Don’t Leave Jointness to the Services: Preserving Joint Officer Development amid Goldwater-Nichols Reform

December 30, 2015

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You can’t say they’re not ambitious: While simultaneously facing the myriad problems of a disintegrating global order and resetting from two long wars amid tightening budgets, our senior military and civilian leaders are also undertaking a fundamental revamp of the personnel systems that have shaped our joint force for decades. In addition to the just-announced opening of all military career fields to women, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter recently published the first tranche of proposals from Force of the Future, a reform effort that aims to import from the civilian sector some of the best practices of 21st-century talent management. Meanwhile, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees are considering sweeping reform of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is launching “Joint Forces Next,” a study to “evolve how we select, train, educate, and manage the talent of tomorrow’s leaders.”

Each of these efforts is ambitious and courageous and should be applauded. The inadequacies of our industrial-era recruitment, training, promotion, and retention systems are well documented and all too familiar to those of us who serve.

Change is badly needed and we should not let orthodoxy or inertia stand in the way, but neither should we pursue change for its own sake or try to fix what’s not broken. Our first commitment, as both Hippocrates and the House Armed Services Committee would have it, should be to do no harm. Three decades under Goldwater-Nichols and more than a decade at war have built a culture of true jointness that is the envy of militaries around the world. As officers currently serving in joint assignments, we fear that some of the changes now under consideration place that jointness at risk. We encourage our decision-makers to consider carefully the potential impact of these proposals, both individually and in combination.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act was itself ambitious in fixing a disjointed and parochial Department of Defense. Among its many reforms, the legislation tackled a deep-seated resistance among the services to sending officers to joint staffs: Officers understood that joint tours were “the kiss of death” for their careers and so joint billets were often filled by the unwilling and the incapable, and for as short a term as possible. The services, in turn, knew that controlling assignments and promotions allowed them to protect their parochial interests against entreaties for greater jointness. To fix this, the act mandated that officers receive both education (via professional military schools) and experience (via specially coded billets on joint staffs) in joint matters as a prerequisite for promotion to the general and flag officer ranks. It also required officers to serve in these joint billets for a minimum of 22 months, and it created the Joint Officer Management system to ensure compliance and reward joint experience.

While still new, Force of the Future represents the most mature of the current reform initiatives. Among many other proposals, it endeavors to modernize joint professional development by (1) broadening the Goldwater-Nichols definition of “joint matters” and making experience-based joint duty the primary accreditation mechanism for joint qualified officers; (2) removing minimum tour length as a requirement for joint experience; and (3) removing the joint qualification requirement for selection to general and flag officer ranks. The intent is to provide greater flexibility for the services themselves to determine what makes an officer sufficiently “joint,” and to relieve current constraints to permit the “career-planning flexibility required in a talent-management system.”

Implicit in this approach is the widely accepted sense that, since Goldwater-Nichols and over a decade of joint battlefield effort, jointness has been “achieved” and no longer needs to be forced. There is truth here — both of us, like many of our peers, have wondered at the preoccupation with jointness that animates our more senior leaders, while junior and mid-grade officers take it for granted. Even so, the structural incentives that necessitated the forcing functions of Goldwater-Nichols remain, and recent budget tension has inspired a frightening recidivism toward service parochialism, even among junior officers.

Reformers must not lose sight of the fact that promoting the ability to function jointly in the battlespace — and even developing sufficient experience in future leaders — is only part of the ask. The joint qualified officer requirements also ensure that the Joint Staff, the unified combatant commands, and the other standing joint force headquarters that employ our military forces in support of policy ends are staffed with officers of sufficient quantity and quality — officers steeped in their own service specialties but broadly similar enough in experience and education to bring added value, regardless of their uniform. Awarding joint credit for any assignment — to include those in service organizations, temporary task forces, defense agencies, and joint training schools — undermines this very important function. And eliminating the minimum tour length for joint credit while retaining service-owned joint billets will encourage exactly the “box checking” that the proposal seeks to correct, as services return to the too-short joint tours that characterized the pre-1986 system and contributed to its dysfunction.

The fundamental problem remains that while officers may be developed in joint billets, they are promoted by their services. The proposal claims that joint service is sufficiently valued by today’s officers that they will voluntarily seek out “the obvious benefits of a joint assignment.” We’d like to think that’s true, but that doesn’t mean that joint service is sufficiently valued by our services, and we still have to get promoted. Many officers in joint assignments (including both of us) have been advised by senior mentors that we need to get back to our services because the question at every board is still, “what have you done for me lately?” The services still want their best officers doing service work, and we are simply not confident that, without the forcing functions of Goldwater-Nichols, the services won’t once again devalue their contribution to joint staffs. This will, by definition, make our joint force headquarters less capable.

Removing the joint qualified officer requirement for promotion to general and flag ranks is equally problematic. Left to their own devices, the services would naturally celebrate and promote the officers with the most expertise in their particular domain. The Air Force wants generals with deep expertise and leadership in the employment of air and space power, the Army in land power, and so on. This makes sense — each service’s titular responsibility is to maximize its contribution to the joint fight. But none of them are ultimately accountable for jointness itself. If implemented, these changes could result in a cadre of senior leaders who are consummate experts in their service specialty but who have little meaningful joint experience. This will be the pool of officers from which leaders pick our future combatant commanders and our future chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was this recognition that drove the joint imperatives of Goldwater-Nichols, and they are no less important today.

It is true that the department needs to do a better job of awarding joint credit where it is deserved. The joint duty assignments list maintained by statute is in dire need of updating to reflect continued changes in the structure of joint force headquarters. At present, most commands resort to a high-stakes shell game to get joint credit for the right officers. Being an Air Force travel planner to an Army four-star has no greater (and perhaps significantly less) joint value than coordinating air and naval assets in a Combined Air and Space Operations Center to meet Army and Marine Corps requirements. Yet, the former yields “joint credit” while the latter presently does not. It is appropriate to recode billets to recognize assignments that are truly joint in nature, and to develop a better system for awarding experience-based joint credit when it is truly earned outside of coded billets. But the spirit of the legislation must be preserved.

The potential impact of the other two initiatives remains to be seen. Discussion surrounding congressional Goldwater-Nichols reform indicates that Congress may seek to reduce the number of joint billets in order to reduce the size of headquarters that are seen as bloated and inefficient. That may be appropriate as the overall size and composition of the joint force changes, but we encourage the committees to remember that joint billets serve not just to staff the headquarters but also to train and qualify joint officers for positions of greater leadership, and any reforms must retain sufficient billets to serve both roles.

Joint Force Next is still in concept form, and we trust that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, will make preserving and enhancing joint officer development a top priority of his initiative. In fact, we submit that Joint Force Next represents an opportunity to bridge the efforts of Congress and Secretary Carter to ensure that their combined effect not only avoids regression, but consolidates the gains of Goldwater-Nichols and the experiences of a generation of officers that know only joint operations. This is a chance to make the joint force even stronger and more cohesive. To that end, we humbly offer some first principles that might guide such an endeavor:

1. Capitalize on this generation to reinforce jointness. Today’s mid- and junior-grade officers joined a force that was a generation or more beyond Goldwater-Nichols — its precepts and forcing functions are our status quo. And all our experience — particularly our combat experience — has underscored the value of joint operations. The fact that most of us take jointness for granted is both an opportunity and a risk: No one needs to convince us of the value of jointness, but we may not appreciate how difficult it was to achieve or how easy it might be to lose.

2. Strengthen the services without weakening the joint force. This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. The joint force benefits from the expertise and diversity of its officers at the tactical and operational levels, and will always want the most experienced pilots in the air and the most capable commanders on the ground. But reformers must not buy that deep expertise by shortchanging jointness and developing officers whose education and experience is so stove-piped as to be useless or even detrimental on joint staffs or in joint command positions.

3. Identify and reward joint experiences. As discussed, there is little question that the joint duty assignments list should be updated and that joint experience should be rewarded however it’s attained. Expanding and enhancing joint education, recognizing joint experience, and rewarding those officers who seek joint exposure should be part of any reform.

4. Loosen the forcing functions judiciously. The structural incentives for the services to guard their equities have not changed. While greater career flexibility could be a boon to both the individual and the institution, any reform must make joint service more desirable — not less desirable — for our future leaders and the services that manage them.

5. Some uniformity is useful. The primary products of Air Force officer development are no longer Air Force officers — they are joint officers. So too with the other services. It stands to reason that the department should apply and leverage common standards of education and experience.

If the principles above are merely guidelines for reform, we can imagine their application — and by extension, the creation of a new generation of joint endeavor — manifesting in a variety of ways. This reform effort could be the opportunity to move beyond conceptual jointness toward cross-domain, fully integrated joint warfighting. Where the current system develops domain experts, a new system could offer alternate career tracks — allowing some officers to focus exclusively on their domain specialty while others opt to seek joint qualification and compete for joint commands. Or it could develop officers in the “T” model, with deep expertise in one area and broad joint expertise at higher ranks. We can picture a system in which there is some form of joint officer evaluation system, since evaluating officers within a single joint headquarters according to four separate service evaluation systems is cumbersome and all but meaningless. If a single form is sufficient to evaluate Air Force officers from fighter pilots to finance, and another form can rate Army officers from infantry to intelligence, could there be one rating scheme for the staff officers doing similar jobs in the same headquarters? The department could even expand on the definition of “joint” to include an array of experiences and contributions — including outside the joint force in industry, academia, or the interagency — as a logical extension for this reform effort, and one that builds the same cooperative mechanisms across the whole-of-government that benefit the U.S. military today. Our current national security challenges require the integration of diplomacy, law enforcement, financial interdiction, industrial innovation, and governance reform. A system that values and rewards officers with experience in those realms might be an appropriate extension of Goldwater-Nichols that can be achieved in this reform effort.

The alignment of congressional and Department of Defense reform initiatives is an inflection point, an unprecedented opportunity to lock in the strengths of the current joint force and build upon them. But there is also great risk that careless reform will erode the gains made thus far. Service slogans aside, it is joint force commanders and headquarters that fight and win our nation’s wars. The services are force providers — they provide combat ready formations to be employed by joint force commanders, and they provide qualified staff officers to man their headquarters. The services should have maximum latitude in the personnel functions of their “organize, train, and equip” responsibilities, and these three reform initiatives rightly aim to give them that latitude. But when it comes to defining who and what a joint officer is, the individual services cannot have the final word. We’ll refrain from analogizing about foxes and henhouses, but jointness is simply too important to be left to the services.


Lieutenant Colonel Ryan Shaw is an Army Strategist currently assigned to North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command. Among other assignments, he commanded a Cavalry Troop in Operation Iraqi Freedom and taught history at West Point. He is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University.

Major Miriam Krieger is an Air Force officer and Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University. She flies F-16s and currently works in the Pentagon in the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The views and opinions offered in this article are the authors’ own and do not reflect official positions of the Army, Air Force, or any element of the Joint Force.


Photo credit: Navy Media Content Services

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6 thoughts on “Don’t Leave Jointness to the Services: Preserving Joint Officer Development amid Goldwater-Nichols Reform

  1. If its not broken, don’t go about fixing it.

    However, do work on the margins to adjust some of the idiocy that occurs in the current Joint Duty Assignment List (great example provided by the authors).

    I’d also suggest that certain specialties (Strategist, Strategic Intelligence, Foreign Area Officer as examples) are so inherently joint that most of their promotions to O-6 should be joint board process as opposed to being left to the services

  2. Bravo to the officers for writing this. It is substantively correct in its judgments and concerns. Ike Skelton is rolling over in his grave at these proposals—that the authors criticize. This would be nothing less than going back to all the bad things GNA fixed while keeping its worst elements intact. Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) is tied directly to GNA and the Skelton Panel and it would suffer immensely if this was implemented, there would be no reason for officers to receive the education it offers as to JPME.

    What the folks proposing this ignore is history itself. Yeah, the current generation might see the “goodness” of jointness, but that is no guarantee that the next will. Look how quickly the hard won lessons of jointness were unlearned after World War II, and the 1947 National Security Act did nothing to counteract that—creating two more parochial services if you will, the CIA and the Air Force, but I digress. Each generation may not be as “blessed” (I use that term with trepidation) to see the advantages of jointness offered by the last 14 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, locales that were very idiosyncratic and did not, for example, offer much in the way of joint lessons for navies. IN fact, I will go the authors one better, there needs to be more joint forcing functions in place not fewer. The elimination of joint duty assignment list (JDAL) credit at most JPME institutions for sister service instruction at a stroke caused the services to instantly devalue these former-joint billets and not send their very best, and in some cases their average, officers as faculty.

    Jointness is not like affirmative action, it must be relearned by each generation, we cannot count on the ideal joint-operational environment or the right kind of war to confer the proper joint experience. Jointness has a short half life in an officer corps, say 20 years. Do not dishonor Ike Skelton by supporting these truly misguided initiatives.

    John T. Kuehn
    15.5 years of JPME faculty experience (and a retired Navy Officer, too)

  3. There is no doubt that the Goldwater Nichols Act provisions were useful in building the joint force that executed primarily air/ground task force operations around the Eurasian littoral over the last 30 years. That said, the provisions of the Goldwater Nichols legislation and the new era of strategic geography the nation entered in the last 3-5 years may not be compatible. Contrary to what Dwight Eisenhower claimed in 1945, the principles of warfare are not the same for all services and all combat environments. Future wars could be confined to air and naval combat in some geographic areas and not need a full “joint” package of capabilities.

    Some elements of professional military education were in fact harmed by the Goldwater Nichols legislation as they affected the services’ abilities to produce the best warfare-qualified officers for the services’ combat arms. Navy officers, for example, have fewer opportunities to command at multiple ranks and stay in command for shorter periods of time than they did before 1986. The rush to meet joint requirements has perhaps caused a lessening of overall professionalism within the warfare disciplines of all armed forces.

    Goldwater Nichols was not a final victory, but rather a compromise. Reform advocates never got there full list of demands which included the organization of the armed forces along mission lines. Ike Skelton wanted a much more rigid plan for JPME as well, but was rebuffed by the services. Congress never created the Joint Staff as a full general staff. Reform advocates compensated for these shortfalls through a fictional account of their effort that suggested a much more modest set of goals.

    So-called defense “parochialism” was in fact more entrenched by the changes of the Goldwater Nichols provisions where “joint” concerns mandated an even division of funds amongst the services rather than allow a defense marketplace of ideas to select which service had the best plan for its share of defense spending.

    The authors here need not be that concerned. The concept of unity of command at the operational and tactical level, the hallmark of Western arms since the days of the Roman Legions, is not under threat. No defense organization structure lasts forever and Goldwater Nichols is in need of review and reform. The JPME system will likely see some change as well, but not in any way that harms military professionalism. JPME can start by admitting that not all future scenarios involve an air/ground military operation against a rouge/failed state or non-state actor on the Eurasian littoral. The tyranny of jointness cannot be allowed to hamstring the ability of US military and civilian leaders to confront the challenges of the post-Post Cold War era. Give Congressional reformers the opportunity to reform the nation’s defense organization and attendant military education system for the challenges of a new strategic era.

    Steven Wills, LCDR, USN (ret)
    PhD Candidate in Military History, Ohio University

  4. I agree that jointness is too important to be left to the services, but creating a new Joint Evaluation System would simply enlarge and unify the problems of our current officer evaluations.

    I am a Navy aviator, but but nothing on my FitRep explicitly cares about how well I am in the aircraft. As a result, I have seen many officers promoted on the basis of their “ground jobs” who had little to no business flying the government’s aircraft. O-4s and O-5s who are subpar operators hamper our tactical abilities, in no small part by crowding out the officers who are truly skilled at their operational functions. I bring this up because there are many areas where we are bleeding (expensive) operational talent because we have an inflexible one-track officer personnel system.

    My suggestion: we don’t all have to be “joint.” There should be three distinct paths for line officers, each with their own pros and cons:

    1) Command Duty Officers – officers who would rise through the ranks, taking staff and intraservice broadening tours. This is effectively the present officer pipeline for most services today.

    2) Operational Duty Officers – officers with limited command or promotion prospects, but the opportunity to continue in a given operational specialty for a career. By remaining in tactical fields, ODOs could gain and maintain considerable experience with joint military operations at the tactical level.

    3) Joint Staff Officers – these would be the joint officers, tasked with joint planning and coordination and the strategic level. This community would be top-heavy, only taking lateral transfers from midgrade officers and higher, but would be home to most flag officer billets. To ensure dedication to coordination and limit parochialism, it would be extremely rare for a JSO to have operational command.

    To accomplish effective command, tactical excellence, and joint integration requires prioritizing. Rather than prioritizing time within a career between those three, we should be prioritizing whole careers to excel at one of the three tracks.