Best Defense

Face it, Goldwater-Nichols hasn’t worked

Face it, Goldwater-Nichols hasn’t worked

By Col. Gary Anderson (USMC, Ret.)
Best Defense department of defense de-organization

Three decades ago, when the military reform movement was beating the drum for what became the Goldwater-Nichols legislation, a number of us in uniform and out, were trying to sound a cautionary note. We got outvoted and the legislation passed. "Jointness" became the new mantra, and arguing against it became heresy, if not hate speak. Based on recent events, it may be time to reassess Goldwater-Nichols.

The proponents of the elevation of jointness to absolute military supremacy claimed that it would prevent long open ended wars such as Korea and Vietnam by giving the President and Secretary of Defense better military advice than they got in such conflicts. The reformers also promised more competent and professional military leadership and less cumbersome command arrangements. The results of the wars in Kosovo and Operation Desert Storm in the immediate aftermath of the Goldwater-Nichols legislation seemed to confirm the validity of those promises; but somewhere in the ensuing decades, the wheels came off.

Instead of fast and clean conflicts, we got Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only were they long and strategically muddled, they were also poorly executed by the joint institutions that Goldwater-Nichols was supposed to fix. In his new book, The Generals, Pulitzer Prize winning author Tom Ricks ruthlessly exposes the myth that our generalship was improved by Goldwater-Nichols. He argues that the generalship of the likes of Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez was marked by absolutely mediocre planning and strategic leadership. In Afghanistan, we have had averaged one supreme leadership change a year. In addition the Navy relieved more commanders than in any time in its history, and the other services have been plagued by instances of misconduct by senior officers.

Many of those who argued for Goldwater-Nichols used the German General Staff as a model to aspire to. While the German generals were superb at tactics, they were lousy strategists. After winning the wars of German unification in the nineteenth century, they lost two disastrous world wars. As Ricks points out, our generals are good tacticians, but poor strategists. Ironically, the reformers got what they wished for.

The problem is not just with general officers; our joint staffs have become bloated with unneeded officers due to the legislative mandate that every officer aspiring to reach flag rank has to serve two years in a joint billet. No-one has ever explained how serving as a Joint Graves Registration Officer will produce our future Grants, Shermans, or Pattons. There was a time when being selected for major was the great cut in an officer’s career. Today the running military joke is that if you can answer a phone, you can become a Major.

Strengthening the unity of command of joint operations was a good idea, but most of our regional joint staffs are bloated to a point where they ill-serve the commanders who lead them. Because of the number of joint officers the law requires. Admiral Halsey and Rommel won their most famous victories with staffs a fraction of the size of the average U.S. Army brigade combat team staff today.

This can be fixed. Unfortunately, we will need even more legislation. First, we need to get rid of the requirement that all general officer candidates be joint certified. All of our generals and admirals don’t need to be superb joint war fighting experts. Rommel was not a General Staff officer, and Halsey would not have wanted to be one. The joint staff track should be reserved for those who aspire to eventual joint command and staff positions, but there should not be a stigma for those who want to lead air wings, Marine Corps Expeditionary Forces or Navy fleets; we need real warriors as well as soldier-diplomat strategists.

A smaller, more elite joint staff corps would allow us to concentrate on creating real strategic expertise. Joint Staff candidates should be put through a series of rigorous force-on-force seminar war games that would test their capability to make both diplomatic as well as military decisions against competent, thinking opponents. Those candidates who come up short in such tests should be sent back to their services with no stigma to their careers. Successful graduates would still spend time with troops, fly airplanes, or drive ships when not serving on joint staffs; however, once selected for flag rank, their command and staff positions would be primarily joint. This would allow joint staffs to be smaller and more efficient.

Goldwater-Nichols has institutionalized mediocrity. We can, and must, do better.

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps officer, is an Adjunct Professor at the George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs.