WASHINGTON — The time is right to reorganize how the Jjoint Sstaff operates, which could include a voluntary staff downsizing and changing responsibilities, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday.
Gen. Joe Dunford told an audience hosted by the Center for a New American Security that he was keeping an open mind and gathering information about how the joint force staff is organized, which could lead to big changes — including whether the Unified Command Plan, which governs the responsibilities of the combatant commands.
"I do think that some of the discussions about the joint staff is probably fair," Dunford said. "The joint staff, over time for a variety of reasons, has begun to do things that I think we can probably walk away from."
As an example, Dunford said he does not intend to offer a Joint Chiefs recommendation on matters such as pay changes unless directly requested to do so, preferring to focus more on strategy and readiness, which he said should be the core functions of the chiefs.
Because of that, Dunford indicated cuts could be coming early next year, noting "I want to do this right and probably will do this sometime after the first of the year, and look at people and say 'It's not what you're doing — you're doing a great job — but we're going to divest ourselves of these functions."
While disagreeing with the common wisdom that the staff has grown too large, Dunford did note he was "much happier as a colonel" when he knew everyone on his staff and was able to interact with them quickly and efficiently.
The chairman's comments come at a time when Sen. John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Service Committee, has held a series of hearings on whether the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which underpins the roles and responsibilities of the defense secretary, the Joint Chiefs chairman, the service secretaries and service chiefs, as well as DoD's unified commands around the globe.
Many of those called to testify before McCain were also summoned to the Pentagon in November to meet with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, in what appears to be part of a Pentagon effort to counter McCain's suggestions with its own reform efforts.
Dunford acknowledged that McCain is "running pretty hard" on this issue, and indicated this was an issue he was interested in dealing with sooner rather than later.
"I'm not fighting to hang on to what we have today," Dunford said. "I just want to make sure we spend 80 percent of our time trying to solve the problems for tomorrow and 20 percent of our time developing the wire diagram and talking about how big we have to be."
What the final form the Pentagon reforms could take is still unclear, but the chairman hinted he would consider a change in how the secretary of defense receives information.
"I do believe that there needs to be a staff that has a perspective of all the combatant commanders that can actually provide the secretary of defense for a common operating picture," he said, comparing it to the layout of the nuclear command and control chain of command, which he described as much more streamlined. "That's not, as you know, currently what the joint staff is designed to do."
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.