Blogs > Cliopatria > What Was Goldwater-Nichols?

Sep 3, 2004 6:15 pm


What Was Goldwater-Nichols?



Harry Levins, in the St. Louis Post Dispatch (Aug. 29, 2004):

"Goldwater-Nichols" is shorthand for the Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., teamed with Rep. Bill Nichols, D-Ala., to write a bill that shook up the way the Pentagon did business.

Goldwater-Nichols generally gets good grades for streamlining the chain of command and bulldozing the institutional rivalries that kept the armed forces from meshing their skills.

Before Goldwater-Nichols, Americans heard horror stories like the one about the Army airborne lieutenant in the invasion of Grenada in 1983. The lieutenant needed fire support from Navy ships parked offshore. But he lacked any way of reaching the Navy's radios.

In frustration, the lieutenant used a pay phone and a credit card to call his home post, Fort Bragg, N.C. In turn, the folks at Fort Bragg finally got through to the Navy -- the long way around for a simple fire mission.

After Goldwater-Nichols, Americans heard more and more stories about the power of "jointness" -- of the services pooling their power to shock, awe and overwhelm in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.

So the thinking holds: If Goldwater-Nichols squared away the armed forces, surely a similar measure can work wonders with America's flawed and fragmented intelligence agencies.

Maybe. But Goldwater-Nichols was no overnight miracle. Behind that bill stood almost four decades of foot-dragging.

A broken system

The immediate spur to Goldwater-Nichols was an appearance before the House Armed Services Committee in 1982 by Air Force Gen. David Jones, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In effect, he told the lawmakers that the system was broken.

The breakdown was hardly news to anybody familiar with the fiasco known as Desert One - the aborted effort in April 1980 to spring the Americans held hostage in Iran.

Interservice rivalries meant that the soldiers, airmen and Marines who made up the rescue group had never worked, trained or planned together. They could hardly even talk together, because their radios used different frequencies.

And by and large, that's the way things had always operated.

The United States went into World War II not with a single Department of Defense but with two departments - the War Department (the Army and its Army Air Forces) and the Navy Department (which included the Marine Corps).

President Franklin D. Roosevelt imitated the British system by cobbling together an unofficial Joint Chiefs of Staff. But it never worked well. The chairman was a powerless figurehead. Each service tended to fight its own WWII, each in its own wasteful way.

Reform happened after the war, in 1947. Sort of. The Air Force won its independence. The Cabinet got a secretary of defense (but kept the individual service secretaries). And the Joint Chiefs of Staff won legal standing (but lost their chairman).

Not until 1949 did a follow-up law bump the service secretaries off the Cabinet and give the Joint Chiefs a chairman. But the chairman lacked a vote. And each of the members acted first in his own service's behalf, with naught but lip service to the notion of jointness.

The chiefs insisted that any advice to the secretary of defense and the president be unanimous. In practice, the policy meant that the Joint Chiefs' advice was watered-down, lowest-common-denominator stuff.

As a postwar Army chief of staff, Dwight Eisenhower had seen the folly of it all. As president, he decided to fix things. He engineered a bill in 1958 that seemed remarkably similar in some ways to Goldwater-Nichols.

For example, the 1958 bill took the service chiefs out of the operational chain of command. No longer could the Army chief of staff control a corps or the naval chief of operations deploy a fleet.

Instead, the law limited the service chiefs to raising, training and equipping forces. Then, when push came to shove, the service chiefs would turn control of those forces over to multi-service battlefield commands, like the U.S. European Command.

But in reality, the service chiefs never really gave up the reins. The unanimous-advice policy in effect gave each chief a veto. And because the battlefield commands were traditionally the fiefdom of one service or another, the service chief held career clout over the battlefield commander.

That's what Goldwater-Nichols set out to fix, four decades past the end of WWII. Under Goldwater-Nichols:

* The chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the principal dispenser of military advice to the president and the secretary of defense. That advice need no longer be softened until it's acceptable to all the services.
* The four service chiefs are officially pushed out of the operational chain of command. Now, that chain runs from the president to the secretary of defense and through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to the nine "combatant commanders" - people like the general in charge of the U.S. Central Command.
* Nobody can expect to pin on the stars of a general or admiral unless he or she has logged a tour in a joint command, like the multi-service U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base.


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