June 1, 2006  

Janus and the god of jointness

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. military’s airstrike against five terrorist training camps in Libya, a retaliation for the bombing of a Berlin discotheque in which three U.S. servicemen were killed and scores were injured. In the same year, a Japanese Red Army terrorist carried out attacks against the U.S. embassy in Jakarta and the diplomatic missions of Japan and Canada.

Also in 1986, Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act, aimed at strengthening the power of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), making service on the Joint Staff more desirable as a path to promotion, reducing interservice rivalry and giving more bureaucratic heft to combatant commanders.

Occurring in the same year, the attacks and the legislation represent a modern portrait of the Roman god Janus; one face — that of terror — staring at the future, the other face — that of legislation — surveying what has passed. True, the Goldwater-Nichols legislation did point the way toward useful improvements in how the Defense Department works, such as offering career incentives for service on the Joint Staff and bolstering the combatant commanders’ hands. But the kind of war it imagined seems close to anachronism. Terror has transformed the nature of America’s warfare into something few anticipated. Our main enemy is an ideologically driven incubus that seeks to galvanize the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, aims to destroy modern liberal democracy and has used — and will use — whatever weapons it can field against innocent civilians. This kind of fight demands changes in the way we defend ourselves, changes that transcend the measures Congress set in place 20 years ago.


The authors of the 1986 legislation saw the preceding third of a century as the unraveling of the American military. A 1986 congressional staff report offered justification for the pending legislation and cited eminent analyst Jeffrey Record:

“Not since the Inchon landing has a significant U.S. military venture been crowned by success. On the contrary, our military performance since September 1950 suggests that we as a society have lost touch with the art of war. Inchon was followed by the rout of American forces along the Yalu; Yalu by the Bay of Pigs fiasco; the Bay of Pigs by the disaster in Indochina; Indochina by the fizzled raid to retrieve U.S. [prisoners of war] thought to be confined in North Vietnam’s Son Tay prison camp; Son Tay by the abortive assault on Koh Tang island in search of the hijacked Mayaguez; and Mayaguez by the debacle in the Iranian desert.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. David Jones also supported reform. Jones argued that:

“[T]oday, we no longer have the luxury of the buffers which in the past had allowed us to mobilize, organize and deploy after a conflict began. In fact today, the factors of time, geography and the strategic balance work largely to our disadvantage; they compound rather than mitigate our deficiencies in conventional force size, readiness and deployability.”

Twenty years later, it remains difficult to see the connection between the problems identified by the analyst and the chairman. What connection was there, after all, between the failure to succeed at irregular warfare/special operations that Record correctly identified, and Jones’ understandable concern that the size and distance of our conventional forces from the front put us at a disadvantage if the Soviets decided to seize Western Europe? But at the time, it didn’t much matter. Change was in the air, the Senate sponsor of the legislation, Barry Goldwater, was retiring, and the Reagan administration was absorbed with second-term woes. The measure passed without serious congressional opposition.

Despite this curious parentage, the 1986 legislation deserves some credit for America’s military successes that followed, including the invasion of Panama, the Persian Gulf War, peacekeeping operations in Haiti, several significant combat actions in the Balkans, the small-wars approach that drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan in record time, and the swift defeat of Saddam Hussein’s military. However, the “jointness” the legislation aimed to encourage among the services has eluded precise definition. Lawmakers who looked for savings from the military budget saw jointness as a tool to swat down weapons systems that accomplished similar ends — witness the eternal debate over the mission of close-air support and complaints about each service “building their own air forces.” Other congressional supporters of the armed forces saw jointness as a helpful way to promote long-advocated changes in military education. When he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Colin Powell cleverly used jointness as a rallying cry to tamp down incendiary rivalry among the services as Cold War decreases in the defense budget took their toll.

The question remains: Does a definition in a JCS publication exhaust the meaning of the term? Does “jointness” really describe the way members of the armed forces think, which service’s procedures are followed in a joint command, how the lines in an organizational chart are drawn?

The term has intelligent substance in the U.S. military’s training and operations. But, as retired Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor and New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon relate in their book on the war in Iraq, “Cobra II,” jointness has also transmogrified into a buzzword. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld worked directly with U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Tommy Franks throughout the planning and execution of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This irritated the Joint Chiefs, who did not always agree with the secretary or the combatant commander. Trainor and Gordon write that in a meeting with the JCS, Franks brushed aside criticism of the conduct of the war. The CentCom commander remarked that jointness is the “center of gravity of the U.S. military.” He noted that “the [secretary of defense] has made his mark on the future. More joint, not less joint.” That’s a strange observation, because while the size of U.S. forces in Iraq, their ability to exploit transformation weapons and the military’s plans for post-combat operations were — and remain — points of debate, jointness was not. “Jointness” has come to mean whatever the speaker wants. It’s nearly empty of independent meaning.

But whatever was intended, not even Goldwater-Nichols’ strongest supporters claimed it as the infallible guide to military effectiveness. Coordination headaches preceded and followed passage of the bill. There were interservice communications problems in Operation Urgent Fury, the 1983 invasion that replaced a communist government in Grenada. These may be part of the irreducible fog of war — a condition of combat not subject to legislation. Operation Iraqi Freedom, as one-sided a blitzkrieg as history has known, recorded similar problems. Some Air Force tankers were unable to refuel F-117s because they were configured solely for Navy aircraft. A failure to agree in advance on whether to use local or Greenwich Mean Time resulted in a near-disastrous delay of three hours before a Special Forces unit could receive reinforcement from larger conventional forces at a bridge on Iraqi Highway 1, the main invasion route north. Resolving these issues remains important, but larger ones have overtaken them.


The shape of our military, the threats we face and the character of our alliances have transformed themselves since passage of Goldwater-Nichols. The profound shift in the shape and size of American armed forces that began before the end of the Cold War is still underway. Where 10 out of 100 projectiles found their target with older weapons, a miss ratio of one-tenth is now unacceptable. Information technology enabled by networking and substantial advancements in microprocessing has brought a superior understanding of what is happening on the battlefield. The list of technological advances is long, their effect profound. But it is dwarfed by changes in the world since 1986. The Soviets disappeared and their empire collapsed. China put itself on the road to becoming a great economic and — who can doubt — military power. Nuclear proliferation morphed from a topic of discussion among national-security experts to a reality. Radical Islam arose. And the U.S. was attacked at home with losses that surpassed those at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. No one doubts that fanatics seek to repeat and multiply their success in attacking New York and Washington.

Twenty years ago, the most immediate enemy, the ideology and armed forces of Soviet communism, was easy to find, relatively easy to assess in terms of military capability and unmistakable in enmity. Of our enemy today, only the last of these still holds: the fanatics’ enmity is a given. Compared with the threat the Soviets posed, the enemy’s locations, capabilities, tactics and ability to surprise are blurry.

But, while radical fanatics are today’s most immediate threat, they are not the only one. Traditional threats — in the form of states with territories, uniformed militaries and standing forces — still exist. China wants a military that matches the accelerating global power of its robust economy and, unlike the Soviet Union, has the means to buy one. North Korea, although desperately poor, has nuclear weapons and is working to increase the reach of the missiles that carry them. Iran’s ruling mullahs, who surpass all other world leaders in hatred of the U.S., have missiles that can reach Europe and are trying to build nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War, U.S. defense planners argued about whether to plan to fight this or that number of wars of variable size and scope. But they were traditional wars fought with and against tanks, planes and ships that sortied from known positions with logistical requirements that, if difficult to interdict, were at least well-understood. Today, we must be prepared to fight two markedly different varieties of conflict: the shadowy kind and the traditional. But it is difficult for troops trained to the requirements of one mission to be equally proficient at the other.

Traditional missions — preventing China from overwhelming Taiwan or helping South Korea turn back a North Korean invasion — are different from those required to locate and kill al-Qaida members, their metastasizing cohorts around the world or the several varieties of insurgents trying to prevent the transformation of Iraqi political institutions. Defeating fanatics depends heavily on accurate and timely intelligence, operating in dangerous urban environments, providing constabulary and support services to civilian populations, including the supply of water, electricity, communications and the repair of infrastructure. It also requires expertise in counter-insurgency, the training of foreign forces, psychological warfare and the host of other associated warfare skills usually referred to as unconventional.

The U.S. military’s movement into standoff and high-precision weapons propels the Navy and the Air Force to the fore as lead services in operations against traditional state threats. The reach and accuracy of their weapons will only increase over time, posing an increasingly deadly threat to the installations, garrisons, massed forces and command centers of states that field advanced militaries.

But the Marines and Army are the logical choice to lead in combating radicals and conducting irregular warfare. Neither missiles nor pinpoint-accuracy bombs can go door to door hunting insurgents. They cannot train friendly forces, root out terrorist captains on the run or protect civilians who wish to vote in elections. They cannot search for and secure weapons of mass destruction. Troops can.

We are left today with a strategic environment of opposites — unconventional vs. conventional, low tech vs. high tech, nonstate vs. state — threats that do not feel as though they can be defeated by adjusting power equations of the American high command.

A focused and practical vision of jointness — for example, assembling the intelligence strengths of all sources into a timely product for commanders, coordinating global communications, providing logistics at the pace required by likely future operations and working together with appropriate civilian agencies of the federal government — serves a strategy that necessitates fighting at conflict’s polar opposites. America’s armed forces must concentrate on both poles, forgetting neither.

If we must look backward to see the way ahead, we might be better served by looking to antiquity than to the too-recent history of the late Cold War. There are many examples of the consequences of strategic amnesia, none better than Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Pericles argued successfully for a strategy that drew on Athenian geography and naval power. The city-state would rely on its wall facing landward to defend against Sparta’s numerically superior land forces. For sustenance and income, Athens would live by its merchant and naval fleet. Sparta could neither force the wall nor challenge Athens at sea. Athens’ allies and dependencies scattered throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas would also be safe.

If Pericles did not light a path to victory, his was certainly a solid defensive plan. A plague in Athens, its citizens’ anger at doing nothing in the face of enemy depredations beyond the wall, Pericles’ death and an Athenian general’s deceptively alluring string of successes on land at contested portions of Athens’ empire erased memory of the original strategy. Thirteen years after the war began, Athenian generals were leading land forces in attacks against Sparta’s stronghold, the Peloponnesian peninsula. A half dozen years later, the war ended as thousands of Athenian soldiers died of starvation, thirst, exposure and lack of medical treatment in the quarries of Syracuse.

The point is not that nations should adopt exclusively maritime or continental strategies, but rather that military policy must serve strategic ends. To the extent that American military policy concentrates on coordination between land, sea, air and amphibious forces, it reflects an understanding that grew out of an event that took place 65 years ago.


The changes that incorporated the lessons of Pearl Harbor began in the days following the attack. The study of indications and warnings became a major specialty in intelligence. American policy-makers built a national capability designed to avoid another such surprise. The failure of the Army and Navy to speak with one another before the attack became a paradigm of what to avoid, a model for the necessary steps to assure integration among the armed services. These adjustments to America’s defense started in earnest after World War II with the National Security Act of 1947 and reached their high-water mark with the passage of Goldwater-Nichols.

Sept. 11, 2001, was also a surprise. But the attacker was not a state. As in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, various commissions have examined what needs to be done. Politicians have spoken. There is agreement that intelligence must undergo changes similar in scope to those that occurred after 1941. Satellites and advanced electronic means are best suited to spying on states. To know what bands of terrorists and insurgents are up to, more human intelligence is needed. This is a decentralization of the intelligence-gathering organization — rather than the increased centralization of the current post-9/11 reforms.

A similar alteration in course is required in the military, not a continuation of the direction Congress aimed at in 1947, returned to at different times throughout the Cold War and continued most recently in 1986. The Defense Department’s challenge in the foreseeable future is to exploit to the fullest the emerging arsenal of the transformation while developing the ability to conduct irregular warfare that includes everything from preventive measures to the less glamorous steps needed to resuscitate failed states. The tools and skills are different, but both require significant changes in ideas about warfare.

Today, several signs show that such changes in ideas might be underway. On Page 38 of the Defense Departments’ 2006 Quadrennial Report is a box that shows the U.S. military’s missions. There is a stack of three oblong figures. At the top of the stack is “Homeland Defense.” Next is “War on Terror/Irregular Warfare.” At the bottom is “Conventional Campaign(s).” The oblongs are the same size. The QDR’s language reflects this profound shift away from the U.S. military’s traditional missions which were, until recently, best summarized by the bottom oblong.

The QDR emphasizes change: “from nation-state threats — to decentralized network threats from nonstate enemies; from responding after a crisis starts (reactive) — to preventive actions so problems do not become crises (proactive).” It addresses the need for “new and more flexible authorities in budget, finance, acquisition and personnel.” It looks toward “innovation, agility and adaptability” as signposts for the future and asserts that “headquarters organizations … need to support similar attributes.” Space still exists between the lip and this newly shaped cup, but the business of uniting the two is underway.

There may not be many yet, but some officers, such as Col. H.R. McMaster, commanding the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, are demonstrating their understanding of how to defeat an insurgency. His knowledge of the Iraqis his command protected, successful efforts at seeking their cooperation, and planning in identifying and capturing insurgents were detailed in a Washington Post feature article in February that ended with several expressions of the local mayor’s pained displeasure that McMaster’s tour as commanding officer was about to end.

Experience gained in combat, lessons about counter-insurgency warfare recorded in thoughtful accounts of the Vietnam War such as Francis “Bing” West’s “The Village,” and Internet sites dedicated to disseminating useful lessons from the front for platoon leaders and company commanders are also part of what appears to be a dawning recognition of the importance of irregular warfare and of some long-known but little-practiced ideas about how to succeed at it.

Historians have many years to argue about when and to what extent the vision of the 1947 legislation, as well as subsequent legislative measures, shaped the U.S. military. But it is hard to doubt that the future requires a different vision, one that begins with comprehending an enemy that has materialized from the dark ages reaching for weapons of the apocalypse. The path to victory will be less bloody and quicker if our armed forces are able to look at the future, switch gears, adapt, forge new ideas and make them work. This has always been the real center of gravity of the U.S. military. It is also the key to emerging from an era of strategic change stronger and better suited to defend the nation.

SETH CROPSEY served as an officer in the Naval Reserve from 1984 to 2004. He was deputy undersecretary of the Navy and principal assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.