WASHINGTON — Speaking last month, Sen. John McCain, the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, promised that his version of Goldwater Nichols reform would be "more comprehensive and more controversial" than suggestions unveiled by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

Let it be said that the senator is a man of his word.

On Thursday, McCain's committee unveiled its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, with significant changes sought to the way the Pentagon does business.

Perhaps the most notable change comes on the acquisition side, where McCain seeks to eliminate the position of Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (AT&L), currently held by Frank Kendall.

But a number of changes to the structure of the Pentagon are also suggested, which will likely lead to a robust debate between the SASC, their counterparts in the House, and leadership inside the Pentagon.


As it does with acquisition reform changes, the SASC language goes further then the Pentagon and HASC on reforming the Goldwater Nichols language. A major focus of the language is on reshaping the Combatant Commands, something Carter had said was unnecessary in his version of Goldwater Nichols reform.

First, the language seeks to clarify the role of the COCOMs, establishing "that the primary duties of the COCOMs are to execute the national defense strategy in consultation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to prepare and plan for conflict, to take necessary actions to deter conflict, and if directed by the Secretary, to command U.S. armed forces in combat."

The language also orders the Pentagon to "conduct a pilot program on an alternative organizational structure at one combatant command." The secretary would pick a command of his or her choice and "replace the service component commands with joint task forces focused on operational military missions" in order to see how that would operate.

Finally, it would create a "Combatant Commanders Council, consisting of all the COCOMs, the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Defense." The draft language makes it sound as if this would be a Joint Chiefs-like group for the various COCOMs.

The language does not, however, seek to elevate US Cyber Command to a full COCOM, something that McCain had indicated an interest in during past discussions.

Reducing the Generals

Like the Carter language, the SASC bill takes aim at reducing the number of general officers. However, it goes deeper than Carter's suggestions, seeking to reduce the total number of generals by 25 percent.

While the overall number of generals would come down, the cuts fall disproportionately on the three-and-four star level, in order to "allow the services a broader base to develop future leaders."

In particular, the current 41 four-star billets would be knocked down to 27, comprised of "the Chairman, Vice Chairman, and other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including the head of the National Guard Bureau; the Combatant Commanders; the Commander of U.S. Forces – Korea; one additional joint billet for which the President could nominate for advice and consent by the Senate an officer for a four-star joint command (such as the current mission in Afghanistan); and three additional four-star billets each for the Army, Navy, and Air Force to be filled as they choose."

Reducing Staff Size

Inside the building, the language would reduce the number of Senior Executive Service civilians by 25 percent. The size of the civilian workforce has long been an issue for McCain. That reduction would have to be complete by January of 2019.

Although outside of the Pentagon structure, the language caps the staff of the National Security Council at 150. Republicans in both the House and Senate have raised concerns over the size of the NSC, which has grown to roughly 400 under the Obama administration.

And like the House, the SASC wants to do away with the Quadrennial Defense Review, replacing it with a classified National Defense Strategy.


In addition to the Goldwater-Nichols changes, the SASC language includes a number of program-focused decisions, including:

  • Dissolves the F-35 joint program office once the jet reaches full rate production in April 2019 and devolves responsibilities to Departments of the Navy and the Air Force.
  • Prevents the retirement of the A-10 until "until F-35 Joint Strike Fighter initial operational testing (IOT&E) and evaluation is completed."
  • Reduces authorization for the B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber by $302 million "due to a lower than expected contract award value," while also requiring "disclosure of the engineering and manufacturing development total contract award value to congressional defense committees."
  • Prohibits revisions to or deviations from the current Littoral Combat Ship acquisition strategy, including procurement of both LCS designs in 2017, a down-select to a single variant no later than 2019, and a reduction in the inventory objective to 40 ships.
  • Limits fund for the Air Force’s EC-130H Compass Call recapitalization unless the service "conducts a free and open competition for replacement aircraft."
  • Limits funds for the Air Force’s Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) recapitalization program unless the service "uses a fixed price contract for engineering and manufacturing development." McCain has felt strongly in the past about the importance of fied price contracts.
  • Adds $50 million for the departments’ Third Offset Strategy series of technology programs.

Joe Gould in Washington contributed to this report.

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

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.

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