The Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 is the recent piece of legislation most centrally important to the organization of contemporary national fighting force. Whereas the command structure centrally existed prior to the statute, Goldwater Nichols solidified the dual chains-of-command emanating down from the executive (President, SecDef, NSC) in two distinct streams. One is control over the Joint Chiefs of Staff – the service chiefs responsible for the institutional priorities of the respective services – who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the legislature, largely stemming from their reliance on the defense industrial base and civilian support.
The other line of authority, as vastly enhanced by Goldwater Nichols, is the president’s direction over the combatant commands (COCOMs). By streamlining this line-of-communication between the four-star Combatant Commanders of the nine geographic and operational COCOMs and the president (or SecDef/JCS Chairman as his agents), these military leaders have greater operational and political authority within their respective areas-of-responsibility (AORs). Goldwater Nichols largely accomplished said features by establishing the requirement for a joint duty billet for promotion to flag officer within the services, which eliminated the long-standing stigmas against joint duty and encouraged cooperation in-theater.
To that effect, the beauty of Goldwater Nichols is in the eye of the beholder. It institutionalized the service chiefs’ responsiveness to Congress and the COCOM’s allegiance to the executive. In a sense, this divides civilian control into two separate spheres, further cementing the defense mechanism against political-military leadership. Operationally however, the dichotomy can create significant problems in regards to the interplay between procurement, planning, and execution on the battlefield.
In a recent article in Small Wars Journal, Dan McCauley discusses the option to alter the structure created by Goldwater Nichols in order to be more responsive as a national military establishment to the strategic operating environment. He alludes to the difficulty that the service chiefs are inherently occupied by procurement planning and force training (i.e.: buying equipment to be used in-theater 30 years down the line) whereas the COCOMs are occupied by operations planning and execution. This creates redundancies in procurement and (service) missions when the Joint Chiefs favor a capabilities-approach to planning and the combatant commands favor a threat-based approach.
In order to rectify these divides, McCauley proposes a system in which decentralized planning groups known as PEGs (Planning and Execution Groups) are put in place to coalesce planning differences. PEGs, he writes, “are assigned a top priority plan and have end-to-end responsibility for planning and execution.” In the sense that PEGs would help bridge the gaps between service preferences and effective joint execution of operations by COCOMs, McCauley is definitely on to something. But the hole in his argument is the need for top priority plans, which involves accurate and proactive threat identification: a challenge defense planners have always struggled to overcome.
From admission by well-respected national security leaders occupying positions such as SecDef, JCS Chairman, and CENTCOM Commander, the US military establishment has a poor record in predicting future wars. This is not a criticism borne out of Congressional inquiry or a presidentially-appointed study, but a standard assessment of career officers and civilian leadership. With each technological and communication improvement that gives the military a new capability to embark upon another “Revolution in Military Affairs”, a new threat is created.
Systems can be exploited by the enemy as counterinsurgency strategies are increasingly applicable not only to military tactics as in the past, but also in political and technological realms. The Taliban’s approach of undermining stability through “green-on-blue” attacks in Afghanistan is a perfect example. Forecasting the future is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible. A potential structural change to the military might improve efficiency between the two chains-of-command, but the fundamental problem of predicting the next war may remain.