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SecNav Spencer Seeks Goldwater-Nichols Changes After Deadly Collisions

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


Navy photo

The damaged destroyer USS Fitzgerald pulls into Yokosuka, Japan after colliding with a commercial ship. Seven sailors died.

PENTAGON: Navy Secretary Richard Spencer wants to change the law that’s governed the armed forces since 1986, the Goldwater-Nichols Act, to restore more autonomy to the services.

Only by letting the Navy say “no” to joint combatant commanders’ insatiable demands for deployments can the fleet get adequate training, ship maintenance, and crew rest, argues the Strategic Readiness Review — just released today — which Spencer commissioned after at-sea accidents killed 17 sailors and crippled two ships this summer. Only by exempting officers from mandatory joint assignments can they free up adequate time to master core competencies such as basic seamanship — sadly lacking in the recent collisions — and high-intensity warfighting — long neglected given the focus on Afghanistan and Iraq.

(The full report contains many other recommendations, all of which we’ve excerpted in the summary below).

SSR Recommendations by BreakingDefense on Scribd

“Can we amend Goldwater Nichols?” Spencer asked. “Can we amend DOPMA?” That’s the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980, another fundamental law that the Strategic Review recommends amending. “In many cases corrective actions have the best intent in the world,” he said, “but many of the corrective actions never have a sunset provision.”

By subordinating the fractious services to the joint staff in the Pentagon and the joint combatant commanders around the world, Spencer acknowledged, Goldwater-Nichols did a great service in its time. But times have changed and the law must change with it, he said, echoing other advocates of reform from Sen. John McCain to Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. The interservice coordination which the law sought to nurture has flourished and taken deep root over 30 years, he said, and now it’s time to give the services back some breathing room.

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. photo

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer discusses his Strategic Readiness Review with reporters.

“Goldwater Nichols really did spur us into jointness, which we had to do. I think jointness is now in our DNA,” Spencer said. “We’re there, we’re living it.”

So, 30 years on, do the armed services still need to send so many of their up-and-coming officers to tours on joint staffs in order to be eligible for promotion? Or could many, even most officers be exempted from joint requirement so they can focus on their own service’s skillset?

“Do we need to have all the cross billets? Do we need to have everybody on the same path of jointness going forward?” Spencer asked. “Since jointness is now in our DNA, can we reassess what career paths have to look like with Goldwater-Nichols and DOPMA?”

Navy photo

The USS McCain heads for Shanghai after a collision that killed 10 sailors.

Changing how the military grooms its future leaders would take years for its full consequences to be felt. The other big change Spencer wants, by contrast, would have immediate impact on operations around the world: “One of the things we want to see on the administrative side is more direct control by the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations” over naval forces, he said.

Today the COCOMs request forces, and the services provide them. A joint process called the Global Force Management Plan (GFMP, pronounced “giff map”) balances supply and demand, in theory. In practice, as the fleet has shrunk since 1986 while the demand for deployments stayed constant, the Navy has felt compelled to cut short training, maintenance, and crew rest in order to keep enough ships at sea. The corner-cutting was at its worst in the Japan-based 7th Fleet, home of both the destroyers that suffered deaths this summer, but the problem is Navy-wide.

What was once unacceptable has gradually become routine, Spencer said, calling it “the normalization of deviation… putting the frog in the pot and turning the water up slowly.” A can-do culture — what the review, in fact, calls a “must-do” mentality — masked the risks the Navy was running to meet the mission until 17 sailors died.

“We’d turn around and say, yup, we can do this, (but) very few people understood the havoc it was wreaking in the organization behind us, because we weren’t signaling that to the White House and the Hill,” Spencer said. When the joint world asks for too much, the Navy needs to start, if not saying “no” outright, then at least laying out the negative side effects.

Navy photo

A rare three-carrier exercise in the Pacific. Near to far: USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), and USS Nimitz (CVN-68)

The most serious side effect is one that could kill many more sailors than 17: eroding readiness for major war. Since the Soviet navy went away in 1991, the US Navy has focused on supporting operations ashore — firing cruise missiles at terrorists and rogue states, sending carrier-based aircraft to support soldiers and Marines — and on providing “presence” around the world — training with partner nations, showing the flag in disputed waters. Training and equipment for high-intensity, large-scale operations has suffered. When three carriers exercised together in the Pacific last month, for example, it was the first time such a large force had trained as a unit in years. With the rise of Russia and China, the strategic review says, readiness for major naval battles against a powerful fleet must now take priority.

So, I asked Sec. Spencer, does that mean warfighting is now taking priority over presence? “You’re reading it right,” he said. “If in fact we’re steaming by somewhere to do the training, that’s presence. If we’re steaming by somewhere to do the training and make sure the pointy end of the spear is shiny, that’s presence and readiness for war.”

SINGAPORE (April 18, 3013) Sailors attached to Forward Liason Element, USS Freedom (LCS 1), observe Freedom as it arrives in Singapore during an eight-month deployment to Southeast Asia. Fast, agile, and mission focused, LCS platforms are designed to employ modular mission packages that can be configured for three separate purposes: surface warfare, mine countermeasures, or anti-submarine warfare. Freedom will remain homeported in San Diego throughout this deployment to Southeast Asia. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Jay C. Pugh/Released)

The Littoral Combat Ship FREEDOM pulls into Singapore, an increasingly important partner in the Pacific.

Not every naval assets needs to be a top-tier warfighting asset, Spencer caveated: It doesn’t make economic sense to send an F-35 stealth fighter to bomb a pickup truck full of terrorists, for example. The Navy needs a “high-low” mix of ships, aircraft, and so on, he said, but even the “low” must be capable of more than mere presence, he said: “The same ‘low’ must be able to surge in its area of expertise, so it’s not just painted to float around in the bay.” (He didn’t mention the controversial Littoral Combat Ship, but there’s a big debate over whether LCS is such a capable low-end vessel or a mere presence patroller).

Spencer is far from the first important policymaker to recommend revisiting Goldwater-Nichols. It was the Navy, with a long tradition of institutional independence, that fought hardest against the original law in 1986. It was Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain — a Navy veteran who’s the son and grandson of admirals — who put Goldwater-Nichols reform on the agenda in 2015.

Congress undid part of the act’s centralization of the Defense Department and restored major acquisition authorities to the service chiefs later in 2015. Obama’s last defense secretary, Ash Carter, picked up the idea in 2016. And since becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford has proposed creating a joint staff section for global or “transregional” threats, cutting across the regional combatant commands.

But what Spencer and his Strategic Readiness Review are suggesting would go much further. It might be the biggest battle over jointness and the services since 1986.

What do you think?