Former Pentagon Leaders Debate Defense Reform at CSIS

March 15, 2016 7:45 AM
DoD Photo
DoD Photo

Just how the most comprehensive reform law covering the federal government’s largest department needs to be overhauled should start with eliminating the unintended duplication that the Goldwater-Nichols Act created 30 years ago. But where other changes should be made is subject to sharp debate on Capitol Hill, inside the Pentagon and at think-tanks all over Washington.

Former Navy Secretary Sean O’Keefe zeroed in on offices in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the uniformed and civilian sides of the services and the combatant commanders “dedicated to process” as examples of some who need to go. As such, he cited the Quadrennial Defense Review offices in each of the services as “being in business to preserve itself.”

The idea is to re-establish agility in acquisition and management, he said, while getting rid of “a coalition of the willing among the services” necessary now to reach a decision.

O’Keefe, a panel member of retired senior military officers and former top Pentagon civilians discussing what should be done to improve Goldwater-Nichols, was speaking Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think-tank.
Both the Senate and House armed services committees have been holding hearings since the fall on defense reform that have continued into the new year. Central points in those hearings have been the need to cut the bureaucratic layers created by the law’s requirement for jointness and that requirement’s effect on the officer promotion system, as well as the role of the chairman going forward.
O’Keefe said there was already “dynamic tension” inherent in having the chairman be the principal military adviser to the president and the Secretary of Defense without “suborning the chairman to a chain of command structure.”

“No” was Adm. William Fallon’s short answer to the question of having the chairman in the chain of command. He said in his experience as head of Central and Pacific commands he found “chairmen have not been shy about going up [to the president and secretary with their advice] and down [to the combatant commanders.” He added, “It’s tough enough to implement these plans” on how to meet a contingency without placing another person in the chain of command.

“Current law has it about right” when it comes to the role of the chairman, said Michael Donley, former secretary of the Air Force.
But Gen. Norton Schwartz, former Air Force chief of staff, said bringing the chairman into the operational chain of command “would reinforce the stature” of the position. He said it was inconceivable that private business would have a “COO [chief operating officer] without executive authority.”

While the chairman is the “first among equals,” said Rudy de Leon, former secretary of defense, the service chiefs feel “they are on the resourcing side” without much say in planning. “We now have new chiefs” who “have exceptional credentials” as warfighters.
Increasing the service chiefs’ voice in operations and acquisition would be a good step forward, Jamie Gorelick, former Pentagon general counsel, added. That would allow combatant commanders to concentrate more on warfighting.

Goldwater-Nichols was “very much written in the Cold War” to meet the demands of the mid-1980s, de Leon said. “Things were clearly broken” then, Gorelick added.

The law has its strong points that need to be retained. O’Keefe said it did “clarify with absolute certainty what the chain of command is. There is no ambiguity on this point.” Another benefit is how “operational intelligence needs to be employed.”

John Hamre, president of the center and panel moderator, summed up the situation with a joke: “Washington really is a town with 14 goalies and no puck.”

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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