June 1, 2006  

Conformity needs competition

It has been nearly two decades since the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. That’s a long time, but perhaps more importantly, the legislation punctuated — with an exclamation point — a process of unification of defense structures that began before the end of World War II.

Goldwater-Nichols was very much a product of that time. The confluence of three factors impelled the U.S. Congress to reform the nation’s military: perceived military failures (or at most, marginal successes) stretching from the Vietnam War to Desert One, the Beirut bombing and Grenada; public criticism of the existing defense structure by high-ranking officials; and critiques by respected defense analysts and think tanks.

Congress and the critics placed the blame for these failures on what they regarded as the excessive power and influence of the separate uniformed military services. According to Archie Barrett, a retired Air Force colonel working on the House Armed Services Committee staff, “The overwhelming influence of the four services … is completely out of proportion to their legally assigned and limited formal responsibilities.” As a result, according to advocates of reform, it was difficult, if not impossible, to integrate the separate capabilities of service components into effective units capable of the sort of joint operations called for in modern war.

In the view of congressional reformers, service influence also accounted for the low quality of military advice, because the corporate nature of the Joint Chiefs of Staff prevented the chairman from speaking in his own name. According to former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, the plans and recommendations of the Joint Chiefs had to “pass through a screen designed to protect the institutional interests of each of the separate services.”

Although the legislation finally passed with ease, Sen. Barry Goldwater remarked that the reform effort was not easy: “Elements of the Pentagon fought us every inch of the way.” Some of this resistance was bureaucratic in nature, reflecting concern about the prospective loss of turf. But much of the opposition was based on a real concern that the proposed legislation would have an adverse effect on the ability of the U.S. military to carry out its responsibilities under the Constitution.

Thus, although thoughtful opponents of the reform legislation warned of threats to civilian control of the military, they were most concerned about two other issues. First, they worried that a shift in power from the services to the regional commanders would undermine force planning, because the former, of necessity, are focused on near-term operations. Second, they worried that the shift in power from the services to a more powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a unified Joint Staff might lead to the imposition of a single strategic view — what I call “strategic monism” — on the U.S. military establishment when the geographical position of the U.S. requires competing but complementary approaches to national security — call this, conversely, “strategic pluralism.”

An objective assessment of the performance of the U.S. armed forces since the passage of Goldwater-Nichols reveals that the act has not been as effective as its supporters claimed nor as bad as its detractors warned. The act’s greatest success has occurred in the area of military operations by increasing the authority of the combatant commanders to bring it into balance with their responsibilities. But Goldwater-Nichols has also created some potentially serious problems that have to do with the nature of jointness itself.


The Defense Department defines “joint” as “activities, operations, organizations, etc., in which elements of more than one service of the same nation participate.” This official definition is straightforward and unobjectionable, but only because it says so little. Properly understood, jointness is essential for military success. History attests to the importance of being able to integrate the capabilities of different military forces. From the Peloponnesian War to Operation Operation Desert Storm, success in war has been contingent on the common-sense idea of jointness as seamless integration. But jointness has taken on another meaning as well, which constitutes a misuse — indeed, an abuse — of the term as traditionally understood and commonly used. The abuse of jointness has serious implications for all areas of military effort: operations and doctrine, resource management, and force planning.

The seeds of confusion have been sown by the use of this single term to describe two contradictory concepts. The first is integration. This concept refers to improved procedures for combining the unique, specialized capabilities of the different services to enhance combat effectiveness. This was the goal sought by most, although not all, of those who supported Goldwater-Nichols. They aimed to achieve this goal by ending what they believed to be the wasteful interservice rivalry that “precluded the integration of … separate [service] capabilities for effective joint war fighting.” The triumph of American arms during Desert Storm was seen as validating these procedural improvements. This was also the sense in which it was used by Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But jointness has also been used to describe unification, a concept that is the polar opposite of integration. Unification refers to an approach to defense planning in which some capabilities are subordinated to a dominant capability and service components are blended in an attempt to enable the dominant capability. While integration emphasizes improved procedures for enhancing the effectiveness of existing organizations, unification seeks a particular outcome in terms of doctrine, organization and force structure. Many advocates of transformation prefer unification because they see the services as obstacles to transformation. Accordingly, many critics contend that the services are still too powerful and that their independence warps the acquisition process. For instance, the Federal Advisory Commission on the Defense Acquisition Performance Assessment was empowered by acting deputy defense secretary Gordon England to examine the defense acquisition process. According to chairman Ronald Kadish, the panel recommended that combatant commanders be granted the authority to “drive the process” of determining what new weapons systems and military capabilities need to be developed.

But this approach could lead to mischief. Certainly there is much to be said for strengthening the role of the combatant commanders in the acquisition process, but the recommendation of the Kadish panel will inevitably result in a focus on the near term at the expense of the future. This, in turn, will undermine force planning, the complex, interactive intertemporal art intended to ensure that today’s operational and strategic demands are being met while preparing for a future that may differ from the present in unexpected ways.


Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and one of the leading lights of the “transformationist school,” has defined transformation as “innovation on a grand scale … undertaken by a military that believes major changes are occurring in the character of conflict.” It is an attempt to harness a military revolution to achieve “a dramatic leap in military effectiveness.”

Promoters of transformation believe that to overcome the sort of operational challenges likely to prevail in the future, U.S. forces must possess certain characteristics. These forces must be highly mobile, stealthy, dispersed and electronically networked. They must be able to execute compressed operational cycles, to launch extended-range precision strikes and to insert widely distributed forces rapidly into a theater.

Critics of the services argue that, far from spurring innovation, the separate services resist it because of bureaucratic inertia, intellectual orthodoxy and institutional rigidity. According to retired Adm. William Owens, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Military organizations, especially successful ones, normally tend to resist change. Order reigns, and there are reasons why this is so. As a result, military organizations view change and innovation with great caution. … The wrong changes after all can be fatal, not just for those in uniform but also for their societies. But sometimes, caution can lead to stagnation; and failure to adjust to global changes, advances in military technologies or innovations in the conduct of war can lead to the same kind of disasters that cautious bias about change and innovation was supposed to prevent.”

Such critics of the services point to organizational theory, which suggests that bureaucracies do not seek the best solution to a problem but settle for the first one that satisfies the bureaucratic interests of the organization: “satisficing” vs. optimization. The result, they say, is the sort of turf battles that Goldwater-Nichols sought to end. Critics of the services also contend that in pursuing their own agendas, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps develop and maintain duplicative capabilities, which is wasteful and inefficient. Furthermore, individual service agendas undermine transformation by maintaining an unnecessarily large force structure that retains incrementally improved legacy systems, such as tanks, bombers and aircraft carriers. Instead, say such critics, the military should be reducing force structure and “skipping a generation” of weapons to invest in “leap-ahead” technologies that will supposedly eliminate “friction” and the “fog of war,” providing the commander and his subordinates with nearly perfect situational awareness.


We presumably have separate services for a reason: No one service can be expected to address effectively the complete spectrum of military operations in every medium. The roles and functions of the separate services reflect their respective strategic concepts. According to political scientist Samuel Huntington, a strategic concept constitutes “the fundamental element of a military service, … the statement of [its] role … or purpose in implementing national policy.” A service’s strategic concept answers the “ultimate question: What function do you perform which obligates society to assume responsibility for your maintenance?” A clear strategic concept is critical to the ability of a service to organize and employ the resources that Congress allocates to it.

Consider the Marine Corps and the Army. The latter’s strategic concept has been reasonably stable for about 60 years, centering on the requirement to fight and win the nation’s land wars. Despite its attempt to refashion itself as a more expeditionary force, the Army retains this focus.

On the other hand, the strategic concept of the Marine Corps is based on the idea of “amphibious flexibility,” which the British military writer B.H. Liddell Hart called “the greatest strategic asset that a sea power possesses.” In World War II, this meant amphibious assault and the seizure of forward naval bases. During the Cold War, it meant providing an expeditionary force in readiness, capable of responding to short-fuse contingencies while the Army helped to deter major war by stationing units in or near the most likely theater of war. Today, the strategic concept of the Marine Corps continues to be based on its ability to exploit the strategic leverage resulting from U.S. domination of the commons of the sea, and to project land power at a place and time of America’s choosing.

Clearly, a service must connect its strategic concept to a vision of the future security environment. Thus, the proper domain of the services is not operational planning, which is the responsibility of the combatant commander, but force planning. The objective of the latter is to create a future force structure of the right size and the right composition — force mix — to achieve the nation’s security goals, in light of the security environment and resource constraints. In essence, the force planner must answer two questions. First, what capabilities do we need to fulfill the requirements of our strategy, in light of the security environment? Second, what is the appropriate size of the force — in other words, how much is enough?

In terms of the former, force planning is a logical process that flows from the choice of a strategy. To implement the chosen strategy, the force planner identifies the strategic requirements that must be fulfilled to implement the strategy and the operational challenges that must be overcome. To overcome these operational challenges and fulfill the strategy-driven requirements, military planners develop operational concepts and identify the necessary military capabilities. These operational concepts and required military capabilities help the planner identify the characteristics of the force and drive the acquisition of forces and equipment. Throughout the process, the planner must constantly evaluate any risk that may be created by a potential ends-means mismatch.

Now, the combatant commander and his staff can conceivably plan for the future, but because their real function is to execute the war plan with the existing force structure, their focus will be on the near term rather than on the more distant future. The shift in power from the services to the combatant commanders in the name of eliminating interservice rivalry merely ensures that the present and near future will be emphasized at the expense of potential future developments. This is the problem with the recommendations of the Kadish panel.

But what about the claims by critics of the current system who argue that service capabilities are redundant and that the services constitute institutional obstacles to transformation? Those who argue the former confuse accounting with strategy. The accountant’s ruling passion is the quest for efficiency. In military affairs, this passion leads to the condemnation of overlapping capabilities as wasteful duplication. But the accountant’s approach ignores the strategic context. Strategic requirements determine the necessary capabilities, which, in turn, drive acquisition of forces and equipment. Thus, where the accountant seeks efficiency, the strategist seeks military effectiveness, ensuring that the combatant commanders have the proper tools to carry out their missions. Where the accountant sees duplication, the advocate of integration sees redundancy, the military obligation to have enough means to ensure victory, and “complementarity,” a broad range of unique capabilities that can be brought to bear as required by the situation.

As to the services as institutional obstacles, the services contend that tossing out proven systems in favor of technologies that, in many cases, are still on the drawing board (and are likely to remain there for some considerable time to come) is imprudent. They also argue that the concomitant push to cut force structure doesn’t make sense when worldwide demands on U.S. forces are increasing.

While no set of military requirements and capabilities is sacred, prudence dictates that we think seriously about the consequences, intended and unintended, of making radical changes in doctrine and force structure before these changes are validated by experiments conducted in a climate conducive to open debate.


Power has shifted not only from the services to the combatant commands, but also from the services to the Joint Staff and to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. This raises the real possibility that a single strategic concept can come to dominate defense policy. This tendency, which can be characterized as strategic monism, a term coined by Huntington to describe a primary reliance on a single concept, weapon, service or region, was prevalent during the 1990s.

In the words of author Gordon W. Keiser, strategic monism “presupposes an ability to predict and control the actions of possible enemies.” Strategic monism discounts the common-sense view that the world is dynamic and characterized by uncertainty. Instead, it seeks to impose a single vision on the U.S. defense establishment. If this vision is correct, things will be fine. If not, disaster awaits.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with vision per se. In fact, vision, properly grounded in history, experience and an understanding of the nature of war, is absolutely necessary for military innovation. The danger with strategic monism is that what is called vision is really orthodoxy or even dogma imposed on an organization from the top.

The risks of strategic monism are illustrated by the strategy pursued by the Eisenhower administration of the 1950s. The centerpiece of the “New Look” was long-range strategic air power. This focus on strategic bombing to the exclusion of other capabilities resulted in strategic inflexibility. The U.S. largely lacked the ability to respond to threats at the lower end of the spectrum of conflict. The New Look demonstrated that although a dominant capability may be critical to deterrence and war fighting, it often lacks nuance. In the case of air power, it is either on or off. Thus, the threatened use of a dominant capability in situations involving less-than-vital interests lacks credibility. It is, therefore, not always politically useful. This deficiency led to the replacement of the New Look by the strategy of “Flexible Response” in the 1960s. Ironically, after the Persian Gulf War of 1991, some defense analysts resurrected the idea that a nearly exclusive reliance on air power could solve the defense dilemmas faced by the United States. The war in Iraq seems to have disabused us of this notion for the time being.

The current manifestation of strategic monism has been identified by retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper. In a letter to the commandant of the Marine Corps and distributed to a number of military e-mail loops, Van Riper wrote: “[I]n the last two years, the [Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System] process has led to the creation of an excess of concepts, most of which — in my view — are devoid of meaningful content. My greatest concern is that as these concepts migrate into the curricula of professional military schools, they will undermine a coherent body of doctrine, creating confusion within the officer corps … .”

Today, we see the creation of an overabundance of joint concepts — a Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, four operating concepts, eight functional concepts and nine integrating concepts, with more reportedly under development. Further, some plans I have seen call for the revision of these documents on a regular two-year cycle. Upon approval, the Joint Staff then employs these concepts to conduct capabilities-based assessments, another seemingly overly complex methodology. In an effort to remain consistent with the joint approach, the services are beginning to create similarly overpopulated families of concepts and complex developmental processes.

Rather than a method to drive change, the joint concepts seem to serve more as a means to slow innovation. Services, agencies and even individuals claim they need ever-increasing detail before they can proceed with force development. Although force development is inherently a complex undertaking, making the process too complex causes commanders and staffs to focus inward, on that process, rather than on the problem they are trying to solve. When they do, the process becomes dysfunctional.

Strategic monism stands in contrast to strategic pluralism, which “calls for a wide variety of military forces [or services] and weapons to meet a diversity of potential threats.” Given the geopolitical position of the U.S., which requires that it plan to respond to threats around the globe, strategic pluralism seems more appropriate to American strategic culture.

Strategic pluralism presupposes an uncertain security environment. Despite our desires, there is much in this world that we do not and cannot know in advance. Threats to our interests are not necessarily predictable. Strategic pluralism hedges against uncertainty by generating responses across the spectrum of conflict, building on the existing capabilities of the services to create a flexible and adaptable force structure. At the same time, retaining the capabilities provided by the separate services complicates planning by potential adversaries. The smaller the number of options a force structure can generate, the easier it is for an enemy to develop a low-cost counter.

The benefits of independent services pursuing their own strategic concepts can be understood in terms of what economists call “comparative advantage” and complementarity. Comparative advantage refers to the enhanced efficiency achieved by allowing a producer to specialize in those tasks for which he is the lower-cost producer. Complementarity refers to the effects of specialization, in which all the parts of the whole work together to achieve synergy. Applied here, these economic principles begin with the view that each service has strengths and weaknesses: The former should be exploited to the fullest; the latter should be minimized. By employing and planning forces based on comparative advantage, efficiency is enhanced by allowing each service to specialize in that area where the opportunity costs are lowest. By thus optimizing the complementary capabilities of service components, synergy is achieved and military effectiveness is increased across the entire spectrum of conflict.

The existence of independent services is also a spur to competition, which, in turn, stimulates innovation. Small, competitive organizations seem to provide the most fertile soil for generating and implementing new ideas. By coalescing around a variety of identifiable strategic concepts, the individual services generate the institutional capacity for adaptation and innovation.

This is what happened during the interwar period. Service-driven innovation abounded, including strategic bombing, carrier aviation, armored warfare, submarine and anti-submarine warfare, and amphibious warfare. As military author and professor Williamson Murray has observed, “Effective military innovation is evolutionary rather than revolutionary [and] depends on organizational focus over time rather than guidance by one individual.”

It is also the case that without independent, competitive services, a necessary capability may be ignored until it is too late. To take just one example, during World War II, the U.S. Army conducted more and larger amphibious operations than the Marine Corps. But before the war, the Army, whose strategic concept centered on large-scale land warfare, had no interest in amphibious operations. As Marine Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak reminds us in “First to Fight,” had there not been a Marine Corps with a strategic concept based on assault from the sea, the doctrine, organization and equipment used by both the Army and Marine Corps would not have been available until much later in the war. As Krulak wrote, “The Army, when it evidenced its first sustained interest in the amphibious problem in 1940, would have found itself twenty years late.” Who knows what additional cost in lives and treasure such a delay would have entailed?


Since the end of World War II, the goal of jointness has been to improve the effectiveness of the U.S. military instrument by enhancing cooperation among the services. The concept has been understood as integration, the goal of which was to harmonize the unique capabilities of the U.S. military services. This understanding of jointness was consistent with strategic pluralism, the traditional approach to U.S. security policy.

In response to technological developments, some have rejected this traditional meaning of jointness and sought to weaken the influence of the individual services in the pursuit of a military organization and joint doctrine built around a system of systems: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies; advanced command, control, communications and computer systems; and precision strike munitions (currently long-range precision strike), to which all other organizations and capabilities are subordinated. This is strategic monism writ large.

As argued above, the U.S. has separate services because no one service can be expected to address effectively the complete spectrum of military operations in every medium. The idea that there can be a single answer to the infinite variety of threats that U.S. forces may face in the future seems oddly out of place in a profession that prides itself in level-headed realism, but that is essentially the argument of those who would further reduce the influence of the services.

The risk of further weakening the services was articulated by retired Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor in an essay published shortly after the 1991 Gulf War: “[H]erein lies a danger as we proceed along the path toward greater jointness. If for its sake conformity is achieved at the expense of uniqueness, we could end up with a military that is inflexible, uncreative and, above all, predictable. Both for present and future planners, the task is to recognize the unquantifiable value that service culture plays in warfighting. It is a characteristic to be exploited, not suppressed.”

These words are as pertinent today as they were then.

MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. The views expressed in this article are his own.