The U.S. military of 2011 is, by all accounts, a joint enterprise. It wasn’t always that way.
In 1986, Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act to restructure the Defense Department and break down institutional and cultural barriers between the military services. The pitched battle stretched over four years as reform-minded lawmakers sought to restructure and improve the Pentagon against its own will.
While today’s four military services have their own identities and cultures, they train together and they fight together in ways they did not a quarter century ago. Joint commands and Defense agencies bring the military services together to seamlessly perform missions on behalf of a unified Pentagon. The most prominent and powerful military figures are the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the regional combatant commanders.
But 25 years ago, the power centers were the military services and the service chiefs. Defense reform advocates at the time said those service-centric stovepipes led to an unhealthy competition for resources, effectively prohibited the services from operating jointly and kept the Joint Chiefs from offering timely and relevant military advice to the President. The need for change was ignored for decades
Various studies had pointed out those shortcomings for decades, but the issue never got traction in Congress until the early 1980s.
Rudy DeLeon, a former deputy secretary of Defense who served as a staff member on the House Armed Services Committee beginning in 1985, said that’s when some operational failures finally got Congress to focus attention on the arcane topic of the Pentagon’s organizational chart.
“One was the failure of the U.S. effort to get to the hostages in Iran in 1980, where the elements of the military rescue were only coming together when they were actually flying the mission into Tehran,” he said. “The second big event was the bombing against the U.S. Marine peacekeepers in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983.”
Also in the early 1980s, Congress heard a call for reform from someone with a credible voice on the matter: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff himself.
James Locher, the former Senate Armed Services Committee staff member who shepherded Goldwater-Nichols through the Senate, said in February 1982, Gen. David Jones fired the first shot in a four-year battle to reform the Pentagon.
“He’s such a hero because he broke ranks with the military brotherhood and went to Capitol Hill,” he said. “He said the system was broken and appealed to Congress to fix it.”
Locher, who wrote a comprehensive history of Goldwater-Nichols called “Victory on the Potomac,” said Jones knew at the time that his testimony to a closed session of the House Armed Services Committee could be the start of a “holy war.”
He and then-Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger were there to discuss the DoD budget. Instead, to Weinberger’s surprise, Jones gave an eight-minute statement on the ineffectiveness of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“It is not sufficient to just have weapons systems, dollars and resources,” he told the panel. “We must also have an organization which will allow us to develop the proper strategy, necessary planning, and the full warfighting capability. We do not have an adequate organizational structure today, at least in my judgment.”
Jones had already approached Weinberger with his reform ideas and hadn’t gotten anywhere. If the 45 members of the House Armed Services Committee were surprised by his testimony though, they didn’t show it. Four hours of questions and testimony went by without any significant attention to the bombshell Jones had just dropped.
Finally, the questions came around to a fourth-term Congressman from Missouri, Ike Skelton.
“I remember very well, Gen. Jones was telling us how the Joint Chiefs of Staff doesn’t work and that they would give pabulum advice, least common denominator advice,” Skelton said in an interview. “He really became a pariah among the senior leadership of the military because of that.”
Jones’ testimony also got the attention of an influential House Armed Services Committee staff member named Arch Barrett, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and a student of Defense organization.
Momentum builds for reform
The following year, with a new Congress, Rep. Bill Nichols (D-Ala.) took charge of the investigations subcommittee and Barrett persuaded him to put Pentagon reform at the top of the legislative agenda. They continued to hold hearings on the issue. The panel started examining whether the Pentagon’s organizational structure was at fault for some recent military catastrophes, such as the failed Iranian hostage rescue and the bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut.
Skelton said one of Nichols’ hearings was held on board a ship just off the Lebanese coast.
“He discovered that from the Pentagon to the Marine colonel in charge there, there were 22 links in the chain of command,” Skelton said. “That’s when he got very interested in the subject, thank goodness.”
In 1983, Skelton proposed a reform bill that would become one of the precursors to Goldwater-Nichols.
“I introduced legislation to abolish the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I found out that none of them had a sense of humor,” he said.
Skelton wanted to replace the chiefs with a National Military Council — a group of advisors made up of senior uniformed and civilian personnel that would advise the President, but would have no military authority. Skelton said it got the chiefs’ attention and let them know Congress was serious about Pentagon reform.
They responded, Skelton said, by doing everything they could to derail reform.
“Every service chief, with the exception of one, really said some unkind words to me,” he said. “The (Chief of Naval Operations) met with six of us House members and said, ‘What you’re doing is downright unpatriotic.’ Bill Nichols, who lost part of a leg in Germany in the Second World War, said, ‘Admiral, I resent you calling us unpatriotic,’ and upbraided him. It was an unpleasant situation.” Over the chiefs’ objections, the House passed reform bills three times in the early-to-mid-1980s. Each time, the bill died in the Senate where the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John Tower (R-Texas), saw no need for reform.
That was the case until 1985 when Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) took over as chairman and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) became the ranking member.
“Besides Gen. Jones’ testimony, that partnership between Senator Nunn and Senator Goldwater was the second most important factor in the passage of Goldwater-Nichols,” Locher said.
Goldwater and Nunn began holding hearings in 1985. Meanwhile, Locher and other Senate Armed Services staffers already were working on a detailed, two-year study of the organizational problems at DoD. The committee released the staff report that October, and by then, for Goldwater, the question wasn’t whether DoD needed to be reorganized — it was how?
“Get ready for reform”
At a Dec. 5, 1985 hearing, he told Weinberger to get ready for reform.
“There are people around town who don’t think we’re serious about this, that this is just another political gesture,” Goldwater said. “I only have one more year in this body, and I’ve made the statement that it’s the most important task I’ve ever undertaken. I’m not going to leave here with this thing dragging feet. I just want you to get the idea that we’re serious about this, so you might as well tell your boys over there to get ready. We’re going to do all that we can to help you reorganize.”
Nunn was equally committed, but both he and Goldwater knew that passage of their legislation would be an uphill climb. Opposition from inside DoD was still strong and the two senators were on shaky ground in their own committee.
“The odds are always against making major changes in an existing organization,” Nunn told reporters shortly after the release of the staff report. “Anytime you’re dealing with a military organization, it’s even more difficult.”
By February 1986, Goldwater and Nunn were ready to start debate on a reform bill. Before they presented it to their committee, they arranged a meeting at the Pentagon with the chiefs in the “tank,” the Joint Chiefs’ meeting room. The senators knew they would get opposition but they were taken aback by what they heard.
Locher was in the room for the meeting. By his account, the Army, Navy and Marine Corps chiefs told Goldwater and Nunn that their bill would do irreparable harm to national security; that it would turn combatant commanders into warlords; that it would undermine civilian control of the military; that it would completely subordinate the chiefs to the civilian service secretaries.
“After all that I’ve done for the armed services, I cannot believe that you are accusing me of taking actions that would harm the military,” Goldwater roared back, according to Locher’s book. “If you think you can bully Sam and me, you’re mistaken. You might be able to bully others, but I think you’re taking big risks with your confrontational tactics.”
“This was quite an unusual session,” Locher said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “Normally the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be quite deferential toward the chairman and the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee. They were quite critical. I thought that [the senators] may want to delay and strengthen their position, but it just increased their determination. That meeting convinced them that this was something that was going to have to be enacted by Congress to make these fundamental changes in the Pentagon, so they decided to press ahead.”
Legislation passes easily
Press ahead they did, and Goldwater and Nunn managed to change a lot of minds on their committee, in part, by putting a halt to all other committee activity until the bill was considered. The Goldwater-Nichols legislation went from having a razor-thin margin of support in 1985 to getting a 19-0 unanimous vote to pass the legislation out of the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 1986. Two months later, it passed the full Senate 95 to 0. By August, the House had approved similar legislation, and in October, it got President Ronald Reagan’s signature after a few tense days during which congressional backers feared a veto. Now, 25 years later, not even the military service chiefs advocate a return to the pre-Goldwater Nichols days, when the services reigned supreme.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked each of the chiefs at a Senate Armed Services hearing last month for a show of hands if any of the four leaders thought that Goldwater-Nichols didn’t work. No hands went up.
Graham raised the issue to call the chiefs to task for opposing a modern day-reform: giving the National Guard a seat on the Joint Chiefs. Both houses of Congress have now agreed to that idea over the unanimous objection of the current chiefs.
“The institution resisted Goldwater-Nichols, the institution resisted putting the Commandant of the Marine Corps on the Joint Chiefs,” he said. “If any group ever deserved recognition now, it’s the members of the National Guard.”
As to the Goldwater-Nichols reforms, Locher, who also served as an assistant secretary of Defense in the 1990s, said they’re not just accepted by the current chiefs — they quickly became part of the culture of the military from top to bottom.
“Today, people wonder how in the world we didn’t do this earlier than 1986, it just feels so natural to them,” he said. “If you go out to the field, to the combatant commands, they are thinking joint at every minute. The service parochialism has just completely disappeared and people are amazed at how those organizations are unified.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.