At some point, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will come to an end, or at the very least, they will cease to be theaters of major combat operations for U.S. forces. That point may come before the next presidential election, and great questions inevitably will arise as massive amounts of military force are redeployed to continental garrisons. To what extent will the Army and Marine Corps recapitalize after ten-plus years of war? Will there be another "peace dividend," one that will help defray the cost of physical and social infrastructure investments here at home? If so, how deep will the cuts be? And finally-and perhaps most important-what will the grand strategy of the United States be in the PWOT (post-war on terrorism) world? These questions are obviously difficult ones, and they are just as obviously thoroughly interconnected. An insidious problem, however, is lurking in the shadows of the Pentagon, one that will likely render its ability to deliver wise advice to the President questionable. That problem is jointness, and its impact on the future of our country must be considered.
The Coming Showdown
The United States is only now beginning to recover from a deep recession, and in doing so, great sums have been borrowed from lenders around the world, especially China. Additionally, the current administration's domestic ambitions are likely to exacerbate the growing debt load. In an effort to show fiscal discipline, President Barack Obama recently announced a "freeze" on the federal budget (for 2011), but interestingly, defense spending was granted a reprieve. This makes sense for a President prosecuting two wars and attempting to undercut critics who charge him with being soft on national security matters.
The defense budget, however, cannot long remain in such a privileged position. Pressures to cut defense spending to address mounting debt will grow deafening as large numbers of Soldiers and Marines return from duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the drawdown in these two wars is unlikely to coincide with anything resembling a decisive end to the contest with al Qaeda, we are likely to move to a paradigm in which the war on terrorism simmers on a back burner, largely prosecuted by the intelligence, law-enforcement, and special-operations communities. A nearly $700-billion defense budget (base plus cost of wars) will be too tempting a target for politicians seeking to address popular investments in social programs and domestic infrastructure, while also demonstrating fiscal discipline.
In this atmosphere-which will prevail during the 2012 presidential election-the Department of Defense will be called on to help guide in the formation of a grand strategy appropriate to the intersection of three seemingly irreconcilable trends. The first will be an almost certain distaste for costly land war. The second will be the twin fiscal questions of increased domestic investment and addressing runaway debt. The final consideration will be the role of the United States in the world, and the likelihood that Americans will not-in spite of the aforementioned? wish to surrender their place of military, economic, and cultural leadership. The Joint Chiefs and Department of Defense civilian leaders will find it difficult to conjure up the military component of a geostrategy appropriate to these challenges because of the very thing that has so greatly facilitated U.S. military dominance in the past three decades-jointness.
The Problem With Jointness
Chronicling the dysfunctional, balkanized scene before the birth of the jointness era, James R. Locher III writes, "The Pentagon badly needed reform. The military bureaucracy had tied itself in knots since World War II and lost outright the Vietnam conflict and three lesser engagements. . . . Unprecedented levels of defense spending were not making the nation more secure," while the rival service branches were acting as "fiefdoms . . . determined to preserve their power and independence."1
The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 has been thoroughly effective in forcing the services to act cooperatively in prosecution of war. In Panama, Iraq, the Balkans, and Afghanistan, the impact of joint-force military power has been obvious. No other nation on earth is capable of the military operations the United States routinely accomplishes, operations that require great synchronization of effort among military services with vastly different core missions, capabilities, cultures, and command structures. Our ability to act jointly is the envy of militaries across the world.
The spirit of cooperation forced on the services by Goldwater-Nichols is no longer simply an external force; it is the basic principle of operation in today's Pentagon that values consensus and cooperation while forcefully discouraging unseemly service-oriented posturing. It is beyond dispute that jointness has contributed to a more effective fighting force in the field. What is disputable is the impact jointness has had on the breadth and depth of intellectual ferment within the Pentagon, particularly with respect to matters not immediately concerned with the application of force. "Reasonable men can-and do-differ about weapons systems, the appropriateness of certain missions, and the contributions of the individual services to the nation's security."2
Put another way, what if a service-parochial position is actually in the nation's best interest? Would such a position have any chance of making it out of the Pentagon? More dangerous, though, would such a position ever make its way out of an individual service? Or would the notion that such thinking is inconsistent with jointness result in its suppression? The 1993 version of Joint Warfare of the U.S. Armed Forces (JCS Pub 1) gives a clear indication of canonical thinking in the joint world, now more firmly entrenched after an additional 17 years of recitation: There is ". . . no place for rivalry that seeks to undercut or denigrate fellow members of the joint team."3 Additionally, very few organizations benefit bureaucratically as much from jointness as the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), which in the post-Goldwater-Nichols era deals with far more pliable (and less powerful) armed services (though it does now ironically have to deal with a super-empowered joint staff). To some extent, the political leadership of the department proceeds forward with a false sense of comfort borne of insulation from the sturm und drang of inter-service rivalry, without concomitant benefit that might arise from it.
Maritime Strategy, Grand Strategy
In the fall of 2007, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard released A Cooperative Strategy for 21st-Century Seapower. This document was meant to be considered the first "maritime strategy" document released since the hallowed 1980s version widely identified with then-Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. Several important visions and think-pieces had been produced in the intervening decades ("From the Sea," "Forward . . . From the Sea," and "Seapower 21," to name but a few), but none called itself a "maritime strategy," perhaps out of the fear of being compared to the seminal work of the 1980s. There was, however, another reason those documents were not called "strategies," and that is the perception that Goldwater-Nichols had eliminated any role that the services had in the creation of strategy. The removal of the service chiefs from operational chains of command, and the strengthening of the role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the regional combatant commanders had combined to lead many thoughtful observers to conclude that strategy was no longer the province of the services. Furthermore, any attempt to create a service-based strategy would come to be seen as parochial and unlikely to have any real impact.
All of these arguments were made against the 2007 strategy while it was in development. One Washington defense expert-now a senior Obama administration appointee (who asked not to be named)-told this author that the "services have no business doing something like this. The job of the services is to organize, train, and equip to strategies created elsewhere." Another Washington insider (who also asked not to be identified)-upon reviewing an early pre-release of the draft maritime strategy-implored the writing team to "make it more joint" by mentioning all of the important contributions of the other services that bolster sea power.
Keep in mind, these objections were made to a document that sought to define the relation of sea power to the fortunes of the United States. It did not, explicitly or implicitly, attack the equities of the other services, nor did it denigrate land, air, or space power. That said, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st-Century Seapower was always seen by its proponents as a document aimed upward-at Congress, OSD, and the executive branch. Just below the surface of the maritime strategy is the kernel of a maritime-oriented grand strategy, one capable of being fleshed out into a full-blown blend of selective engagement and offshore balancing appropriate for a multipolar world in which American power is declining relative to the rise of others. While it is not the intention of this article to create such a strategy in detail, it is worth noting that the approach would of necessity favor maritime forces, creating the conditions that would ultimately undermine the current amicable proportioning of resources among the services.
Is a maritime-based grand strategy the only path suitable and appropriate to an American future defined by distaste for land war, tension between internal investment and rising debt, and the desire to remain a world leader? Of course not. But it is a viable alternative, one deserving of study and consideration amid other grand strategies that may not have such stark ramifications for a particular brand of military power. But in the coming age of fiscal austerity in the Department of Defense, the joint way will be to distribute pain equally or nearly equally among the services, irrespective of how this may ultimately prove a disservice to the ends of grand strategy. Put another way, at the very time the nation may need to rely more heavily on sea power, the presumed advocates thereof will be culturally unaware of how to raise the argument and certainly not resourced to implement it.
And even if they could raise it, the system in which they operate would aggressively snuff it out. Goldwater-Nichols eviscerated the idea of aggressive service advocacy to eliminate excess service rivalry. It has done so in such a value-neutral way that even a salutary instance of service advocacy would be attacked and destroyed as divisive.
Who Will Step Forward?
The legislative fathers of Goldwater-Nichols came to conclude that any substantial reform of the Pentagon would have to come from Congress. The services had too much invested in the way they did business to be expected to create meaningful reform that would ultimately weaken their own impact. The same paradigm exists today, except in the guise of a bureaucratic joint establishment as dedicated to its own survival as any service was previously. One important difference is the presence of services that have come to believe that their self-interests are best served by not appearing to be forceful advocates. No meaningful criticism of jointness and its impact on national strategy is likely to emerge from the Pentagon, nor is any reform likely to emerge that returns any measure of service prerogative.
If this article's central tenet-that jointness could discourage useful input to a coming national strategy debate-is considered to have merit, action would need to be taken in Congress. A good first step would be for the armed-services committees to create a panel charged with a thorough evaluation of the impact of Goldwater-Nichols-positive and negative-on the Department of Defense. One central question would be the extent to which the current status of the services had created the conditions for "groupthink" at the highest level.
Specific to the question of whether a maritime-oriented grand strategy is likely to get a fair hearing in the years ahead, the sea power interests in Congress, industry, and the defense intellectual community must begin to work in unison. Where is the Carl Vinson of this generation? Someone is needed today to echo the words of Admiral Ernest J. King: "If the Navy's welfare is one of the prerequisites to the nation's welfare-and I sincerely believe that to be the case-any step that is not good for the Navy is not good for the nation."4 Someone must step forward in Congress and take responsibility for the articulate advocacy of sea power as a national priority, not simply one of jobs in his or her own district or state.
The creation of a sea power political action committee seems a reasonable suggestion, one that would provide campaign funds to candidates of any party who took the time to understand and advocate for American sea power. The Navy League should consider a capital campaign to fund a concerted effort to raise the prominence of sea power in national security debates. While it is unlikely that the Navy itself can or will participate in such efforts, it should aggressively and centrally manage messaging through its most articulate spokesmen-its flag officer community. Every Rotary, Kiwanis, or Lions club across the country should be targeted by an active-duty or reserve flag officer responsible for delivering a centrally managed set of communication points designed to reinforce the criticality of sea power to the ends of the republic. Flag officers should be centrally tracked for how many venues and estimated listeners they reached, and they should be encouraged from above when their interest in strategic communication wanes.
The United States has serious issues to tackle in the years ahead, and it can ill afford debates in which discordant views are discouraged in the interest of leveling consensus. The current environment of jointness is more inclined to provide the political branches with a least-common-denominator view than one favoring the forces of one or more services, irrespective of how important such a view may be. Sea power advocates must move forward in spite of whatever impediments jointness throws up in the way, if only to ensure the richness of a debate in which America's future will hang in the balance.
2. JCS Pub 1 quoted in Cropsey, p. 75.
4. King quoted in Locher, p. 1.