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‘First, Do No Harm:’ SASC Begins Goldwater-Nichols Review

Posted by Colin Clark on


Senate side of the capitol

WASHINGTON: If there’s one congressional topic that makes the senior leaders of the US military really nervous, it’s when lawmakers start talking about reapportioning power and authorities among those same top leaders.

Both Armed Services committee chairmen, Sen. John McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry, have voiced concerns about how well the last major reforms, known as Goldwater-Nichols, are performing. Passed in 1986, Goldwater-Nichols created the current structure of the Joint Chiefs, the four services, the Office of Secretary of Defense as well as how the acquisition and personnel systems work. (Breaking D readers will remember that we spotted McCain’s intent back in March).

Tomorrow, McCain’s Senate Armed Services Committee launches a “comprehensive review of the United States’ defense organization to identify challenges and potential reforms to the Department of Defense and the armed forces.”

Given all that, the SASC is proceeding with great care. Here’s how it describes its intent in the hearing memo, which we obtained:

“The Committee’s intent is for this review to serve as a genuine bipartisan process of inquiry rather than a set of solutions in search of problems. DOD can improve the way it functions, but enhancing its performance will require addressing root causes through smart reforms, where necessary, rather than simply treating symptoms. Above all, we will seek to do no harm.”

Here are the broad topics the committee plans to pursue during this series: “Providing for a More Efficient Defense Management; Strengthening the All-Volunteer Joint Force; Enhancing Innovation and Accountability in Defense Acquisition; Supporting the Warfighter of Today and Tomorrow; Improving the Development of Policy, Strategy, and Plans; and Increasing the Effectiveness of Military Operations.”

But the more revealing information comes from the questions outlined in the hearing memo. Most impressively, the SASC plans to probe and question the most basic issues of authority and command in the Pentagon.

“Do we have the right balance of roles and missions between the services, the combatant commands, and the Joint Staff? If not, how should these roles and missions be changed?”

“To the extent that a major purpose of Goldwater-Nichols was to strengthen the Joint Staff and the operational commanders at the expense of the services, has that process gone too far or not far enough? Are the military service chiefs too weak or too strong? Are they appropriately responsive to current operational requirements?”

“Does the CJCS [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] have sufficient statutory authority to make tough decisions that disadvantage one or more services at the expense of others? Should the CJCS be put back into the chain of command, such that service chiefs and/or COCOMs would report to the CJCS, who would report to the SecDef, rather than reporting directly to SecDef?”

“The authorities and responsibilities of the CJCS and the Joint Staff are the product of compromises that were required to pass Goldwater-Nichols. The authors of that legislation believed the CJCS and the Joint Staff needed to have more directive authority over the services than the law ultimately provided. Is that right or wrong?”

“Is the Joint Staff too weak or too strong? Or both—too weak when it comes to performing the functions it should perform, and too strong when it comes to performing the functions that it should not perform?”

“Does the current structure produce the best military advice for the President?”

Since the choice and testimony of witnesses is crucial to the Kabuki of Hill hearings, t’s most interesting that Jim Locher, described by the committee as “a primary author of Goldwater-Nichols,” is expected to say that the US military “has not adapted its organizational approaches to keep up with the world it faces.”

Locher, who now works with the Joint Special Operations University, will tell the SASC that “decision-making must be faster, more collaborative, and more decentralized. The Pentagon’s inadequate capacity represents a major deficiency.”

Ultimately, Locher will tell the SASC that, even though the US military performs better than most of the rest of the government, that still isn’t enough, especially in the face of enormous changes in threats, economics and other globals strategy drivers.

“More appropriate would be to determine whether the department is capable of fulfilling its responsibilities effectively and efficiently. The last fifteen years offer considerable evidence that it is not,” he should tell them. That would seem to make it pretty clear, that, while the committee plans to “do no harm,” it does plan to make fundamental changes to how the Pentagon works.

The other witnesses who will testify are the fabulous John Hamre, Democratic Obi Wan for defense types and head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Jim Thomas, from the respected Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. I’d expect both of them to offer measured critiques of Goldwater-Nichols.

If you’re out of date on your reading about Goldwater-Nichols, click here for a useful reading list compiled by the Army War College.

What do you think?