WASHINGTON — According to expert testimony on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Defense Department is straining under a lumbering, outmoded and top-heavy command structure in dire need of an overhaul to compete with faster-moving adversaries and eliminate government waste.
Partially to blame is the committee's last major overhaul of the Defense Department, the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act.
Two former staffers who midwifed Goldwater-Nichols, now leading thinkers on national security, urged lawmakers to address some of the law’s problematic results: James Locher, a Joint Special Operations University senior fellow, and John Hamre, CEO of the Center For Strategic And International Studies and chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, and — plus Jim Thomas, of the Center For Strategic And Budgetary Assessments.
"No organizational blueprint lasts forever," Locher said at a SASC committee hearing review the 30-year-old law.
In the name of curbing inter-service rivalries, Goldwater-Nichols strengthened joint regional combatant commands and made joint duty assignments important to an officer's career. The law also elevated combatant commands to report to the defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs to become the president's military adviser, while service chiefs became focused as force and resource providers.
But the law also unintentionally fueled personnel bloat within joint organizations, as billets were created to provide officers with joint experience. Combatant commands, envisioned as war-fighting headquarters when they were enlarged by the law, now largely play a support role as the Pentagon uses ad hoc task forces to run combat operations.
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, Locher said. None of main actors can decide anything alone, which drives a Byzantine process of coordination and concurrences between them.
SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain and his House counterpart, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, have made acquisition reform a top priority and a central piece of the 2016 defense policy bill, but it remains to be seen whether their efforts will yield a holistic organizational overhaul for the Pentagon.
McCain said the effort's principles include providing for a more efficient defense management; strengthening the all-volunteer joint force; enhancing innovation and accountability in defense acquisition; supporting current and future troops; improving the development of policy, strategy and plans, and increasing the effectiveness of military operations.
The experts said tough and lengthy work awaits reformers, with some opportunities for incremental fixes — particularly in cooperation with the reform-minded Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Goldwater-Nichols drew its urgency from military failures in Vietnam, Iran and Grenada, and succeeded because it grew out of bipartisan consensus and overcame strong opposition from the Defense Department.
On Tuesday, McCain seemed to link acquisition reform and other Pentagon inefficiency, saying flab on the military's support side is untenable as its fighting end gets leaner. He lamented that defense spending since 1986 has been near constant while combat brigades, ships and combat air squadrons have fallen in size.
"More and more of our people and money are in overhead functions, not operating forces," said McCain, R-Ariz. "And all too often, we see instances where our senior leaders feel compelled to work around the system, not through it, in order to be successful — whether whether it is field and critical and urgently needed new weapons, establishing ad hoc joint task forces to fight wars, or formulating a new strategy when we were losing the war in Iraq."
The Defense Department could look to the commercial sector for more agile, efficient organizational models. A commercial satellite firm's headquarters, Hamre said, might have 10 people filling a role that would take more than 500 in a military equivalent. Hamre, among other ideas, suggested combining the warehousing Defense Logistics Agency with US Transportation Command.
"There are more people in the Army today with their fingers on a keyboard than a trigger," Hamre said. "We can live with the money you've given us if we can make real changes."
Opinions on the panel varied subtly about how to restructure unified combatant commands. Hamre suggested they fill a vital role in building relationships with foreign militaries, but could continue with less of their "beefy" staffs, while Locher said they should be at least consolidated. Thomas suggested splitting the war-fighting and engagement roles.
Locher said the Joint Chiefs chairman needs to be given directive authority on behalf of the defense secretary and greater authority to decide between the competing demands of the regional commands to develop global strategy. Otherwise the panel discussed the possibility of a high command staff made up of top strategists.
"No military leader in our current system is empowered to prioritize efforts across regions and produce something analogous to the very simple but highly effective strategy Gen. George Marshall articulated for dealing with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan upon US entry into World War II: Win in Europe, hold in the Pacific," Locher Thomas said.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, told the panel that the effort will run into lawmakers entrenched constituencies, such as US Pacific Command, which is in her district. How might they move forward?
After 30 years of various reform efforts, "There is no low-hanging fruit," Locher said. "Everything is hard now and we have to make hard choices."