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Experts Urge Caution in Goldwater-Nichols Reform

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.

  • James Bowen

    Why shouldn’t the Chairman be in the Chain of Command? The chains of command for the services have gotten way too complicated under Goldwater-Nichols. They need to be streamlined so that the Chairman exercises overall command of the armed forces subordinate to the Secretary of Defense and the President. The specific service secretaries should be all combined into the role of Secretary of Defense as well.

  • John B. Morgen

    The civilian side needs to be streamline, if not change. Do we really need the Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force when we do have the Secretary of Defense?

    • Donald Carey

      We need to have someone from each of the branches of the military. A single secretary could have an unreasonable bias towards/against a particular branch of the service. That could be bad for the country.
      p.s. I think the Air Force should be given back to the Army – think of all the brass we could eliminate!

      • John B. Morgen

        It doesn’t make any difference if the Secretary of Defense is bias or not, the President still has the last word. This is what I would do if I was given the hundred percent authority to make changes. For example, let’s take the United States Navy, I would bring back five star Fleet Admiral rank, and there would be two Fleet Admirals; one for the Pacific Fleet, and one for the Atlantic Fleet. Next, I would form a new rank which would be above the Fleet Admiral, and that is the Grand Admiral. The Grand Admiral will be the Commander in Chief of the Navy; plus, the responsibilities that were borne by the Secretary of Navy. I would make the Marine Corps Commandant into a Field Marshal. Next, I would bring and reassign the Coast Guard be under Navy control, but it would continue to operate and carryout its peace time duties; plus, the service will have a Fleet Admiral as its Commander in Chief. Congress will continue to fund the DOD, but some action issues would be taken away from Congress; for example, the Grand Admiral would have authority to increase the size of the Marine Corps. The Joint Chiefs of Staff would be rename as the General Staff. Of course, the other services would receive their five star Generals; plus, Marshal of the Army, and Air Marshal of the Air Force.
        In sum, the President is still on top, next the Secretary of Defense, then the General Staff. Oh one more thing, I would do away is the National Security Adviser position because I considered it being redundant..

        • Donald Carey

          You obviously did not get my last sentence – I want to reduce the brass, not add to it! Your plan adds more brass than an old-time Western saloon.

          • John B. Morgen

            I reduced the civilian redundancy; although I did increased the [brass] as you called it. However, I think of adding more brass is like an old-time RMS Queen Mary’s engine room. And I wouldn’t return the Air Force to the Army because both services have different concepts about fighting wars.

          • Donald Carey

            I say remove both! As for the Air Force’s concept of fighting wars, it is the same as the old Army Air Force’s (which never lived up to expectations in WW-II, Korea, Vietnam or anywhere else).

          • John B. Morgen

            The Air Force would likely cite the same reasons why the RAF’s exists. What expectations are you referring to? The Air Force did an outstanding job during the conflicts that you have mentioned.

          • Donald Carey

            They flew a lot of sortes and dropped a lot of bombs but could not replace boots on the ground.

          • John B. Morgen

            Who’s replacement boots? The USAAF displaced the Germany Army (Heer) in France quite; and bombings in Hanoi, Korea and Iraq were all quite successful. Again, who’s replacement boots are you referring to?

          • Donald Carey

            Get real – you know exactly what I mean – American soldiers and marines had to go in to finish the job.

          • John B. Morgen

            Your statement didn’t made any sense, yet your last statement that I’m responding to, without the bloody sarcasm, made sense. I do not normally say this to anyone, but your statement [“(T)hey flew a lot of sortes and dropped a lot of bombs but could not replace boots on the ground.”0] Left anyone hanging, it’s incomplete for lacking of information.

  • airider

    Both HASC and SASC are recommending pushing the authority and accountability further down the CoC, vice pulling it up. CJCS is Admin chain and will likely stay there. Why?, because Combatant Commanders don’t need another committee directing their operations from D.C.

    Let’s not follow the failed Soviet model please.

  • VADM Ret. Peter M. Hekman, USN

    As a Systems Commander when Goldwater/Nichols was forced upon us, all I can say is all the bad stuff we in Navy leadership positions said would occur by the imposed fracturing of the lines of accountability and the taking away of decision authority from the uniform side have now become institutionalized and the fear in going back now is real in that few remember how it was – and it was not broken. This was a takeover designed to facilitate government/industry cronyism. As a high ranking designer of GN implementation in the Office of SECDEF told me at the time, “Admiral, you wear a uniform and carry a gun and fight other people in uniform carrying guns. We civilians will take care of all the rest.”