On Goldwater-Nichols and the Centrality of Military Advice


The most important relationship the next secretary of defense will have is with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS). This partnership, shaped by statute and history, can be equally influenced by expectation, personality, trust, and the respective bureaucracies of each actor. Giving attention to this relationship, and to that of their staffs, is particularly critical in an era in which many members of the national security team arrive with little to no experience working directly with military officers.

The experience and expectation gap has arguably been most painfully felt in recent years surrounding the central role of the chairman: the provision of military advice. In both the Bush and Obama administrations, major military decisions — Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and others — have generated tensions about the speed, scope, and process by which military advice is generated and proffered, and about the respective roles of the secretary of defense and chairman in supporting presidential decision-making. Thus, how the secretary and the chairman set expectations for the way they and their staffs will work together merits focused attention. This is a necessary step early in an administration as patterns and habits are set in fulfilling the Department of Defense’s responsibilities in national security decision-making and implementation.

This relationship is central to the Pentagon’s primary role: ensuring America’s military is organized, trained, equipped, and postured in such a way that it can deter and if necessary defeat any plausible military adversary. The secretary of defense supports the commander-in-chief by validating that these ready forces have planned and prepared in such a way that a credible portfolio of military options are available when necessary.

In 1986, with these aims in mind and in response to a series of military failings in Iran and Grenada, Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The measure was designed to break down barriers between the military services to enable a more “joint” total force, both during military operations overseas and also in the context of the military planning and requirements processes in the Pentagon.

Goldwater-Nichols enacted several fundamental changes to the chain of command and the provision of military advice: It made the CJCS the “principal military advisor” to the president, the secretary of defense, and the National Security Council (NSC); it simplified the operational chain of command from the president to the secretary of defense to the regional and functional combatant commanders (thereby taking the military service chiefs out of the chain of command); and it created a more powerful Joint Staff and a vice chairman of that body.

Over the course of decades, these and other changes (such as requiring a joint duty assignment for military officers to be eligible for promotion to flag officer rank) have powerfully shaped the U.S. military in largely positive ways, certainly with respect to active military operations. While never perfect, most who have experienced military operations in both the pre- and post-Goldwater-Nichols eras would never choose the former.

Three decades on, it is appropriate to question whether these reforms still empower the secretary and the CJCS to fulfill their roles and responsibilities effectively and efficiently. Sen. John McCain and the other members and staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee deserve credit for convening an influential series of hearings surrounding the 30th anniversary of the Goldwater-Nichols legislation to consider its success, durability, and relevance to 21st-century challenges.

Several of these hearings explored the legislation’s effects on the role of the CJCS, the Joint Staff itself, and the various regional and functional combatant commands. While Goldwater-Nichols largely succeeded in pushing the military toward more effective joint warfighting, it arguably introduced a degree of ambiguity with respect to the role of the CJCS (and by extension the Joint Staff) and the secretary of defense (and by extension the Office of the Secretary of Defense). In his testimony before the SASC, well-respected defense analyst Jim Thomas cogently developed this point:

By making the Chairman the principal military adviser to both the President and the Secretary of Defense, Goldwater-Nichols inadvertently undermined civilian control and blurred the distinctions between the Secretary’s and Chairman’s responsibilities. … This has created a situation where, de facto, the Chairman has two bosses, one of whom also serves at the pleasure of the other. This matters less in terms of the actual relationships between Secretaries and Chairmen, which have generally been cordial, than it does in terms of the peculiar organizational relationship between the Secretary’s staff in the Office of the Secretary of Defense [OSD] and the Joint Staff.

Thomas is correct that the relationship between OSD and the Joint Staff is peculiar. Over time, both organizations have arguably become nearly entirely duplicative of the other in many areas. Whether it is developing regional strategies and managing bilateral relationships, shaping the contours of current and future military program requirements and procurement priorities, or crafting military contingency plans, one can point to many offices within OSD and the Joint Staff that cover exactly the same portfolios.

If both OSD and the Joint Staff were relatively small organizations with plenty of connective tissue between them and populated by long-serving staff officers, a kind of substantive duplication might work in practice given the unique function and perspective each should, in theory, bring to their roles. But that is not the case. First, as retired Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro described to the SASC, the Joint Staff today has nearly 4,000 people and OSD nearly 5,000 people. Both these organizations are far larger than they were 30 years ago, even though the U.S. military is much smaller. Second, most officers assigned to the Joint Staff serve there for only two to three years as they progress through career paths managed by their parent services. These structural factors tend to make coordination, relationship building, and role delineation more difficult.

Our experiences in the Pentagon tend to confirm Thomas’ views. Too often the dynamic between OSD and the Joint Staff depends on particular personalities reinventing working relationships and interpreting for themselves the proper role of civilian oversight and professional military advice, rather than a leader-driven delineation of roles and responsibilities endorsed by the secretary of defense and the CJCS.

The dynamics between the Pentagon and the White House can be likewise confused. We’ve each witnessed misunderstanding within the NSC staff of the mechanics, purpose, or requirements of military advice, and their own role in that process (NSC directors clearly should not direct detailed military contingency planning or engage the combatant commanders over detailed planning matters without going through OSD). But equally troubling is a dynamic captured in Secretary Gates’s admonition to not share military options with White House staff because “they don’t understand them” — an elevation of the sanctity of military advice impractical for today’s fast-moving challenges and the iterative process of presidential decision-making. Frustrations with this perspective, as well as the time and optimization requirements for deliberative military planning, have led to concerning instances of developing military options outside military channels. We are convinced that the SASC is right to bring attention to Goldwater-Nichols reform as a result of these and other examples many War on the Rocks readers could relate to.

We believe that the core function of the Joint Staff and the combatant command staffs should be developing detailed operational planning for near-term contingency plans and developing joint operational concepts that help drive the development of the future force over the long term. We likewise believe that, at present, there may be dynamics — statutory, resource, or bureaucratic — that prevent the chairman and the Joint Staff from effectively fulfilling this role as demanded by today’s security environment. Supporting this notion, Michael Vickers, also testifying before the SASC, advocated in favor of transitioning the Joint Staff to a General Staff — a cadre of officers specifically groomed and selected to serve the CJCS for long periods of time to “focus exclusively on the conduct and preparation for war at the strategic and operational levels as opposed to the wide and duplicative range of broad policy and staff functions the current Joint Staff engages in.”

We think there is merit to this argument, that further professionalizing the Joint Staff by enabling the chairman to build a core cadre of officers with a career path inside of what you could call a General Staff is at minimum worth considering. Don’t mistake us — we believe that professional military advice is such an important core function that almost anything else is an unnecessary distraction. There are plenty of smart civilians in the national security enterprise — in the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon — who can manage key bilateral relationships, develop strategy and planning guidance, and argue over the broad parameters of diplomacy, development, and national defense. But there is only really one organization that can ensure the commander-in-chief has robust military options with detailed assessments of plausible operational outcomes, and that is the CJCS and his core military staff.

But first, do no harm. Just as the original Goldwater-Nichols legislation introduced some unanticipated challenges, we do not advise moving quickly. For as much as we think Jim Thomas and Michael Vickers are onto something important, a quick movement to a General Staff model could introduce more problems than it might solve. We also note that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and CJCS Gen. Joseph Dunford have stood up small teams to look at these issues. Last year, Dunford made it clear that he intends to be as innovative as anyone else in informing this debate and being receptive new ideas (including walking away from several functions the Joint Staff has acquired over the years).

At a minimum, we think these issues should feed into a renewed commitment from this or the next secretary of defense to clearly delineate his or her expectations for how the Pentagon ought to be governed, and how he or she expects the various actors — OSD, the Joint Staff, the combatant commands — to interact inside and outside the Pentagon. And any such effort should start with clear and candid conversations with the next president on his or her own expectations of the Department and how it will go about meeting them.

Thirty years after the legislation that rebooted the Department of Defense, we appreciate that the SASC and many of those that have testified at recent hearings have embraced need to think anew about how to ensure that future commanders-in-chief have the benefit of well-developed military options to choose from during crisis or conflict. That, at the end of the day, is the core mission of all those who serve at the Pentagon, whether military or civilian.


Shawn Brimley is the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security. Mr. Brimley served in the Pentagon as Special Advisor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and at the White House as Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council staff.

Loren DeJonge Schulman is the Deputy Director of Studies and Leon E. Panetta Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Ms. Schulman left the White House in 2014 after serving as Senior Advisor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. She has also worked as Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Director for Defense Policy and Strategy on the National Security Council Staff, and as a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.


Photo credit: Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz, DoD