Don’t Rush to “Fix” Goldwater-Nichols

July 27, 2016

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It’s time to pump the brakes on Goldwater-Nichols reform. Both House and Senate versions of the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) have sections aimed at improving the effectiveness of the Defense Department. And, yes, the intent is laudable. But neither Congress nor the Pentagon has a clear sense of what problem the proposed reforms would solve. Without a clear understanding of the problem, major reforms can end up doing more harm than good.

What is Goldwater–Nichols?

The Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 was a landmark bill that significantly altered the organization and operation of the Department of Defense and its military components. Informed by five years of analysis by Congress and the Pentagon, all the specific provisions of the bill were aimed at solving one problem: “the inability of the military services to operate effectively together as a joint team.” Significantly, the act streamlined the military’s chain of command and required that officers have joint experience before being promoted into senior positions.

The reform effort arose, in part, as a reaction to two military failures: Operation Eagle Claw and Operation Urgent Fury.  Better known as Desert One, Operation Eagle Claw was the 1980 mission to rescue American hostages in Tehran. Eight service members died and significant equipment was lost, all without making contact with the enemy. Operation Urgent Fury was the U.S. military operation to rescue Americans in Grenada in 1983. Though the mission largely succeeded, it revealed serious problems — especially in communications and coordination among the various service components.

Goldwater–Nichols Reform Today

The current debate about the Goldwater–Nichols reform has invoked a wide range of topics —from the Pentagon’s strategy development process to the department’s organizational structure to the roles and responsibilities of the National Security Council. But, it has yet to clearly define distinct problems.

Certainly, the debate has not produced clear examples of systemic failure. Though there has been no shortage of American defense and foreign policy failures over the last decade, it is by no means clear that they have arisen due to organizational or systemic dysfunction. National security failures in the last decade and a half have largely been the result of bad decisions and bad leadership — individual problems unlikely to be fixed by systemic change or overhaul. Bad decision-makers produce bad results, no matter how good the system may be.

While Congress can adjust many of the national security systems and organizations, with the Senate playing a crucial role in ensuring that qualified people are placed in important positions, Congress cannot guarantee better national security outcomes simply by mandating processes or organizational designs.

Congressional Action on Goldwater–Nichols

Unfortunately, lack of a clear problem statement isn’t slowing down Congress. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R–Texas) suggests that, since threats “have become more trans-regional, multi-domain, and multi-functional, …[it] compels Congress to build” Goldwater-Nichols reforms into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.) says his reforms are aimed at what he perceives as a lack of “strategic integration.”

While their analysis of global threats may be correct, the lack of specific examples of U.S. national security failures makes it hard to determine whether the lack of “strategic integration” is an organizational problem or the result of bad decisions by senior leaders.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D–Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, flagged the lack of clarity this way:

Despite the numerous hearings and countless witnesses, the only theme was that reform was needed with only conceptual suggestions. To date, no study has proposed the legislation contained within this bill. No civilian or military officials offered their views for consideration.

In the absence of a study, independent investigative work or views from outside stakeholders on these provisions due to the embargoed nature of the mark, I am just not sure whether these changes are the right ones or not.

Congress Should Use the NDAA as a First Step

Absent a clear problem statement, Congress should exercise caution in proceeding with major structural reforms. All too often, Congress imposes major changes that are either unsuccessful or inflict harm as the result of unintended consequences.

The 2017 NDAA should not be seen as the end-all of Goldwater–Nichols reform but as the foundation upon which substantive reform can be built if needed. For now, Congress should focus on two things:

Clearly defining the national security problems that need to be solved. If the threats today are “trans-regional” and “multi-domain” and the United States struggles with “strategic integration,” the problem may very well sit beyond the walls of the Pentagon. In developing the original Goldwater–Nichols, Congress and the Pentagon took years to hone in on the key problems. Congress and the administration should work together to identify current problems and how to solve them.

Strengthening Congress’s ability to affect national security outcomes. Even if Congress were able to create a better national security infrastructure, bad decision-makers will still produce bad national security outcomes. To guard against bad policy outcomes, Congress should better educate itself on national security issues, including the honest views and security assessments of senior administration officials. Sen. McCain’s proposal in the Senate NDAA to replace the Quadrennial Defense Review with an annual presentation of defense strategy could help with that.

Congress should also strengthen its ability to provide options for national security decisions. Rep. Thornberry’s “Commission on National Defense Strategy,” contained in the House bill, is one way Congress can provide a counterbalance to key national security decisions from the Executive Branch.

Congress can use its tools of oversight, law-making, and funding more aggressively to influence the White House to make the right decisions on national security. A proactive approach is more efficacious than just reacting to bad decisions already in force.


The 2017 NDAA offers an opportunity to lay the groundwork for long-term national security reform, but a rush to enact major national security reforms in this bill is misguided. Without a clear definition of the problem, proposed changes may do little or nothing to improve national security. Congress should give national security issues the deliberate analysis they deserve rather than leap to implement remedies that “feel” right. Lawmakers’ first order of business should be to define the problems that need fixing and to strengthen Congress’s own ability to affect national security decisions in the future.


Justin T. Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense Budgeting Policy at The Heritage Foundation. This article is adapted from an original paper.

Image: Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz

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4 thoughts on “Don’t Rush to “Fix” Goldwater-Nichols

  1. “But neither Congress nor the Pentagon has a clear sense of what problem the proposed reforms would solve. Without a clear understanding of the problem, major reforms can end up doing more harm than good.” Amen…hallelujah!!! Justin Johnson, let me buy you a beer, or two.

    Dear Sen. McCain, Rep. Thornberry and Sen. Kaine:

    There is still a lack of clarity and focus in this realm because the Irregular Warfare Operating Concept (IW) does not have a proponent. Let me say that again… one is in charge of IW, but you already knew that. Traditional warfare has multiple specific proponents for lots of concise tasks; IW has few for many, but mostly none. Yet joint operations for IW have dominated DOD activities over the past 30 years. Hence the rub and stink.

    How do I know? I was in 2nd 75th Ranger BN during Operation Eagle Claw and Operation Urgent Fury and have been studying this teaching/learning and yes tactical and operational dilemma ever sense:

    Recommendations: Stop farting around, provide some funds, and appointment an academic center such as the SWC/IWID as the proponent. Then back the appointment of a knowledgeable and experienced director as the MMFIC. Along with these official tasks make sure the director has an NCO that knows how to take names and kick ass and get things done. Years of neglect like this are going to take long nights, lots of cursing, and plenty of spiting to get hings right.

    Take care.

    Joe C.

  2. Interesting article. Defense reform had been an issue in DC since the early 1970’s when the Fitzhugh (1970), Steadman (1978) and Antonelli (1979) reports all pushed for many of the reforms that appeared in the Goldwater Nichols Act. Congress actively examined defense reform from 1983-1986, but the real “period of action” that created Goldwater Nichols was less than a year in length (1985-1986) and only began in earnest when Barry Goldwater took the SASC chairmanship.

    The passage of time has allowed for greater historical examination of the goals of Goldwater Nichols and presents a different image than the “heroic” one told by SASC staffer James Locher. Civilian control of the armed forces was never in doubt. What was debated was which group of civilians would be in control. Goldwater Nichols came down firmly on the side of executive branch civilian control through appointed and long-service professional DoD civilian staff. The Chairman was isolated from his JCS colleagues and in effect became a de facto member of the President’s appointed national security team. Congress saw a loss in influence as the CJCS moved more firmly under executive branch authority. The JCS members were prevented from going to Congress separately to voice concerns. The real winner was the Defense civilian establishment that was empowered by taking acquisition power away from the individual chiefs.

    Many of the supposed concerns about military performance before 1986 were also distorted by reformers. Many of the so-called failed military efforts from Vietnam through the invasion of Grenada were caused more by failed presidential policy choices. Vietnam certainly falls into that category, as do the ineffectual ROE for the Beirut Marine peacekeeping force and failure to employ either the Army/Air Force in Grenada or the Navy/Marine team in the Grenada invasion. Forced jointness were it was not needed contributed to the bloody attempt to free the Mayaguez hostages and the failed Iran hostage rescue mission. In fact civilian authorities have never really solved the post-1945 roles and missions of the services to an adequate degree.

    McCain’s reform plan was quick in the making but does much to restore a marketplace of choices to US defense planning and operations. The COCOM council chaired by the CJCS restores some collective authority to the uniformed side of national security that was lost when the CJCS was segregated by Goldwater Nichols. The breakup of the OUSD AT&L office, reductions in DoD personnel and forced Senate confirmation of the President’s national security advisor also helps restore congressional authority to national security decision-making.

    McCain’s reforms are an excellent set of measures that should be strongly supported by the uniformed military and the public. It is not surprising that the defense civilian cohort within the beltway is opposed.

  3. At Desert One, no contact with the enemy was made, but they did blow up a fuel tanker and hijacked a bus full of civilians. A lot of people don’t know about that part. Things were going very wrong even before the tanker and helicopter collided.

    Charlie Beckwith and Jim Kyle made the right call after the CH-53 collided with the KC-130 but things were going vastly wrong as far back as planning, the Navy and Marine Corps had to have their piece of the pie with aviators who had no special operations aviation experience.Reference

    1. Another example of forced jointness and likely a “bridge too far” for the special operations forces of the late 1970’s as was the Mayaguez incident. Many new capabilities had become part of the US defense system by the time Goldwater Nichols was being considered that would have considerably aided in the Iran hostage rescue mission. Much of the drug use and drinking that were endemic in some portions of the US military had also been drastically reduced by that time. It was easy perhaps for Goldwater Nichols advocates to blame so much on defense organization from the vantage point of the mid 1980’s. It is also worth noting that few “commissions” or reports on any of the signature Goldwater Nichols case issues (Mayaguez, Eagle Claw, Beirut, or Grenada) list poor civilian executive decisions of management in their findings. Ford, Carter and Reagan all sent force into these missions as they were in spite on contrary advice. The fact that poor military outcomes in these cases started with poor presidential policy decisions seems lost on report authors.