The dominant figures in the US armed forces today are the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the combatant commanders. They, along with the President and the Secretary of Defense, are the undisputed first team. Everyone else is secondary, subordinate, or in support.
It was not always so. As recently as World War II, the War Department (including the Army Air Forces) and the Navy Department (including the Marine Corps) were completely separate organizations. There was no unified structure to which all of the armed forces belonged.
Up to 25 years ago, the real centers of power in the Department of Defense were the individual military services. Since then, the roles of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have been starkly reduced in what is proclaimed to be the age of “jointness.”
The legislation that brought on the change is known as the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, after its sponsors in the Senate and House of Representatives. It could just as well have been named for Air Force Gen. David C. Jones, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Four years earlier, he rolled the first rock in what eventually became the Goldwater-Nichols avalanche.
Sen. Barry Goldwater (l) and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Jones speak at an event in 1975. A few years later they would be on the same side of a fight to reorganize the Department of Defense.
Jones dropped his bombshell Feb. 3, 1982, in unscripted testimony to the House Armed Services Committee. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and Jones were presenting their initial statements on budget requirements. Weinberger spoke first and focused on the Reagan rearmament program, which had begun the previous year.
Committee chairman Melvin Price (D-Ill.) asked Jones if he also had a statement. “I look forward to testifying on the budget issues,” Jones said. “However, there is one subject I would like to mention briefly here. It is not sufficient to have just resources, dollars, and weapon systems; we must have an organization which will allow us to develop the proper strategy, necessary planning, and full warfighting capability. … We do not have an adequate organizational structure today.”
He called for major reform of DOD organization, which he said was inadequate to meet requirements for defense planning, development of strategy, and other responsibilities. He said the Joint Chiefs of Staff were “basically a committee” and that “if the Chiefs cannot come to an agreement, a unanimous agreement, among the five of us, we then inform the Secretary of Defense and, as appropriate, the President.”
The process gave each service a “de facto veto,” he said, and “it is very difficult for a Chief as head of a service to say more resources ought to go to another service rather than his own,” he said.
Jones told the committee that he would “work with my colleagues first because many of these things can be solved by the Chiefs unanimously agreeing to change. I will then work with the Administration—the Secretary of Defense and the President—which may include submitting legislative proposals.”
That was a surprise to Weinberger. Jones had told him only that he intended to express “concerns about how the system operated.” Weinberger had other priorities and did not believe organization was a problem. His attention was on the rearmament program and distractions were bothersome.
Jones, who was a few months away from retirement, had decided he could wait no longer to speak up. His testimony introduced the issue but it did not immediately put it fully into play. Change would take several years and strong commitment from both houses of Congress.
Organizational unification of the armed forces was attempted before, by President Truman in 1947 and President Eisenhower in 1958. Prior to World War II, coordinating the plans and operations of the separate armed services was not an issue. Army and Navy missions seldom overlapped. Joint operations became common during the war, especially in the “island-hopping” campaigns in the Pacific.
Truman wanted to replace the “antiquated defense setup” with three coordinated military branches under a Department of National Defense. The compromise—the Navy being vehemently opposed to unification—was the National Security Act of 1947, which established the Defense Department and co-equal branches of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. It was a start, but Eisenhower said later that the result had been “little more than a weak confederation of sovereign military units.”
Eisenhower, declaring that “separate ground, sea, and air warfare is gone forever,” led the next attempt, which culminated in the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958. The Army and the Air Force supported the change. As before, the Navy was opposed. Gen. Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, who had been the first Air Force Chief of Staff, offered a radical opinion from retirement—”complete integration” of the armed forces into a single service.
The new legislation did not go that far, but it did take the individual services out of the chain of command. The services retained their roles as specified by law, but the operational missions were assigned to unified and specified commands on a geographical and functional basis. The function of the services was to organize, train, and equip forces for the combatant commands.
The subsequent implementing directive, signed by Secretary of Defense Neil H. McElroy, introduced ambiguity. It said, “The chain of command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense and through the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the commanders of the unified and specified commands.” In fact, the act did not include the Joint Chiefs in the chain of command. For the next 20 years, the services exploited the organizational arrangements, including influence on actions by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to maintain their power.
“When I was the air commander in Europe, I had two bosses, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the unified commander—the commander-in-chief, US European Command, who is over all US theater forces,” Jones said. “The Chief of Staff of the Air Force assigned me all my people, gave all my rewards to my people, controlled all my money, gave me all my equipment. Obviously, he had nine times the influence over me than [the] unified commander had. So he who controls the resources can have a tremendous impact.”
Sen. Sam Nunn, as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, appointed a task force to work on the controversial plan.
Jones Rings the Bell
Jones was Air Force Chief of Staff from 1974 to 1978. He was appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs by President Carter in June 1978 and reappointed for a second term in June 1980.
His relations with Weinberger and the Reagan Administration were clouded from the beginning. Shortly after the election in November 1980, Jones approached Secretary of Defense designate Weinberger about defense reorganization. Weinberger had other priorities, and an impasse developed.
Meanwhile, congressional conservatives who thought Jones had been too closely aligned with the Carter Administration and deferred too readily to Carter policies urged Reagan to dismiss him and appoint a Chairman more attuned to Reagan’s priorities. Reagan decided to keep Jones to the end of his term, which ran until June 1982. In his memoirs, Weinberger referred to Jones as “the holdover Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
As his retirement in June 1982 approached, Jones continued to press the reorganization issue. He followed up his surprise testimony in February with articles in a business publication, Directors & Boards, and in Armed Forces Journal. He made headlines after a breakfast meeting with reporters Feb. 17 at which he said parochial interests of individual services sometimes overwhelmed what was best for overall defense.
One of the few military leaders agreeing with Jones was Army Chief of Staff Gen. Edward C. Meyer. In an Armed Forces Journal article in April 1982, he said, “The changes urged by General Jones, while headed in the right direction, do not go far enough.”
After retirement, Jones sharpened his attack. In a New York Times Magazine article in November 1982, he said the defense budget “is derived mainly from the disparate desires of the individual services rather than from a well-integrated plan based on serious examination of alternatives.” He added that “it is an uphill struggle for anyone—including a Secretary of Defense—to gain real control of our defense establishment.”
“To eliminate service domination of the channels of military advice to the Secretary and the President, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—rather than the five-man committee of the Chiefs—should represent the operational side, while the service Chiefs should continue to represent the administrative side of our military organization,” he said.
Army Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., who replaced Jones as Joint Chiefs Chairman, did not agree. In November 1982, he told Congress the consensus of the Joint Chiefs was that “sweeping changes to 10 USC are unnecessary.” (Title 10 of the US Code is the legal basis of organization for the services and the Department of Defense.)
Retired Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, who had been Chairman from 1970 to 1974, was considerably more caustic. “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with respect to those in uniform, has all the authority he is willing to take,” Moorer said.
In December, Jones told the Senate Armed Services Committee reform of the Joint Chiefs was “the most important defense issue facing the Congress and the nation. It makes issues [such as] the MX [missile] and others pale in comparison.”
Additional evidence of the problem was supplied by Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada in 1983, where in several instances the services could not communicate with each other because their equipment was not compatible.
CENTCOM commander Army Gen. Tommy Franks (r) and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (l) at a press briefing in 2002. Rumsfeld inflated the role of combatant commanders in an attempt to keep the Joint Chiefs marginalized, and Franks ran with it.
Catching On With Congress
The defense reorganization cause took root on Capitol Hill, owing much to the efforts of two congressional staffers, Archie D. Barrett of the House Armed Services Committee and James R. Locher III of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Barrett, a retired Air Force pilot, had written a paper at National Defense University in 1981 critical of the undue influence of the individual services on defense decision-making. It was published as a book in 1983 with an introduction by Jones. At his instigation, the HASC investigations subcommittee held the first hearings on defense reorganization and introduced the first legislative proposal. Barrett had great credibility with the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Richard C. White (D-Tex.), and with Rep. William F. Nichols (D-Ala.), who succeeded White as chairman in 1983.
Locher was a West Point graduate who, in his own words, “spent 10 years as a ‘whiz kid’ system analyst” in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the 1960s. His first boss at the SASC, Sen. John G. Tower (R-Tex.), was against defense reorganization and blocked the efforts of White and Nichols to get a bill through Congress.
Tower retired in early January 1985 and was replaced by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz). Both Goldwater and the ranking SASC Democrat, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, were strongly in favor of defense reorganization and appointed Locher to head a task force to work on it and report directly to them.
The issue percolated steadily through 1984 and into 1985 and continued to draw criticism from the Pentagon. Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. charged that empowering the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the expense of the military services would create “a Prussian-style general staff.” Armed Forces Journal reported, “Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are agreed on one point: Capitol Hill proposals to reorganize the US military establishment aren’t necessary.”
On the other hand, in a February 1985 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, six former Secretaries of Defense (Robert S. McNamara, Clark Clifford, Melvin R. Laird, Elliott Richardson, James R. Schlesinger, and Harold Brown) endorsed reform, including designation of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as principal military advisor to the President and Secretary of Defense.
At the direction of Goldwater and Nunn, Locher fashioned an instrument with which to bludgeon the opposition. It was a 645-page “staff study,” published in October 1985, reviewing the problem and offering options for reform.
A deliberate tactic, devised by Nunn with Goldwater’s concurrence, was that the staff study would propose extreme measures that would make the actual provisions later introduced seem less radical by comparison. One such suggestion was to increase the stature of the combatant commanders in the field by making them senior in rank to the service Chiefs.
The study also proposed disbanding the Joint Chiefs of Staff and replacing them with an advisory council of four-star military officers on their last tours of duty before retirement. This idea had been around for a long time, advocated with minor differences in detail by Gen. Omar N. Bradley, Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, Sen. W. Stuart Symington, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, and in 1982 by Army Chief of Staff Meyer.
Goldwater declared that unity of command “means there is only one Chief and he’s over all the Indians—no matter what tribe.”
The Final Push
The SASC began markup of the reorganization bill—getting it down on paper in the form it would be introduced—on Feb. 4, 1986. The previous evening, an explosive meeting took place in the Pentagon between the Joint Chiefs, Goldwater, and Nunn, who had come over for a final consultation. Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., the new Chairman, supported the legislation. The Air Force Chief, Gen. Charles A. Gabriel, did not say much.
The others were opposed and said so in no uncertain language. The hot-tempered Goldwater took their criticism as an attack on his efforts to make improvements and roared, “If you think you can bully Sam and me, you are mistaken.”
The next morning, the SASC received eight letters from military leaders, seven of them “quarrelsome or contentious,” according to Locher, who was present for both the evening meeting and the markup. Only Crowe’s letter was in favor. “I will not be deflected or sidetracked in this effort even if I get a letter a day from everyone in the Pentagon,” Goldwater snapped.
In the House, four reorganization proposals were merged into a single bill, sponsored by Nichols, still a leading champion of reform. As Goldwater and Nunn pressed forward, they received welcome support from the Packard Commission, chaired by David Packard, the legendary co-founder of Hewlett-Packard who oversaw the creation of a new system acquisition process when he was deputy secretary of defense in the early 1970s. His commission’s report on defense management was mostly about acquisition reform but it included a chapter on military organization and command. Packard’s recommendations tracked along with Goldwater and Nunn: Strengthen the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and give more power to the commanders of the unified and specified commands.
In March, the SASC overrode Pentagon objections and passed the bill, 14 to zero. Syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak slammed the decision the next day, blaming the hyperactive committee staff for a measure that “clearly would move toward a unified general staff with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs elevated and individual service Chiefs and Secretaries downgraded. That would mark final victory for McNamara’s whiz kids, the super-bureaucrats, against the uniformed professional military.” Goldwater, infuriated all over again by the accusation he was being led around by his staff, gruffed, “These lies make me mad as hell!”
In his radio address April 5, President Reagan urged Congress to approve reorganization, citing the Packard Commission. White House officials said Reagan’s endorsement, despite Weinberger’s objections, reflected his commitment to curb waste, abuse, and Pentagon inefficiency.
Redistributing the Power
Both the Senate and the House approved reorganization bills, which were merged in conference in September. The final version was named for Goldwater and Nichols at the suggestion of Sam Nunn. The conference bill passed and was signed into law by Reagan Oct. 1.
Goldwater was exultant. “It’s the only goddamn thing I’ve done in the Senate that’s worth a damn,” he said. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) was even more effusive, calling it “one of the landmark laws of American history” and “probably the greatest sea change in the history of the American military since the Continental Congress created the Continental Army in 1775.”
The final Goldwater-Nichols legislation, patched and repatched many times to accommodate compromises, was 162 densely printed pages long. Among the provisions of the act:
It gave the Defense Secretary “full power over every facet of the Department of Defense.” This confirmed a Presidential directive of 1953 and put it into law for the first time.
Crowe, the first Chairman to hold authority under the act, made a point of including the service Chiefs in any action where they had a significant interest. “If we have a disagreement, then I know I’ve got in my back pocket the authority to resolve it,” he said. “They know it, too.” But “I cannot get along without the help of the Chiefs, regardless of what the law says.”
The Gulf War in 1991 was both test and validation for Goldwater-Nichols. “The most demonstrable example was seen in the role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell,” said Bernard Trainor, retired Marine Corps general turned New York Times correspondent. “As a result of Goldwater-Nichols, [Powell] wielded power and influence beyond that exercised by previous Chairmen. He was the politico-military maestro of the Gulf War. His fellow members of the Joint Chiefs were relegated to onlookers who simply provided the forces.”
As for Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the combatant commander in the Gulf, “he was king in the Kuwaiti theater of operations,” Trainor said. “All within his domain had to do his bidding.”
Converting the Critics
In the years following adoption of Goldwater-Nichols, opinion within the military swung in favor of the changes and kept on swinging. It soon became difficult to find anyone who thought the act was a bad idea.
Gen. John A. Wickham Jr., former Army Chief of Staff, had been among those whose opposition raised Goldwater’s ire at the evening meeting in February 1986. In 1995, Wickham told Locher the act “has achieved 80 percent of its objectives and will go down in history as a major contribution to the nation’s security.”
There was no relenting, though, from Moorer, who had nailed his colors to the mast. “I don’t think it accomplished anything,” he said in a 1990 interview.
In 1996, on the 10th anniversary of Goldwater-Nichols enactment, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, graded the main provisions of the legislation at a National Defense University symposium and assigned an overall grade of B. He gave top marks for better military advice to civilian leaders, for strengthening of the combatant commanders, and for improved effectiveness of military operations. To get straight As, he said, the services had to work harder to develop a shared vision of the future.
Joint Forces Quarterly published a special issue on the 10th anniversary of the act. For his contribution, Jones chose to go with an edited and abridged version of his article from the New York Times Magazine in 1982, indicating his commitment to reform. In 1990, Weinberger published memoirs of his seven years in the Pentagon. He did not even mention Goldwater-Nichols.
The tacit assumption of Goldwater-Nichols was that whereas the service Chiefs in the old days could not escape parochialism and self-interest, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the combatant commanders, when empowered by the act, would rise above service bias.
That would not always be the case. In Operation Allied Force in Serbia in 1999, airpower was the only force engaged in the 78-day operation that ended with Serbian surrender. Nevertheless, the unified force commander, Army Gen. Wesley Clark, insisted that the decisive factor had been the impending threat of a brigade-sized Army task force, deployed to Albania but not engaged, and several months away from being ready to begin combat operations.
The net benefits of Goldwater-Nichols are clear, but there is a downside. Breaking the power of the service Chiefs also reduced the strategic contribution of those who were outstanding enough to rise to the top in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.
As noted by retired Lt. Col. Stephen Melton of the Army Command and General Staff College, the Goldwater-Nichols Act “diminished the role of the Pentagon by making the operational commanders the primary war planners” and “relegated the military’s strategic center—the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military departments—to an advisory and supporting role.”
“As a result of Goldwater-Nichols, 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,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link, a highly respected analyst of military roles and missions.
Known and Unknown Pressures
It is little remembered today that during the run-up to Goldwater-Nichols, some concern was expressed that strengthening the Joint Chiefs Chairman would correspondingly weaken the position of Defense Secretary. During his second tour in that office from 2001 to 2006, Donald H. Rumsfeld demonstrated that the Secretary holds the trumps, anytime he wants to use them.
Rumsfeld systematically undercut the authority of the Chairman and consolidated power in his own hands. At his first meeting with Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Rumsfeld told him, “You are not the advisor to the National Security Council,” before conceding that Title 10 of the US Code did give Shelton that responsibility. Rumsfeld next suggested that Shelton give his advice to the President through the Secretary of Defense instead of directly. Shelton declined. According to Shelton, Rumsfeld was greatly “concerned with marking his territory like a little bulldog.”
When it suited his purposes, Rumsfeld emphasized the role of combatant commanders to keep the Chairman and the Joint Chiefs out of the advisory loop. He did so notably with Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks of US Central Command during operations in Afghanistan in 2001.
Franks was proud to be a commander “who fought the wars” and held the service Chiefs in contempt. According to Shelton, Rumsfeld’s offer of direct access “inflated Tommy’s head about 10 hat sizes, because he was now ‘above’ the Joint Chiefs and working directly for ‘the man.’ “
In September 2001, the Joint Chiefs requested a briefing from Franks. Shelton thought it “was a productive give-and-take exchange,” but Franks had no interest in the comments of the Chiefs.
Franks complained that “we endured an hour of this aimless dialogue, a waste of time that neither the Secretary nor I could spare.” The next day, Franks said the service Chiefs who had been at the briefing “came across like a mob of Title 10 motherfuckers.”
In other instances, it was the combatant commanders who got the Rumsfeld treatment. In October 2002, for no apparent reason other than impulsive arrogance and a display of personal power, Rumsfeld put out a memo forbidding combatant commanders to use the title “commander in chief” or “CinC,” which had been in use since before World War II. Rumsfeld said the only CinC was the President.
The Chairmen who followed Shelton often found their opinions and advice discounted as Rumsfeld dominated all channels to the White House. It was not until after Rumsfeld’s departure that much of the status of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was restored, during the tour of Adm. Michael G. Mullen.
Today, few would argue with William J. Perry, Defense Secretary from 1994 to 1997, who said the Goldwater-Nichols Act was “perhaps the most important defense legislation since World War II.”
On the 25th anniversary of its adoption, Goldwater-Nichols has regained its course, and the organization and function of the Department of Defense are a closer approximation of the balance of power ordained by the act.