The Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 emerged from a high-stakes struggle to redesign the relationships between the president, the defense secretary, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior commanders in the field. To be sure, the Pentagon is still rife with territorial squabbles among the services and otherwise, but this legislation largely solved the problem of the military's inability to work as a joint team by establishing the current chain of command and focusing the responsibility of combatant commanders.
The US invasion of Grenada in 1983 is often held up as an example of the problems Goldwater-Nichols was designed to rectify. In a 2013 Boston Globe article, reporter Phil Kukielski offered a series of anecdotes showing how inter-service rivalries proved disastrous in Grenada—any one of which would be a scandal today.
"Four Navy SEALs drowned at the start of a pre-invasion reconnaissance mission after an air drop from an Air Force transport plane," Kukielski wrote. "As the invasion proceeded, Army combat units found that they couldn't talk to Navy support ships offshore because their radios weren't compatible. Navy bureaucrats objected to refueling Army helicopters when they unexpectedly landed on their ships. A Marine officer balked at flying Army Rangers into battle on Marine helicopters. Another Marine officer was so concerned by his lack of coordination with nearby Army paratroopers that he later told an official military historian that he was more afraid of being shot at by the 82nd Airborne than he was of the Grenadian Army. On the third day of fighting, an errant airstrike by a Navy jet wounded 17 Army Rangers, one of whom later died."
Thirty years later, amid various efforts in the Senate and House Armed Services committees, many defense experts say an update to the landmark legislation is overdue.
James Locher III, who served with the Senate Armed Services Committee when the legislation was drafted, told the panel last year that while Goldwater-Nichols improved the ability of the services to operate together more effectively in combat, it altered the Pentagon's internal balance of power between the secretary, the chairman and the service chiefs to become too interdependent. None of main actors can decide anything alone, which drives a Byzantine process of coordination and concurrences between them.
"No organizational blueprint lasts forever," Locher said.
This article is part of a larger Defense News 30-year anniversary project, showcasing the people, programs and innovations from the last three decades that most shaped the global security arena. Go to defensenews.com/30th to see all of our coverage.
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.