Panel Suggests Goldwater-Nichols Revisions to Senate

November 10, 2015 12:53 PM
U.S. Capitol on July 31, 2015, NASA Photo
U.S. Capitol on July 31, 2015, NASA Photo

Rethinking the role of the regional combatant commands, cutting the Pentagon’s support structure and putting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff back in the operational chain of command structure were ideas offered to the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday as it revisited the almost 30-year-old Goldwater-Nichols Act.

John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a longtime Pentagon official, said, “We now fight through joint task forces.” The regional combatant commanders are “not really doing operational warfighting.”

Those commanders “are de facto regional ambassadors,” added Jim Thomas, vice president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

He called for consolidation of some of the regional commands and the removal of service component commands that support them.

Because “this is an age of specialization,” said James Locher III of the Joint Special Operations University, “I would not consolidate them.”

Hamre said, “We need to take on the back office” support structure. At the time Goldwater-Nichols was being worked on Capitol Hill, the issue was not addressed. The Defense Department had established a separate commission to look at its structure and organization. The result was “we’ve got too much of a top-heavy focus.”

“There are more people in the Army with their finger on a keyboard rather than a trigger,” Hamre added.

“The Pentagon is not going to reform itself,” Locher said. But “in truth, meaningful reform will be difficult . . . but possible.” Like the private sector, the department should look at cross-functional teams to solve problems. Decisions now are dominated by functional structures.

Hamre, who served as the Pentagon’s comptroller, said the “the buckets” of money for science and technology, research and development, and lastly acquisition is the structure “that holds us back” from improving efficiencies and operations.

Because the Joint Chiefs chairman under the act was designated the principal military adviser to the president and secretary of Defense, “the service chiefs and combatant commanders do not report” to him. Over time, that also has led to the elevation of the joint staff, Thomas added, “driving the need for excessive coordination” and creating bureaucratic inertia.

One of the unintended consequences of the requirement for joint assignments for promotion to flag rank, Hamre said, was putting that on top of the officer personnel management law. “Now we’ve got too many headquarters,” so officers can remain eligible for promotion. He suggested creation of a personnel management commission to address the issue.

Hamre also thanked the committee for fixing another unintended consequence of Goldwater-Nichols in the current defense authorization bill: putting the service chiefs back into the chain of command.

Thomas recommended the creation of a true general staff with its own promotion tracks but not through the services.

“The hottest debate we had 30 years ago was over creating a general staff,” Hamre said. “Part of it was parochial”—Navy and the Marine Corps concerns of Army domination of that staff.

Locher pointed out that the act did not take on the tough issues of the mission orientation of the department nor did it eliminate the service secretaries.

“This is going to take a while,” Hamre said. He asked the committee “to make the secretary of Defense a partner” in this review and “please be careful” because bureaucracies are adaptive.”


John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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