Don’t Rush to “Fix” Goldwater-Nichols


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