Goldwater-Nichols: Where Have Ten Years Taken Us?

By Robert Previdi

I may be the only person in the country who thinks so, but I also believe that General Shalikashvili set a very dangerous precedent in 1994, when he called the media to defend President Bill Clinton against Senator Jesse Helms, who had questioned the President's qualifications to be commander-in-chief of our military forces. The next time, will the Chairman speak out against the President or the Secretary of Defense? Will he begin to speak out on public policy? Where do we draw the line? Make no mistake, the General's action, though small, is the first challenge to civilian control by a Chairman—and he is only the third Chairman with the power of Goldwater-Nichols behind him.

With the exception of answering a specific question while appearing before a committee of Congress, the Chairman must never speak out publicly either in support of or against the President. Our senior officers must be concerned with military leadership, not politics.

I find it interesting that in congressional hearings before the passage of Goldwater-Nichols, the service chiefs were accused of being unable to bring quality recommendations to their civilian leaders. The cause of this problem was described as interservice rivalry and an inability to consider the big picture. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Thomas Moorer had this to say about the issue:

I cannot accept the proposed solution-to assign responsibility to a strengthened chairman—as a way of providing civilian decision makers with professional military advice. If "interservice rivalry" is so rampant, why should the chairman . . . of the Joint Chiefs, who has been drawn from one of the services and most likely was serving as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suddenly change his position and produce the all-knowing, balanced force structure?

In addition, with such a strengthened Chairman, we run the risk of limiting the amount of information and alternative viewpoints going to the President and the Secretary of Defense. This should have been one of the most important lessons learned from Vietnam. The fact that President Lyndon Johnson dealt primarily with Secretary Robert McNamara and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Wheeler was a clear mistake. Now, by making the Chairman so dominant, we have made this error the law of the land.

In his 1946 testimony before the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King noted, "The strength of the Joint Chiefs of Staff lies in the combined knowledge possessed by the individual members and in the checks and balances that tend to prevent domination by any one person."

What should have been done is to make the Chairman the chief of staff to the Secretary of Defense, in addition to his role on the Joint Chiefs. In this way, the Chairman would never be in a position to compete with the Secretary, but would be a source of alternative viewpoints beyond those produced by the service chiefs.

During World War II, as heads of their services and as members of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral King and General George Marshall were in the chain of command. Political policy coming from Washington was translated into military execution by these men, who then could order Eisenhower, Nimitz, MacArthur, or anybody else to do what they or the Joint Chiefs wanted done. Imagine the war fought without King and Marshall on top of the military chain of command.

It was a sad day after the war when the chiefs were removed as heads of their services and from the chain of command. A number of years ago, I had an interesting meeting with General J. Lawton Collins. I asked him why he did not order MacArthur to better position his troops after they had passed the 38th parallel in Korea. His answer was, "What could I do? I was only Chief of Staff."

Now the chiefs are always in this position. What Goldwater-Nichols should have done was to put the chiefs back into the chain of command. After the civilians have decided overall policy, orders from Washington to the CinCs around the world should come from the chiefs, as heads of their services and as members of the Joint Chiefs.

Goldwater-Nichols also greatly strengthened the power of the CinCs. It was a good idea to increase the authority of the field commanders downward over their joint warfighting organizations. Nevertheless, because no military command in Washington now has authority over the CinCs, they are able to further compete with the chiefs, even into bureaucratic, non-warfighting service functions. I believe the CinCs should be concerned with their operational areas of responsibility and not with grand strategy, force planning, or service-specific resource allocation, which belongs with our civilian leaders and the service chiefs. As is well known, the law requires the services to train and equip their forces.

The idea that the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been made the second-ranking officer in our military makes no sense whatsoever. What responsibility does he have that should make him superior to the service chiefs and the CinCs? The only way this would make sense is under a centralized General Staff system, which is what contributed to the Germans losing both world wars. Ten years ago, I was concerned that Goldwater-Nichols had put in place a system that eventually would reduce the influence of the service chiefs and thereby move us toward an undesired General Staff. Unless we are vigilant, this still could become a serious problem.

In addition, the relationship between the Joint Staff and the staffs of the individual services is critical to the success of our fighting forces. My concern is that the service staffs will become subordinate to the Joint Staff. It would be a good idea to determine if this has happened and, if so, to what degree.

The original objective of Goldwater-Nichols was not to have the Joint Chiefs always speak with one voice. It was to find better ways to coordinate the efforts of the individual services. Successful joint operations depend on the individual services being distinct in capability well led, well trained, and well equipped. It also is important that they have an operating focus that is well defined and unique. The biggest loss Goldwater-Nichols could ever bring us is the loss of service identity and diversity.

Another concern is that—based on Goldwater-Nichols—jointness has become an end in itself, the solution to all problems. Here we run the greatest risk of all, that the individual services will come to believe that service thinking must always be subservient to joint thinking.

After ten years, it is time to take a critical look at the effects of Goldwater-Nichols—both good and bad—and make those changes that experience shows we need to make.


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