WASHINGTON — For months, the US defense community has watched closely for signs of how Defense Secretary Ash Carter would attempt to reform the Pentagon structure established by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols legislation.

The answer, it appears, is largely incremental — leaving plenty of space for congressional leadership to take aim at bigger shifts to the department's worldwide structure.

At a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Tuesday, Carter unveiled his vision of how the department should look and made the case why Goldwater-Nichols, enacted in 1986 to meet the threats of that era, must be updated.

"This year, as Goldwater-Nichols turns 30, we can see that the world has changed," Carter said in his 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."

Analysts agree that Carter's suggestions mainly picked around the edges of known issues without making major changes.

"Secretary Carter has picked the low-hanging fruit and found something to please most everyone with these recommendations," said Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute. She added that while there are some solid ideas in Carter's plan, others "are squishy enough to be mostly feel-good efforts that may or may not yield much actual change in departmental operations."

"While the rationale appears to be making the department more agile to transregional and multiple threats, Carter's plan still lacks a larger strategic coherence and multiple major bold, hard and new initiatives," Eaglen said.

A former defense official concurred, saying that "compared to major reform announcements by prior secretaries, Carter's Goldwater-Nichols proposal list comes off as fairly limited," but adding "overall, at this stage in the game, it's probably for the better that Carter kept his proposed basket of reforms limited."

Andrew Hunter, a former Pentagon official now with CSIS, agrees an incremental approach was a smart one for Carter, saying, "I think the incremental approach can be powerful. It gives you a chance to course correct if you get something wrong."

He also believes that approach highlights the difference between when Goldwater-Nichols was enacted and now. The legislation was a result of a flawed structure causing the failure of operations, whereas the reforms Carter and the Hill are considering are being done for strategic reasons.

"An incremental approach is maybe more appropriate at a time that, it's not that our operational art is faulty but rather that we're not as efficient as we should be," he said.

Arnold Punaro, a former Marine Corps major general and Senate Armed Services Committee staff director, agreed the incremental approach fits the current challenge.

"Today's reform initiatives need to be understood in the context that 2016 is very different from 1986," he said.

"First, the threats are fundamentally different than the Cold War with a world that is now more unstable and unpredictable. Second, unlike 1986 when there was total opposition in the Pentagon to any of the changes the Congress was considering, today's Pentagon civilian and military leaders recognize the need to update this 30-years-old legislation and have stated they will work with the Congress; third, the military is not broken as was the case in 1986, so the revolutionary type changes required in 1986 are not needed in some areas," Punaro said.

Chain of Command

Goldwater-Nichols streamlined the military chain of command, running it from the president through the defense secretary to joint combatant commanders and largely bypassing the service chiefs, whose focus became training and equipping personnel. Today there are nine unified combatant commands, six aligned geographically, plus US Strategic Command, US Special Operations Command and US Transportation Command.

In his speech, Carter said he would not seek to add the chairman of the Joint Chiefs into the chain of command, but would codify the chairman as the top military adviser to the secretary and president. That's something Carter himself acknowledged is already happening, noting "as a practical matter everyone knows I look to Gen. [Joe] Dunford to do that, but I think it's worth writing it down."

Eaglen called the choice to keep the chairman out of the chain of command the "biggest decision" from Carter, something Hunter agreed with. But the former defense official cautioned that Carter's terms were fairly vague and "merit scrutiny."

"Why, to use Carter's words, do they merit writing down, given that he looks to the chairman to play that role already? Would this actually delegate new authority to the chairman or just clarify his role?" the former official asked.

Another point Carter put forth was giving the service chiefs a greater role in acquisition, something that Congress requested during its reform efforts last year. Carter did say he would look at "potentially reducing" the Defense Acquisition Board, which is comprised of 35 principals and advisers. The secretary also pledged to cut down the size of the headquarters staff in line with a 25 percent congressionally ordered reduction

Both those are largely improvements or tweaks of previously legislated actions, the analysts agreed.

"It's a little bit more of the same," Hunter said of the acquisition comments. "My sense is that now what they are going to do is go through and say wherever you changed a statute last year, now we need to change the policy and the regulations to actually reduce documentation."

More notable was a decision to winnow the number of four-star billets down to the three-star level in order to avoid being, as Carter put it, too "top-heavy."

Punaro said that should have "a significant impact on thinning and reducing the management layers and 'brass creep'  that has grown" in recent years, noting that such a move could come from the executive branch rather than requiring congressional action, as the president can decide which spots come with a  three- or four-star requirement.

Perhaps the most practical impact from the secretary could come from a plan 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.

Congress Wants More

The Pentagon has made a conscious effort to get out in front of Goldwater-Nichols reforms after falling behind Congress on acquisition reforms last year. As a result, Carter met with a number of former top Pentagon officials to gather their ideas on how best to move forward.

However, while Carter did not tackle big changes to the COCOM structure, the Hill, and in particular Senate Armed Services Chairman Sen. John McCain of Arizona, may look to go farther, Eaglen predicted.

"I expect the Senate's work on this to be much more hard-hitting, controversial and potentially significant in fundamentally changing some departmental plans, processes and operations," she said.

There will be overlap between the SASC and Pentagon proposals, McCain said April 5, but he said his would go "much further" than DoD's, adding that "there are a lot of things they won't like, but there are a lot of things we both like."

Pressed for details the next day, McCain would say only that his suggestions would be "more comprehensive and more controversial."

Asked specifically if those changes would involve the COCOM structure, McCain said "sure" but wouldn't confirm that meant consolidating some of those regional responsibilities.

That could include going after the regional COCOMs and combining some of them, a popular debating point in Washington military circles. There is some also 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.

Carter, notably, did not comment specifically on the issue of elevating CYBERCOM, but left the door open by saying "we should consider changes to cyber's role in DoD's Unified Command Plan."

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, and the two sides of the Hill are working together to craft a document.

Punaro said he does not expect a push to put the chairman directly into the chain of command to come from the Hill. But he does expect "common-sense" changes to the joint-duty requirement, perhaps in line with what Carter suggested, would likely come from the congressional legislation, and also expressed hope that the Hill will continue to push to limit the size of headquarters personnel.

"Changes to the operational chain while critical should mostly be incremental while changes to the management side need to be much more sweeping," Punaro said. "Chairman McCain has developed a comprehensive and compelling record on what needs to be done in all these areas."

Email: amehta@defensenews.com | jgould@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta | @ReporterJoe

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.

More In Defense News