today’s enemies may not allow us the luxury of so much time.
Another problem with using past reform efforts — even the successful ones — as a prototype is that they have focused more on organization charts than on personnel, incentive structures, nontraditional warfare, cultural understanding, domestic economic strength or political realities. Moving around bureaucratic boxes, either within the Pentagon or among agencies, may not be enough to give America the strength it needs to prevail over today’s adversaries. Therefore, the panel is open to radical reform suggestions that bear no resemblance to anything in recent history.
The 1947 National Security Act Impetus for reform during World War II stemmed from problems with the split MacArthur/Nimitz command in the Pacific Theater (beginning with Pearl Harbor), President Roosevelt’s perceived favoritism toward the Navy and the consensus-driven decisions of the powerful Joint Chiefs of Staff. These arrangements often led to confusion and mismanagement that was hidden from the Roosevelt administration, even going so far as to threaten the fundamental constitutional principle of civilian control of the military.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall first proposed unifying the command structure of the Pentagon in 1943, the same year the famous five-sided building was completed. It is difficult to imagine today, but the Army and Navy each had their own committees in Congress and the services competed against each other for the president’s favor. Marshall’s reform ideas languished until after Roosevelt’s death, but they were championed by incoming President Truman. Regrettably, Truman was immediately branded an Army partisan, because of his service in World War I in the Missouri National Guard. It seems silly today, but Truman’s background inflamed the Navy’s and Marine Corps’ opposition to centralized command authority, which they associated with the Army.
Truman surprised both the Navy and the nation with his grit. As he confided to his trusted military aide, Clark Clifford, at the time: “We must never fight another war the way we have fought the last two. I have the feeling that if the Army and Navy had fought our enemies as hard as they fought each other, the war would have ended much sooner.”
Truman’s two-year legislative struggle to produce the National Security Act of 1947 was really a four-year fight because clarifying amendments in 1949 were necessary to give coherence to the initial political compromise. Although the 1947 act created a separate Air Force (something that Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell had advocated since 1919), National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency, the act attempted to join the separate departments of War and Navy under a weak secretary of defense. In fact, the 1947 act did not create a Defense Department, only a “National Military Establishment” that was still governed primarily by service chiefs who resisted any chairman, even a powerless one. As Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote, “The entire structure ... was little more than a weak confederation of sovereign military units.”
Truman’s master stroke was to select the main opponent of reform, Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal, to be the first defense secretary so that he could experience firsthand the powerlessness of the position. After this role reversal, Forrestal wrote, “the peacetime mission of the Armed Services is to destroy the Secretary of Defense.” Forrestal attempted valiantly to reconcile the roles and missions of the service chiefs at Key West in 1948 and, even more difficult, to get the services to live under a single $14.4 billion budget in 1949, but he resigned as secretary in despair. Later that year, after Forrestal’s suicide, Congress finally amended the National Security Act to give the defense secretary the staff and budget authority that Forrestal had needed, and to create a nonvoting chairman of the Joint Chiefs to slowly begin the process of unifying command of the services.
Naval opposition to reform persisted, however, even after the 1947 and 1949 laws were passed. When Forrestal’s replacement, Louis Johnson, forced the Navy to work within the budget set by the new Republican-controlled Congress and canceled an aircraft carrier after the keel had been laid, both the secretary of the Navy and the chief of naval operations resigned. Political repercussions of “The Revolt of the Admirals” extended throughout the Eisenhower administration, creating a fear in Congress that, if Ike could not control “the military-industrial complex,” no one could. As a result, the next major reform of the military would wait almost 40 years. One critic, Judge Richard Posner, even sees this next wave of reform as just the long-delayed conclusion of the first.
The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act According to Congress at the time, the impetus for reform in the 1980s stemmed from the combined failures of the Vietnam War, the Pueblo incident, Desert One and the conflict in Grenada. From today’s perspective, the Mayaguez incident, the Beirut barracks bombing and the Achille Lauro hijacking showed increasing threats from both state- and non-state actors. Terrorism, whether from North Korea, Cambodia, Iran or the Middle East, was beginning to show its hand.
The miracle of Goldwater-Nichols is that it happened at all. The top general who championed reform, David Jones, did so very late in his career and very reluctantly. Lacking even a college degree, Jones had served eight years on the Joint Chiefs and was completing his second and final two-year term as chairman when he testified informally in a closed hearing of the HASC on Feb. 3, 1982. The hearing topic was not on strategy or organization, but on the Pentagon budget. The first witness, new Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, privately derided Jones as a “holdover” from the Carter administration who had only five months left before retirement. When Jones began speaking, he departed from his prepared text to say: “I look forward to testifying on these budget issues; however, there is one subject I would like to mention briefly here. It is not sufficient to have just resources, dollars and weapons systems; we must also have an organization which will allow us to develop the proper strategy, necessary planning, and the full warfighting capability. We do not have an adequate organizational structure today ... at least in my judgment.”
Only one member of the HASC, young Ike Skelton, seemed to realize the significance of Jones’ words. When Skelton’s time for questioning came, he said: “This seems rather a courageous thing for you to do. I think it is something that should get the utmost attention from this committee and from Congress.”
Thus the reform effort began.
The Reagan administration and the entire Pentagon opposed reform. Every uniformed service saw a simplified chain of command from the president, through the secretary of defense, down to a single area commander, or CINC, as a threat to their traditional prerogatives. It is hard to imagine today, but they vehemently objected to the cross-training, or jointness, among the services that is required if soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are to serve under a single, unified command. They objected, even after the Grenada invasion demonstrated the military’s inability to communicate by radio to coordinate attacks. Weinberger was also budget-minded; he thought that raising the issue of Pentagon incompetence reduced the chance of funding the Reagan defense buildup.
Critics of Goldwater-Nichols turned out to be mistaken. Their fear that the services would lose their core competencies if forced to learn, or at least appreciate, other skills never materialized. If anything, core competencies have improved since 1986 in areas such as precision bombing, tank warfare and sea-lane control. The air campaign in Kosovo even demonstrated that an Army general could rely exclusively on air power to achieve his strategic objectives.
Although the success of Goldwater-Nichols is widely acknowledged, it should be remembered that it still does not achieve the level of jointness that Eisenhower called for as early as 1945. He advocated a single uniform for all services and a requirement that West Point and Annapolis cadets spend a year at the other institution in order to graduate. (If the Air Force Academy had existed then, Eisenhower would have certainly included its cadets, as well.) Such ideas today are still considered too radical to be implemented.
Lessons of History The average tenure of the secretary of defense over the past half-century has been only 18 months, versus the minimum of three decades that general officers have served in the military. In fact, most general officers already have spent at least one tour of three years, and often six or more, in the Pentagon before promotion to general officer rank. That continuity has a price. The Pentagon usually favors doing things the way things have always been done. The ability for any future civilian-driven reform to transform the Pentagon seems limited, especially if it is opposed by the uniformed military. Today’s reform efforts lack a public, high-level champion from within the military so that the new ideas can get the attention and support that they deserve. There are countless private critics but no pre-eminent four-star maverick.
Thankfully, 22 years after Goldwater-Nichols, the Pentagon is producing much more effective war fighters. But despite a budget of $600 billion a year, it still produces a military that is overstretched. At least part of the problem is a system focused on creating the ideal military establishment to fight large-scale conventional wars such as World War II instead of the smaller, complex conflicts we face today.
Each military service’s share of the defense budget has changed by less than 2 percent over each of the past 30 years. This sclerotic system produces a military that before 2003 had not seriously looked at counterinsurgency strategy for 20 years; one whose new fighter jets still cannot share information; and one that has been unable to mobilize quickly to produce enough armored vehicles and body armor to protect our service members.
Our military is stuck in a bureaucratic system that fights harder over control of unmanned drones and airlift than on building the best joint force. There are feasible solutions to these problems, including an increased role for the JROC or creating another, stronger advocate for the joint force. But even if the Pentagon did produce a military more geared toward today’s conflicts and better prepared for the conflicts of the future, we still need to think about more comprehensive reforms. It is not enough to solve interservice or even Pentagonwide problems; we must reform the interagency process.
It is almost conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill that America needs a “Goldwater-Nichols II” to foster jointness between the Pentagon, State Department, CIA and other federal agencies that work outside the U.S. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has been working on an excellent three-part study entitled “Beyond Goldwater-Nichols” for several years now. Lacking a visible military champion, these proposals have languished. Even if there were such a champion, however, history indicates a multi-year fight is in store.
The idea of interagency jointness has great appeal, although, of course, its success will depend on the willingness of particular secretaries of defense to recognize the quality of sister agency work. Improved organization charts are not a cure for blindness.
The primary reason that Defense, State and others need to work together is to share the burden of nation-building. Most Americans do not realize that we have tried to rebuild no fewer than six Muslim nations in the past 12 years and, despite all that practice, we have improved only slightly in our performance.
The Pentagon has always preferred war-fighting to peacekeeping, but it finds itself, as a result of its superior manpower, command structure and resources, often the sole provider of long-term medical, civil affairs, police and reconstruction assistance in troubled areas. In Afghanistan and Iraq, multi-agency provincial reconstruction teams are making serious efforts to improve living conditions, but their small number and scale make it unlikely that they will have more than localized effects. Difficulty in recruiting non-Defense Department personnel has exaggerated the military look of many of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams.
Solutions ranging from increased incentives for non-Defense Department personnel to creation of an entirely new “Department of Nation-Building” have been proposed. The new Africa Command is looking like an intermediate solution focused on capacity-building, nation-building and humanitarian efforts. One of the new combatant commander’s deputies is a State Department ambassador.
Congress has not established a major new defense or foreign policy agency since the creation of the CIA in 1947. Congress could create another agency, but it is not a promising blueprint to collect in one bureaucracy the unwanted functions of other agencies. Attracting the necessary talent, motivating them, providing adequate resources and protecting them in turf wars is a daunting prospect but possibly a necessary one. President Bush’s idea for a Civilian Readiness Reserve is one constructive idea for bridging this gap.
Digging Deeper Messianic national security goals such as those expressed by either John F. Kennedy or George W. Bush in their inaugural speeches have been shockingly disconnected from the machinery of government necessary to implement them. There are many reasons for this besides the predilection of presidential speechwriters for rhetoric over reality. As Gen. David Jones wrote in his pivotal 1982 fight: “Although most history books glorify our military accomplishments, a closer examination reveals a disconcerting pattern: unpreparedness at the start of a war; initial failures; reorganizing while fighting; cranking up our industrial base; and ultimately prevailing by wearing down the enemy — by being bigger, not smarter.”
No president wants to promise anything but total victory, despite the fact that America’s great success in the Cold War relied on a subtler strategy called “containment” for several decades. As John Lewis Gaddis wrote in his seminal book on the Cold War: “The idea that there could be something in between — neither war nor peace, neither victory nor defeat, neither appeasement nor annihilation — had never been clearly articulated. ... [C]ontainment was a feat of imagination, made all the more impressive by the bleak circumstances in which it originated.”
The military offers no medals for feats of imagination, but this talent is perhaps more important than conventional soldiers and military planners appreciate. The 9/11 Commission concluded that the core American failure that led to the tragedies of that day was lack of imagination. Combining bureaucracy and imagination must not be an oxymoron if America is to maintain its status as the world’s only superpower.
Looking Forward In an effort to be provocative, the panel’s initial report is comprised of a number of short articles written to focus readers’ attention on key topics. No consensus was reached or even attempted, only an agreement to plant numerous seeds to see which ones germinate. Each panel member wrote at least one article, and other voices, from soldiers’ to academics’, are included. Readers of AFJ can have a substantial role in determining which, if any, of these approaches take root.
America’s greatest strength is our resiliency, our ability to recover from mistakes and win. As the world’s only superpower, the U.S. is challenged by virtually everyone, friend and foe alike. Continuing the process of keeping our security establishment No. 1 is the most important task our nation faces. We will succeed best if we are able to do it in an open, respectful and rigorous fashion that allows the best ideas to rise to the top. That is what the panel on Roles and Missions is committed to doing. Please join the effort by commenting on the panel’s initial report.