WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Ash Carter wants to clarify the role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, see service chiefs have a greater hand in acquisition, and winnow the number of four-star billets, all part of a major reform effort to the rules that govern the Pentagon.
Carter’s proposals come under the aegis of reforming the 1986 Goldwater Nichols Act, which gave the Pentagon its modern structure. While the system worked well for a time, both members of Congress and Pentagon leaders have expressed a belief that the system needs to be reworked for the modern battlefield.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Tuesday, Carter made the case for why and how the Goldwater-Nichols legislation should be changed.
“This year, as Goldwater-Nichols turns 30, we can see that the world has changed,” Carter said in his prepared remarks. “Instead of the Cold War and one clear threat, we face a security environment that’s dramatically different from the last quarter-century. It’s time that we consider practical updates to this critical organizational framework, while still preserving its spirit and intent.”
The first reform is clarifying the role of the Chairman, currently Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, while still keeping him outside the chain of command. Essentially, it codifies the Chairman's role as the top military adviser.
“We need someone in uniform who can look across the services and combatant commands and make objective recommendations to the department’s civilian leadership about where to allocate forces throughout the world and where to apportion risk to achieve maximum benefit to our nation,” Carter said. “And the person best postured to do that is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”
Carter acknowledged the Chairman is supposed to be the military advisor for the President and secretary, but said in today's world, the role goes beyond that narrow definition.
"It doesn't say [the Chairman is] also the one who supposed to be, everyday and periodically as we move forces around, giving me that advice on where things ought to be and how they ought to be used," Carter said after his speech. "That is self-evidently required in today's world and it wasn’t part of the original conception. As a practical matter everyone knows I look to Gen. Dunford to do that, but I think it's worth writing it down."
The second change focuses on how the Pentagon buys equipment. Congress delivered acquisition reform directives to the Pentagon last year, which Carter said the building would follow, with an emphasis on increasing the acquisition powers held by the individual service chiefs.
This will include evaluating – “and where appropriate reducing” – members of the Defense Acquisition Board, which currently is comprised of 35 principals and advisers.
“Reducing these layers will both free up staff time and focus decision-making energy on overcoming real obstacles to program success rather than bureaucratic hurdles,” Carter said.
Sometimes reform can come from not making big changes, something Carter indicated is the right path with the geographic combatant commands, his third area of focus. Merging several COCOMS, as has been publicly debated around Washington, doesn’t make sense in a world with unique conflicts in many different regions.
“Instead of combining these commands to the detriment of our friends, our allies, and in fact our own command and control capabilities, we intend to be more efficient by integrating functions like logistics, intelligence, and plans across the Joint Staff, the combatant commands, and subordinate commands, eliminating redundancies wherever we find them without losing capability,” he said.
Carter also indicated that the number of four-stars may be winnowed in the future, noting he will “look to simplify and improve command and control where the number of four-star positions have made headquarters either top-heavy, or less efficient than they could be.”
Perhaps most interesting, Carter seemed to leave the door open for a change in status for US Cyber Command, saying “we should consider changes to cyber’s role in DoD’s Unified Command Plan.” That could be a hint that he would consider making Cyber Command a full combatant command.
"We have a cyber command today, and i have given cyber command in the counter-ISIL [the common name for the Islamic State group] fight, really, its first wartime assignment. and we're seeing how that works out," Carter said during a question and answer session after his speech. "
“Where we see potential to be more efficient and effective, billets currently filled by four-star generals and admirals will be filled by three-stars in the future,” Carter added.
Finally, Carter proposes to change the requirement that officers serve in joint roles as they progress in their career, calling the current requirements “more narrow and rigid than they need to be.”
Instead, Carter envisions a situation where officers can receive joint duty credit for operational functions, “such as intelligence, fires, transportation and maneuver, protection, and sustainment, including joint acquisition.”
The secretary also wants to shorten the joint duty requirement time, going from three years to two.
Carter ended his speech with a warning that any change to Goldwater Nichols must make sure to avoid harming the ability of the department to execute its national security mission.
The announcement came as the Senate and House armed services committees are preparing to offer their own version of Goldwater-Nichols reform as part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. What form it will take has yet to be revealed by SASC Chair John McCain, R-Ariz., the point person for the bill.
“We’re still refining a lot of it, it is a very big reform package,” McCain said.
In his prepared remarks, Carter said he had met with McCain, the SASC’s ranking democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, HASC Chair Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, on Tuesday morning. McCain said he had several meetings with Carter and that they had gone well.
McCain told reporters after Carter's remarks that before he is ready to announce his proposals, he plans to consult with Reed, brief the committee and debate the package of reforms in the markup of the 2017 NDAA, which is due to take place in closed session in five weeks.
There will be overlap between the SASC and Pentagon proposals, McCain said, but he said his would go “much further,” and Pentagon officials may not like all of it.
“There are a lot of things they won’t like, but there are a lot of things we both like,” he said.
There is some consensus around elevating US Cyber Command from a sub-combatant command to a full combatant command, McCain said, and he expressed openness to giving the Joint Chiefs chairman “more involvement,” in line with Carter's remarks.
“There is a careful line between the German general staff concept and what it was before, and we’re trying to thread that needle,” McCain said.
Reed and other lawmakers said in advance of the announcement that there were a number of open questions as they consider their own ambitious changes.
“Structural changes, and some of the issues everyone’s talking about, the status of the unified combatant commands, the role of he chairman [of the Joint Chiefs], does that evolve, raising Cyber Command to a full combatant command and the consequences,” Reed said. “Those are going to be the major issues.”