Under former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Senator Sam Nunn’s direction, a commission of distinguished civilians and senior retired officers was established in 1993 to examine the military services’ roles and missions in light of the world's changes since the end of the Cold War. It tackled a difficult subject with courage and energy and released its findings at the end of May. The report approves a view of the Defense Department’s goal that was sensible during the Cold War, but that no longer appears to be.
According to this view, the United States’ war fighters—the four-star officers known as unified commanders-in-chief who command U.S. forces around the world—remain the tip of the U.S. defense spear. As the commanders whose immediate responsibility is to execute the President’s orders, the commission implicitly argues, the CinCs are the purpose for which the rest of the nation’s defense establishment exists.
This idea was a good one while the United States led a democratic coalition that had to be ready to fight the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice. Today, however, the Defense Department’s institutional objective should be to plan and build a U.S. military that will be as victorious in the future as our current forces were in the Persian Gulf. If the United States persists in maintaining the primacy of its operational commanders—whose concerns are properly rooted in preparing to defeat a potential enemy today—the nation is likely to sacrifice an important part of its ability to field a technologically superior fighting force in the future. How did we arrive at this strange pass?
The stature and respect with which the American public regards the military today returned following the Vietnam War and received its most exhilarating lift during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Never mind the improvements in recruiting, supply, training, and equipment that took place. The military was back stronger, smarter, and more capable than ever. But did presidential support and success in combat propel this return to self-confidence? Or was the military’s ascent really the product of unheralded tinkering by congressional reformers who redrew the Defense Department’s organizational lines by passing the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986?
The Goldwater-Nichols legislation increased the power of the Pentagon’s senior military officer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and of his military staff. It also increased the bureaucratic heft of the CinCs. Its empowerment of the Chairman forced—albeit unintentionally—the civilian Secretary of Defense more vigilantly to guard his own powers. The lawmakers’ grant of additional budgetary, logistical, and personnel authority to the CinCs also came at the expense of the individual military services. Congress, rightly or not, had decided that rivalry between the nation’s military branches hurt the overall defense.
Nine years later, the procedural, bureaucratic, and political forces that the legislation unleashed raise the real question of whether the military services have reached the end of their useful organizational lives. The answer depends in large measure on what the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps see as their role in providing the nation’s future defense. It also rests on their ability to articulate this role persuasively to the general public and its political leadership.
The only certainty appears to be that the military departments will not enjoy the operational control that made them powerful up until 1947. These powers are now clearly the province of the CinCs, and there is no sign that this will change. But will the services former ability to conduct combat and other operations, the authority to command fleets, armies, and aviation wings be as important in the foreseeable future as it was in the 20th century?
Yes, says the recent report of the Commission on Roles and Missions headed by the new Deputy Secretary of Defense John White. This affirmative response echoes the view of the commission’s ideological antecedent, the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act.
Indeed, the commission and the Goldwater-Nichols legislation share fundamental assumptions. The first is that the unified commanders-in-chief, who command deployed U.S. forces around the world, remain the proper focus of attention for the Defense Department. In 1986, the Soviets kept these four-star officers busy; today it is international brushfires, relief efforts, humanitarian missions, and peacekeeping operations. The commission notes in its preface that “it is clear that the emphasis [today] must be on molding DoD into a cohesive set of institutions that work toward a common purpose—effective unified military operations.”
The second shared assumption is that rivalry between the military services prevents the Defense Department from achieving a common purpose and accomplishing truly effective unification. The 1986 legislation’s introductory paragraph addresses the CinCs’ responsibilities, the perceived need to strengthen their authority, and the intention “to enhance the effectiveness of military operations.” The services are deliberately overlooked; they appear in the act’s penultimate section. The commission recapitulates this attitude. It asserts that—as demonstrated by Desert Storm the nation’s military capabilities “are individually superb. But they do not work well enough together.'' It concludes that integrating the warfighting concepts [of the military services] must receive more emphasis.”
This refrain is now a familiar one. And DoD has incorporated it as its own. Increase the size, power, and scope of the central staff; continue to enlarge the war-fighting CinCs; and create functional CinCs to absorb the military services’ responsibilities. These themes have become the virtually unquestioned direction of the entire U.S. military.
But is there no natural limit to building up the Joint Staff and operational war-fighting centers or to eroding the services’ capabilities and their effectiveness as the building blocks of U.S. defense?
The motive for centralized, joint, unified organizational arrangements should be seen against the backdrop of World War II, which revealed genuine problems in coordinating combat operations. But the powerful thrust toward centralization of headquarters functions and enlarging CinC power at the expense of service responsibility began at the dawn of the Cold War in 1947.
The 1947 National Security Act established the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) as a permanent agency and created the unified and specified commands. The Key West Agreement of the following year strengthened the JCS-CinC axis by making JCS members executive agents for the unified commands. In 1949, the services lost their cabinet ranks and memberships in the National Security Council. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs’ powers were increased in 1958. And beginning in 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara, drawing on his corporate experience with centralized management structures, created the large central civilian bureaucracies that have become characteristic of the Pentagon.
Momentum for the most recent substantive change—the Goldwater-Nichols legislation—began to gather when former JCS Chairman General David Jones stated after his 1981 retirement that the organization of U.S. defense needed substantial change. In the wake of the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran, this argument resonated.
Senators Nunn and Gold water convinced their colleagues that a more centralized DoD would help restore the nation’s fighting forces. But the critical element in their argument was an unstated assumption: the CinCs needed more power because they represented the ultimate protection and decisive answer of the United States and its allies to Soviet ambitions.
In the first half of the 1980s this was true. But is it still? The Communist party today is a fringe group in most of the former Soviet Union, and the political shadow that stalks Yeltsin and his colleagues is the question of whether Islamic fundamentalists and Chechen-like separatist groups will carve up what’s left of Russia.
The Defense Department, however, continues to insist that support of the CinCs is the leading objective of the day. Besides retaining Cold War assumptions and continuing the direction of organizational change that began nearly 50 years ago, the importance attached to the CinCs’ mission helps accomplish a major bureaucratic objective: justifying budgets with Congress. Money is needed, the argument goes, to keep pace with the increasing number of real-world requirements. And money has been found. Indeed, given the public’s low interest in the places where U.S. troops have seen recent action, it is remarkable that defense spending has not fallen steeper and more swiftly than it has. But pleading an increased number of brushfires has its problems, too.
For one thing, the United States has yet to develop a clear post-Cold War foreign policy. And when such a policy does emerge, it may not support the level of engagement of U.S. forces that has characterized the past few years. If Americans’ interest in such places as Rwanda, Haiti, and Somalia disappears entirely, what then will be the justification for maintaining a defense budget at about 80% of its level at the end of the Cold War?
Far more important though, the concentration of DoD’s attention on support for day-to-day operations pushes questions about the future shape and power of the U.S. military into an unlit corner. And there are those who would accelerate this dubious ordering of priorities. The Commission on Roles and Missions, for example, urges that the CinCs receive “greater influence over the processes and priorities used to acquire the weapons, equipment, and forces they need to accomplish their warfighting and other missions.”
The commission was careful to note that it did not want to detract the CinCs from their war-fighting missions. But even if greater influence over acquisition is not a diversion to the CinCs, the attention they correctly pay to immediate needs must conflict with building a military for the future. Planning to defend Seoul, ensuring the safety of U.S. troops in Haiti, and propping up NATO are all important tasks of the appropriate CinC. But they have nothing to do with seizing the current international lull to prepare for the next storm.
This is the proper task of the military services. They—and only they—are organized to understand and practice the art of warfare: how to fight, what to build, where equipment can be used most effectively, what tactics are required to take the greatest advantage of one’s own strengths. No other Defense Department organization can perform these functions.
A common view of doctrine and tactics and the ability to communicate are critical. And efforts that advance these goals represent significant, tangible improvements to U.S. security. But all the coordination and integration in the universe is useless unless there is something to coordinate and integrate. This is what the military services provide. The nation’s future security depends on how well the services plan ahead now just as surely as it once rested on how ready the CinCs were to defend U.S. interests at a moment’s notice.
Emphasizing the CinCs made sense when the United States faced a hostile, armed superpower whose ideology sharpened its threat. War could have flared at any time, and the CinCs were our frontline commanders. They deserved the support they received. But today, both the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the need to implement a technological revolution that offers U.S. forces a decisive future advantage require a new direction at DoD.
The military services’ expertise as the basic units of professional war-fighting skill, as planners, and as builders should be the highest priority at Defense. If the current course is not altered, the CinCs will go on increasing their scope and depth of control. The Defense Department will spin its wheels trying to redefine and rationalize borders of responsibility between the geographic commands; the CinCs will—as the commission recommends—gain more control over intelligence support. Their needs will inform the acquisition of weapons and equipment. It will be a victory of the short-term view over the long.
After World War I, the British Army had to choose between implementing the revolution in military affairs it had launched with the tank, and the more taxing day-to-day business of deploying forces to protect the Empire. It chose the latter, and the Germans developed the tank’s potential. The British, of course, lost their empire and nearly lost the war. We should learn from their example that sacrificing future capability for present operations is dangerous.
Finally, the clear vision of a powerful, technologically advanced force for the future that the military services are capable of developing offers solid ground on which to build and keep public support. Today DoD must justify requests for funds by pointing to current operations and lurking threats. Better to cheerfully admit that no one knows a thing about what’s coming, except that when it gets here, we need to be able to defeat it. And, better still to draw an intelligent, imaginative picture of what such a defense looks like. The President would be able convincingly to argue that no matter what spending level Congress might approve, every nickel subtracted from it would postpone or diminish a secure future.
Seth Cropsey was Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy during the Reagan and Bush administrations.