30 years after Goldwater-Nichols, Senate eyes another DoD reorganization

Nearly 30 years after Congress passed the largest reform in Defense Department’s history via the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the Senate on Tuesday reopened the topic of Pentagon organization in what may turn into another multi-year process of study and legislating over how the world’s largest military force is managed.

In the near term, the focus is likely to be on why headquarters staffs have grown as large as they are and why Defense dollars are not going as far as they did before.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee opened the first of what he said would be a series of hearings on Defense organization with a favorable nod to the 1986 legislation, saying it did exactly what it was supposed to: breaking down parochial barriers between the military services and building jointness into the culture of the U.S. military.

But he said the nature of warfare and technology have changed a lot in the intervening years, and the scale of the Pentagon’s bureaucracy has ballooned without much to show for it.

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“Our Defense spending, in constant dollars, is nearly the same as it was 30 years ago. But we’re getting 35 percent fewer combat brigades, 53 percent fewer ships and 63 percent fewer combat air squadrons. More and more of our people and money are in overhead functions, not operating forces,” McCain said.

The committee heard from several experts on Defense organization, including two former Congressional staffers who stewarded Goldwater-Nichols through Congress. Each counseled that another round of reforms is long overdue, but urged lawmakers against knee-jerk legislation. The 1980s reforms were preceded by five years of Congressional study; the next overhaul deserves that amount of attention too, they said.

Nonetheless, John Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary who is now the president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the 1986 law suffered from “birth defects” that Congress could fix relatively quickly.

One, he said, has already been addressed in the annual National Defense Authorization Act the Senate passed on Tuesday, which would restore some acquisition authority to the military’s uniformed service chiefs.

Hamre said another outstanding issue is that Goldwater-Nichols required military officers to serve in joint duty assignments before becoming eligible to be generals or admirals. That’s a fine idea in and of itself, he said. But the Congress of the 1980s’ passed it without touching the earlier Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) – the main legal underpinning of DoD’s rigid up-or-out personnel system  which dictates that officers be promoted according to rigid timelines or else be kicked out of the military.

“And so the personnel experts engineered their own pathways through this complexity, and it’s created an excessively large headquarters structure. They need those headquarters jobs to create enough joint duty billets for everybody. The result is that we’ve created a lot of headquarters jobs while we’re cutting our operating forces,” Hamre said. “We have to look at that interplay so that we’re not just feeding big headquarters structures, which are really doing too much micromanagement.”

Another key provision of Goldwater-Nichols removed operational control of military forces from the service chiefs and gave it to DoD’s large, standing combatant commands around the globe, who now report directly to the Secretary of Defense. Hamre said that idea appears to have outlived its usefulness.

Nowadays, most military operations are commanded by temporary joint task forces with responsibility for one single conflict; COCOMs have assumed a more strategic role. Nonetheless, those combatant commands still maintain large standing staffs befitting an operational military force, with various personnel substrata for matters such as logistics, command and control and intelligence.

“These are really beefy structures. We still need our combatant commands, because they’re doing long-term strategic engagement with our friends around the world who share our values and interests. But they don’t need a logistician,” Hamre said. “What is he doing, other than calling the guy on the ground who’s really doing logistics?”

Jim Thomas, the vice president and director of studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments agreed the combatant commands are more bloated than warranted by their current missions, and added that the boost those commands got from Goldwater-Nichols is part of a broader problem that’s now clearer with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight: If any particular question overlaps the boundaries of a geographic or functional area in DoD’s organizational chart, only one person can answer it: the Secretary of Defense.

“The problem we have now is that decisions can’t take place until everyone has concurred, and this frequently results in lowest-common-denominator outcomes, just because that’s what everyone can live with,” said Thomas, who argued that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should be reinserted into the chain of command for military forces rather than serving only as the President’s chief military advisor.

“Goldwater-Nichols altered the balance of power inside the Pentagon between the secretary, the chairman and the service chiefs in such a way that left all of the main actors just short of being able to make a decision on their own,” he said. “In our current system, there is no effective control entity. The chairman has to rely on his convening powers and his ability to cajole people to get things done. There’s no military leader who can direct things across regions and do what George Marshall did in World War II: win in Europe, hold in the Pacific.”

At lower levels in the department, experts also identified pervasive problems with DoD’s inability to share information and coordinate amongst its various functional areas.

Jim Locher, who served as the staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee during the run-up to Goldwater-Nichols’ passage said the department today is awash in highly-dedicated, top-notch experts in everything from intelligence to materials science to logistics, but that they rarely veer from the rigid lanes in the Pentagon’s organizational structure.

“What we really need in today’s environment to move quickly is to focus all of our people on missions instead of on their own functions,” he said. “Whether it’s counterterrorism or weapons of mass destruction or what we’re doing right now in the Middle East, there is no place in the headquarters of the Department of Defense where the secretary can have all of that functional expertise integrated into a mission team. The business world started realizing this in the late 1980s when they created cross-functional teams that had all of the expertise of the company in one room to solve a problem quickly. When Toyota did it, they found out they could design an automobile with 30 percent of the effort. DoD could do the same thing. The slow, ponderous process we have in the Pentagon is in part because of the functional boundaries we have between our organizations in the Pentagon. They’re very rigid.”

Just as contemporary organizational theory has changed over the last 30 years, so have the weapons of modern warfare, experts noted.

Cyber is an area that the current Pentagon organizational structure is ill-suited to address, said Hamre, who thinks that any upcoming update to Goldwater-Nichols should take the acquisition of most command, control and computing systems out of the hands of the military services and centralize them within a joint DoD organization.

“We’re very, very fractured right now,” he said.” The services buy the IT systems, they’re operated in regional command theatres with some guidance from U.S. Cyber Command. I think the services need to keep buying their own military hardware, but I’m of the view that we need to start buying command and control systems as a centralized process. It’s the only way we’re going to get interoperability, it’s the only way we’re going to get our arms around cyber vulnerability within the department.”

Aside from criticizing managerial inefficiencies and the decline in DoD’s dollar-for-dollar purchasing power, McCain did not offer any indication of what direction his committee is likely to head in its new quest for DoD organizational reform, other than to offer assurances that his committee will act judiciously.

“We will not jump to conclusions and we will not tilt to the symptoms of problems,” he said. “We will look deeply at the incentives and the root causes that cause behavior, and we will be guided by the principle of ‘first do no harm.’ It will also be bipartisan. That’s how Goldwater-Nichols came about three decades ago, and that’s how we’re going to approach this challenge today.”