Experts Urge Caution in Goldwater-Nichols Reform

July 8, 2016 10:29 AM
U.S. Capitol on July 31, 2015, NASA Photo
U.S. Capitol on July 31, 2015, NASA Photo

As the two Armed Services Committee iron out the differences in their versions of the defense bill, three expert witnesses warned the House panel to “please be careful” when it comes to overhauling the Goldwater- Nichols Act while the nation is engaged in two wars and about to change administrations.

At a hearing Thursday of the House panel, John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense and now chief executive officer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said 30 years ago when the law was passed, “We had failure in the field,” but now “we have policy failure.”

“Measure twice, cut once” was the advice of retired U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham — former commander of Africa Command and now president of the Association of the United States Army — added when deciding what needed to be changed.

“You want absolute accountability for why things are done,” Hamre said in answer to a question about the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and civilian control of the military. The chairman’s role and the tenure of the chairman and vice chairman were subjects of several hearings of both committees since the fall of 2015. Accountability “rests with the president. You don’t want to bring a complicating factor,” such as making the chairman part of the chain of command.

He wanted the chairman to remain a “superior counselor to the president” on military affairs and not an advocate.

Dov Zakheim, former Pentagon comptroller and now a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses, said, “A four-year term [for the chairman] is very important.” The chairman is now appointed for a two-year term, but can be reappointed. With a four-year term, “you’re going to speak your mind to the president” when giving military advice.

The other two witnesses supported that view, as well as having a four-year term for the vice chairman. Zakheim said that the provision that the vice chairman could not be promoted to be chairman in the Senate bill should be struck otherwise the person serving in that position is a lame duck from the day he or she is confirmed.

In addition, Hamre said, “I would be very loath to give the joint staff more political power” in having it in the chain of command.

Ham added that in re-considering the chairman’s role Congress should also look at the collective strength of the individual service chiefs. “There are different perspectives” among them that could be of help in advising the president.

Cutting the size of the National Security Council appealed to Hamre and Zakheim, in particular. Zakheim said, “When you think you’re operational, you really make a mess.”

Ham said that in a previous position on the Joint Staff he saw the council working under “a tyranny of consensus” with “endless reviews below the principals,” secretaries of defense, state, etc., rather than integrating security matters.

Part of the growth of the NSC can be attributed to an over-reliance on the Defense Department to respond to a host of challenges and crises facing the government as a whole. Hamre said it has capabilities other agencies don’t have and the capability to call up additional manpower from its reserve force to address the matter.

But “DoD is not the answer to everything,” Zakheim said. The reality is that many agencies need to be involved. “This is something the NSC should be doing.” He called it “job Number 1.” Its staff hould concentrate on that and not be calling commanders in the field with directions on how to carry out a mission or by saying “the president wants” or the “White House wants” when making those calls.

Zakheim added that the NSC was very effective under Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski with 40 and 44 staff members respectively. There are now more than 450 staff members. The House bill would make the National Security adviser’s position one needed Senate confirmation if staff exceeded 100.

“Oversight rests with Congress,” Hamre, a former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer, said, and that means if the position is subject to confirmation the adviser could be called to testify.

Zakheim said there is a need for an articulated strategic policy. “What are the ends” the nation is seeking. He and Hamre said there was little value in the current Quadrennial Defense Review in developing that strategy. Ham said the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance work, not made public,was useful for the department in looking ahead to what was needed then. “Maybe we ought to do it more frequently.”

Zakheim said that re-looking African Command and Central Command, as well as Northern and Southern commands, would be appropriate as a way of cutting staff positions and reducing the number of four-star positions in the Pentagon. Ham said that he wished as AFRICOM chief he had taken steps to reduce staff and budget and more often looked for opportunities where common capabilities could be shared with another regional commander.

Hamre said regional commands remain important. “It’s a big advantage to have the four-star officer forward” to build up relations with allies and partners.

The bill that goes to the president likely will create Cyber as a unified command, rather than have it remain under Strategic Command. That would create a new four-star command.

The witnesses supported splitting the current position of the under secretary of defense for acquisition, logistics and technology into two positions. The new under secretary position would become the third highest Pentagon post and would concentrate on innovation and technological development. “We won the Cold War because we had superior technology,” Hamre said. As the position now exists, “they are a compliance organization.”

Zakheim cited the records of Harold Brown and William Perry who served in a position similar to what is being proposed as being the kind of person who could be attracted to the job. Both were scientists who later became secretaries of Defense. Zakheim, who was comptroller during the early George W. Bush administration, said the Pentagon’s rapid acquisition system was created to get around the cumbersome processes in the department in bringing needed new technologies to the fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Maybe we should go back to that original model,” Zakheim said.

At an appearance earlier in the day, Rep. Mac Thornberry, (R-Texas), and chairman, said, “I think we will be able to get there” in splitting the two positions and speeding up innovation. He began his remarks by saying the Pentagon was operating under “a sclerotic system that cannot keep pace” with changing threats and needed continued reform.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that if the provision splitting the position remained in the bill sent to the president he would likely recommend a veto.

“Focus on big issues,” Hamre said as advice to the congressional oversight committees rather than put new requirements for reports from the department or services on smaller items.

Zakheim added, “We’re not fighting the same kind of enemy [now than] when Goldwater-Nichols was passed. ” He and Hamre reminded the committee Goldwater-Nichols was passed over the Pentagon’s objections. The Defense Department needs to be agile and adaptive. “There’s no other way to describe it,” Zakheim said.

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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