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


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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