A Better Way to Run a War

Oct. 1, 2006

When US military forces attacked the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004, the action featured some of the heaviest urban fighting Americans had seen since Vietnam. The operation was led by Marine Corps light infantry, backed up by Army armored brigades and Iraqi infantry. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps warplanes mounted devastating air attacks. After a fierce battle, the insurgents and affiliated terrorists were routed, and the city was retaken.

Such joint operations have become standard these days. Yet there was a time when truly cooperative ventures seemed beyond the capacity of US armed forces.

In April 1980, US commanders brought together in a patch of Iranian desert the ill-fated Desert One task force, troops that had never trained together. Marine Corps helicopter pilots, Air Force C-130 crews, and Army Special Forces were cobbled together for a mission to rescue 52 US hostages held in Tehran.

The result was a historic debacle that ended with eight dead American servicemen and fiery wreckage in the desert.

Three years later came Operation Urgent Fury, a mission to rescue US students on the island of Grenada. The operation, though successful, was characterized by a muddled chain of command and squabbling among the branches. The dark humor among the participants was that the island simply wasn’t big enough for all the US services.

The pivot for the Defense Department’s transformation from service competition in the field to relatively well-synchronized operations was the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, considered by some to be the most successful military reform measure of the past half-century.

Two Decades On

With the Goldwater-Nichols Act turning 20 this year, and with US joint task forces engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other hot spots, it is worth recalling how a Congressionally imposed reform that the Pentagon vigorously resisted fundamentally reshaped the US military into the force it is today.

“The two most transformational events of my career were the advent of the all-volunteer military [in 1973] and the Goldwater-Nichols reforms,” Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview.

What is interesting about both of those fundamental changes “is that neither had anything to do with weapons or technology, and neither was supported by most senior military leaders at the time,” Giambastiani said. The Pentagon leadership “had to be brought along kicking and screaming. Yet virtually no one in the uniformed leadership today would like to go back” to the draft era or the days before Goldwater-Nichols.

That is certainly true of the draft, but less so of the jointness changes. Although the Goldwater-Nichols legislation has become somewhat of an untouchable sacred cow in Washington, it still is possible to find thoughtful officers who are critical. They do not necessarily pine for the old days, but they worry that the urge to be joint has unnecessarily weakened the armed services, which, after all, are the chief creators of military power and the keepers of much of the operational art.

Some also worry that the legislation has aggrandized the Secretary of Defense and a small group of civilians, while more or less shunting aside the advice of the armed services.

For all that, one hears mostly positive assessments, such as this one from one of that era’s key players—John J. Hamre.

“I think Goldwater-Nichols has been far more successful than any of us anticipated, because we didn’t really appreciate just how revolutionary the changes were going to be,” said Hamre, a staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the 1980s and deputy Secretary of Defense in the 1990s.

As the Pentagon’s No. 2 official, Hamre (now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies) saw firsthand how the legislation fundamentally rewired the Pentagon, shifted the balance of power within the defense establishment, and reoriented service cultures.

Three seemingly small, relatively simple changes, he said, turned out to be extraordinarily powerful change agents for the US armed services and Department of Defense.

“The centerpiece was elevating the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs by making him alone the principal military advisor to the Secretary of Defense and the President and also giving him a vice chairman and sole control of the Joint Staff,” said Hamre.

The second change was making joint-duty assignments mandatory for promotion to general officer rank.

The third major factor was elevating the joint theater commanders to positions of authority over the service component commanders for operations.

“Those three changes were the meat and potatoes of Goldwater-Nichols, and most everything else was parsley on the plate,” Hamre said.

Botched Operations

Asked what inspired a Republican-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee to take on Ronald Reagan’s Administration, the service Chiefs, and a powerful Pentagon bureaucracy, Hamre had a ready answer—the two botched rescue operations.

“What infused the debate and instigated the reforms were Desert One in Iran and the Grenada invasion,” he said. “There was a growing perception among military reformers and Congress that the armed services couldn’t work together in the field. A number of the most defense-oriented members of Congress kept standing up and pointing out these military failures.”

Tension between services goes back at least to the Spanish-American War, when the Army and Navy had to deploy and fight as a team in an expeditionary force. The internecine fighting that ensued was so contentious that the Army commander refused to even allow the Navy to be represented at Spain’s formal surrender.

The World War II Joint Chiefs of Staff began meeting regularly in 1942, but, even then, the military effort was split into separate theaters that were fought largely along service lines.

After the war, service desires impeded attempts to unify air, sea, and land forces under a centralized national military establishment. The Navy, historically independent and autonomous around the world, steadfastly resisted any attempt to allow others command of its fleets. The Marine Corps fought unification with equal vigor. The Army Air Forces, though not opposed to unification, pressed to become an independent service. Only the land Army gave its unreserved support.

The National Security Act of 1947 was a compromise. It created a separate Air Force, formalized the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and provided a civilian Secretary to exercise overall supervision of the armed forces.

Rather than producing a truly unified military establishment, however, the 1947 act essentially created a loose confederation with a weak Secretary at the top. Predictably, the massive service bureaucracies came to dominate everything of import: the JCS system, the unified commands, and (with frequent support from Congress), the civilian Pentagon leader.

The way the American military organized itself for war evolved slowly after 1947. The biggest and most important change came about in 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the revered Allied leader of World War II, pushed bold legislation that removed the military departments from the operational chain of command. Thereafter, the services would be limited to so-called “organize, train, and equip” functions. (See “American Chieftains,” September 2002, p. 102.)

This step was a pivotal moment. After the Eisenhower reforms, operational military direction would bypass the service leaders and run from the President through the Secretary of Defense and the corporate Joint Chiefs of Staff and down to the unified commands themselves. The role of the service Chiefs became that of advisors, as a body, to the President.

Lighting the Fuse

The organization structure saw little change for two decades. Then came the failed Iranian mission. Desert One became the watershed event. An extremely high risk operation that might have failed even under the best conditions, the mission collapsed after a series of mishaps and equipment failures, capped off with a deadly accident during a refueling stop. An RH-53D helicopter, maneuvering in blacked-out, dust-storm conditions, crashed into an Air Force C-130. (See “Desert One,” January 1999, p. 60.)

Many observers saw written in the blackened sands of the desert a microcosm of what ailed the US military. Problems included an inability for the services to operate in harmony as a team, interservice communications snafus, nonexistent joint training, and a lack of clear command authority.

Air Force Gen. David C. Jones, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had overseen the mission and then watched it collapse from his vantage point in the “tank” at the Pentagon. Jones was roundly criticized for presiding over a fiasco, and he soon set out on a mission to change US military organization.

As Jones perceived things, virtually any reform that threatened the prerogatives of the individual services would get watered down for the sake of unanimity. It was, he opined, next to impossible to make progress toward a more “joint” structure. Jones had argued to no avail, for instance, for establishment of a joint-service transportation command to coordinate mobilization and deployment of forces, especially in times of crisis.

Reform was favored by one other Chief, Gen. Edward C. Meyer of the Army. The Desert One debacle convinced Meyer that the Pentagon needed a multiservice command for the nation’s special operations forces and systems. He thought they should train and operate together and report directly to the JCS. Such a unified special operations command threatened to shift power away from the services, which opposed the idea.

After Desert One, Jones and Meyer began speaking out for reform. By publicly criticizing in the strongest terms the very organization and system they headed, Jones and Meyer became the pebbles that started the avalanche that resulted in Goldwater-Nichols.

Shortly after Desert One, Jones commissioned a special study group to look into the issue of joint reform. It found that joint culture was anathema to the services. Less than two percent of the officers who served on the Joint Staff, for instance, had any “joint” experience at all. At the time, the Joint Staff’s J-3—the principal joint operations officer—was a three-star general who had spent most of his career in the Army’s air defense branch and thus knew little about even the other Army branches, let alone the other services.

Joint Staff duty was regarded as a career killer, so the average tenure on the staff for flag officers was only about one year. That, Jones told lawmakers, was analogous to having a Congress made up entirely of freshmen legislators.

Heavy Hitters

Despite a series of supportive Congressional hearings and think-tank studies, Jones’ proposed reforms were easily diverted by opponents in the Pentagon and the armed services as well as their allies on Capitol Hill.

And the opposition was formidable indeed. Most prominent were Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman Jr. They were joined by all five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including the highly respected Army Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., who replaced Jones as the JCS Chairman. Their backers included some of the most senior defense legislators in Congress.

In October 1983, however, reformers were handed another cudgel with which to attack the traditionalists.

On Oct. 23, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, carried out a devastating terrorist bombing of a Beirut barracks used by US and French military peacekeepers, an act resulting in deaths of 241 US servicemen, mostly marines.

Investigations revealed a familiar litany of military shortcomings. And once again, the most glaring deficiencies were a muddled chain of command and the continued inability of the services to work together as a coherent team.

Institutionalizing the Effects of Goldwater-Nichols

As the commander of US Joint Forces Command (which was US Atlantic Command during the Cold War), Air Force Gen. Lance L. Smith is the military’s top proponent for advancing the cause of “jointness.” JFCOM is pushing service integration begun by the Goldwater-Nichols Act ever further, as a key pillar of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld’s transformation initiatives.

Whereas in the past commanders talked about “joint interoperability” between the services, the new paradigm is joint interdependence. Similarly, deconfliction is no longer good enough; the goal is for integrated operations to be planned jointly from the outset.

“I look back at Vietnam when the US military did almost everything as separate services, and I see today how we are so comfortable working through joint task forces for missions that go from humanitarian relief all the way to major combat operations,” Smith told Air Force Magazine. It is “almost hard to believe how far we’ve come.” Goldwater-Nichols was “extraordinarily important in that evolution,” he said.

With US forces engaged in joint task forces and ongoing joint operations all over the globe, a major emphasis at Joint Forces Command has been to capture those experiences, learn from them through additional experimentation and exercises, and then feed those concepts and doctrines rapidly back into the operational force.

“At our Joint Warfighting Center we do mission rehearsal exercises for staffs and commanders who are preparing to deploy and fight, for instance, and those exercises are driven by the lessons learned from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, East Timor, and other operations,” said Smith.

Joint Forces Command also conducts exercises twice each year with each combatant commander. In those exercises, JFCOM encourages experimentation with doctrine and concepts to take better advantage of the joint force.

The Defense Department has “set up these really joint organizations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where our captains and sergeants have witnessed firsthand the benefits of jointness,” Smith said, “and when those wars are over I don’t want to have them go back to an Air Force or Army or Navy base [with] a service-centric environment. We have to find ways to capture how we fight in our everyday training and operations.”

Those same shortcomings cropped up again two days later in Operation Urgent Fury, the Grenada invasion that began on Oct. 25. Army officers aboard the US Navy flagship Guam nearly came to blows over the initial refusal of Marine Corps pilots to fly them ashore at a critical point in the operation. Meanwhile, Army Rangers on the island were pinned down under enemy fire because they were unable to call in naval fire support.

As it turned out, no Army representatives had attended naval planning sessions prior to the operation—the Army Rangers did not know the procedures or communications channels needed to call in naval fire support. Even if they did, their radios couldn’t talk to the Navy’s radios, anyway.

Urgent Fury gave new impetus to calls for fundamental defense reform and helped win over some key figures on Capitol Hill. At the top of the list were Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and Rep. William F. Nichols (D-Ala.). Eventually, they and their allies in Congress were able to wear down the resistance mounted by the Chiefs, Weinberger, Lehman, and others.

The movement for change expanded throughout 1984 and 1985. As the legislative battering ram gained momentum, officials at the Pentagon crafted a series of amendments that were designed to neuter the reforms. These amendments, crafted in a special “war room” in the Pentagon, were offered in Congress by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a former Secretary of the Navy whose state was home to a massive US Navy presence.

A Close-Run Thing

The amendments came near to passing but were in the end defeated in a series of extremely close votes.

The anti-reform effort was dead. Soon after the defeat of the Warner amendments, the Senate, in an effort to convey harmony and consensus on such a critical matter, finally voted 95 to zero on May 7, 1986 to pass the Goldwater-Nichols Act.

“It was the best goddamned thing I did in 35 years in the Senate,” the crusty Goldwater later declared privately.

The unmistakable thrust of the Goldwater-Nichols Act was to improve interservice coordination and foster a more joint culture. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the only member of the JCS without command of a military service, became the principal uniformed advisor to the President.

A Joint Staff of well over 1,000 officers was placed under the exclusive direction of the Chairman, ending the reign of the “iron majors” who defended service interests. This represented a fundamental shift in power within the Pentagon from the service staffs to the Joint Staff.

A four-star vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs was added as a sixth member of the JCS. He was charged with representing the Chairman in his absence and to speak for the regional commanders.

These four-star regional commanders—the true warlords of America’s military, whom Eisenhower had tried to empower in 1958—were given broader authority over the service component commanders and joint task forces.

Under Goldwater-Nichols, service in a joint assignment became necessary for promotion to flag or general officer rank and thus became a required stepping stone for each service’s best officers. A joint curriculum was established at the command, staff, and war colleges, and officers were required to complete a joint-duty assignment following graduation.

Goldwater-Nichols also forced the establishment of two new unified functional commands. In 1987, US Transportation Command was established, putting air, land, and sea assets under a single mobility commander. That same year, US Special Operations Command was created.

Experts say that the forces set in motion by Goldwater-Nichols continue to shift power and influence away from the four armed services and toward the “purple” combatant commanders, the Joint Staff, and Pentagon civilians.

Hamre explained that the goal of Goldwater-Nichols was to elevate the warfighters over the services and give them a strong voice in advocating jointness. “Prior to the reforms,” he said, “the people on the supply side of the supply-and-demand equation called the shots, meaning the service Chiefs and the service Secretaries.” Goldwater-Nichols, Hamre went on, raised the power of the people on the “demand side”—that is, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the regional combatant commanders.

“You still have to keep the supply-and-demand equation in balance,” Hamre summed up, “but there’s no denying that Goldwater-Nichols somewhat diminished the power of the service Chiefs and dramatically reduced the role and influence of the service Secretaries.”

The Downside

It is precisely the question of the services that is the key to any assessment of Goldwater-Nichols.

For all of their importance, regional combatant commanders are necessarily focused on their short-term operational needs and not on long-term strategy and long-term requirements. The armed services are uniquely able to take the long-term view and develop the capabilities the Defense Department will need in the future. In fact, they are the only institutions capable of fulfilling this vital function.

A second issue concerns operational leadership. While Goldwater-Nichols trimmed and shortened the chain of command from the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commanders in the field, it did so by marginalizing the strategic input of the service Chiefs on any given operation.

One who has spoken out about this is retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link, now an airpower strategist at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

“As a result of Goldwater-Nichols,” said Link, “the service Chiefs no longer have any motivation or real opportunity to focus on grand strategy or strategic issues, because they’ve been relegated to the program business. As we saw in the case of Iraq, the result is that major decisions get made essentially by two people and their staffs, one of whom is subordinate to the other—the combatant commander in the field and the Secretary of Defense.

As for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Link said, “His ability to formulate an independent point of view has been circumscribed because he spends most of his time with Pentagon civilians and essentially acts as the President’s spokesman on military matters.”

As a result of that streamlined dynamic, Link argues, there was never a meeting in the tank where the Chiefs actually signed off on the decision to invade Iraq, on the force levels required, on the prudent risks to be assumed, or on the level of resources needed to support the long-term strategy for the country.

“At one time the Joint Chiefs would have carefully considered each of those issues after careful consultation and vetting by their service staffs,” said Link, “and then reconciled their differences internally before conveying their corporate military advice to the Secretary of Defense.

“Without that input, I believe there was a power vacuum, and a handful of political appointees in the Office of the Secretary of Defense stepped into it and formulated a plan for Iraq based on academic theories and their own agendas. The broader point is that we need a strong Secretary of Defense, but we also need strong military advisors. You can’t have one at the expense of the other.”

James A. Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Tehran Triad,” appeared in the April issue.