The Chairman the Pentagon Needs


There’s a new acronym that has taken hold across the Department of Defense over the last two years or so: TMM. It stands for trans-regional, multi-functional, and multi-domain; and, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford, has made it a core element of the Joint Staff’s work. According to Dunford, the department’s “current planning and organizational construct” is flawed, impeding the secretary of defense’s ability to make decisions. To fight and win 21st century wars, the department should find a way to globally integrate below the secretary of defense. But to do so, the chairman’s role needs to evolve considerably. As Dunford explained to the Senate Armed Service Committee a few months ago, the chairman needs “limited authority for the worldwide reallocation of a limited number of military assets … on a short-term basis.” This authority builds on the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that allows the chairman to advise the secretary on the allocation and transfer of forces for transregional, multi-functional and multi-domain operations. So, are these arcane developments of interest to a few pentagon staffers, or are they indicative of something more fundamental happening?

What Are We Even Talking About?

First things first: What does “trans-regional, multi-functional, and multi-domain” mean? According to the Joint Staff, it includes crises and contingencies that cut across multiple combatant commands; cut across land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace; and involve conventional, special operations, ballistic missile, strike, cyber, and space capabilities. At a glance, it seems sensible to ask the chairman to adjudicate the competing demands among the combatant commands and the services. After all, the global security landscape is increasingly complicated and competitive. Just some of the vexing problems associated with national defense challenges that stretch beyond borders and domains include: gray zone conflict being waged across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, to cyber sabotage emanating from Russia, China, and North Korea; North Korea’s accelerated nuclear program and its burgeoning threat to Northeast Asia and the United States; Russian and Chinese military modernization to include China’s aggressive moves to dominate artificial intelligence; violent extremist organizations in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia; Iranian meddling and misbehavior across the Middle East; and continued U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq in unstable regions.

Clearly, even with the military defeat of ISIL at hand, transregional, multifunctional, and multi-domain threats cover many of the challenges facing the nation. These are also the threats that Dunford believes the U.S. military, as currently structured, is having difficulty addressing effectively. From his perspective, one way to improve on this structure is to assign the global integrator role to the chairman. Specifically, this will help the military accelerate its observe, orient, decide, and act, loop against its adversaries by making quicker decisions to allocate and use scare resources across regions and missions 

Is the Global Integrator the Solution?

If we accept the premise that the world has indeed grown more complicated and that the military is poorly organized to address them, then how to most effectively operate in that ecosystem merits serious consideration. One option is to adopt the chairman’s proposed solution. Under this proposal, the chairman would be further empowered and given the authority to resolve differences and establish priorities for missions that cut across the services and the combatant commands. This course of action would place the chairman and, by extension the Joint Staff, in the middle of ongoing operations. It would likely accelerate U.S. defense decision-making and response times, precluding or truncating prolonged “Tank” discussions over the cross-seam allocation of forces and mission priorities. Moreover, it would almost surely reduce some of the lingering proconsul attitudes that permeate some of the combatant commands.

Nevertheless, there are some negatives to this option too. The Joint Staff would have to balance helping the chairman provide best military advice to the secretary of defense and the president with operational responsibilities for global integration across combatant commands and the services. The chairman himself would have to do the same. Filling both of those roles effectively could be challenging, especially for the chairman. This global integrator solution to transregional, multi-domain, and multi-functional problems may also lead to the idea that any conflict’s implications are so vast they must be managed from Washington, potentially creating confusion over who is actually in charge of any given military operation. Finally, this approach potentially turns even more of the Department of Defense and interagency policy apparatus over to the senior uniformed officer — a poor substitute for more functional interagency governance (although this goal may be ephemeral and, frustratingly for the Department of Defense, perennially out of its control).

Getting at the Heart of the Matter

Beyond this option, however, is a deeper question. Has the chairman in fact identified symptoms of a larger problem requiring a new, more centralized era in defense direction and reorganization? It might be helpful to return to the original debates about defense reorganization after World War II to explore this question. Gen. George Marshall emerged as the principal voice for centralizing control in a proposed “Unified Department of the Armed Forces.” Marshall argued that the demands of directing a global war required him to reorganize the Department of War dramatically. He advocated for the establishment of a Unified Department of the Armed Forces so the nation did not have to relearn how to centralize control the next time it went to war.

Among other things, Marshall argued this new department needed to reimagine the unwieldly military coordination committee cobbled together during the war, known as the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For line authorities, the Joint Chiefs would be replaced with a single Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. The latter would wield control over the armed forces, to include the service chiefs and the operating commands (now called combatant commands) and serve as the sole military voice reporting to the Secretary of the Armed Forces. The Joint Chiefs of Staff would continue in an advisory role to the President and the Secretary of the Armed Forces, overseen be a separate Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief, codifying the role Adm. William Leahy unofficially played for President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. In Marshall’s construct, though, the JCS was clearly outside any chain of command.

World War II was arguably the most dramatic example of transregional, multi-functional, and multi-domain during the 20th century — it was certainly transregional and multifunctional. Perhaps the domains weren’t as numerous since cyber and space remained largely the purview of academic researchers, but, to say the least, the war qualified required global integration across regions and functions. What then can we learn from Marshall and the original advocates for department centralization, and apply to the current discussions?

First, Marshall appreciated the need to have someone make tough calls across theaters and services. He would have been sympathetic to Dunford’s discussion of sprawling threats and the need for a means to globally integrate responses to them. Second, Marshall’s reorganization separated the line responsibilities of the Chief of Staff, Armed Forces from the advisory responsibilities of the Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief. He witnessed during World War II just how difficult it was to do the former effectively and to do the latter fairly. Trying to do both well verged on the impossible. Third, during the debates over defense reorganization, even Marshall, unofficially called the most trusted man in Washington, was subjected to multiple tough public congressional testimonies over his proposal that verged on unseemly. Nonetheless, these hearings ensured an airing of multiple perspectives and associated concerns. And finally, even with President Truman’s support, for good and not-so-good reasons, Marshall’s reorganization proposal to centralize military decision-making, reflecting the tough lessons he learned during World War II, was ultimately defeated. This codified the coordination approach to defense problems within the department and the across the interagency that remains today.

Centralizing authority and imbuing the chairman with new powers may be exactly the appropriate step to take. But gradually iterating to this approach absent a public debate is unhealthy for the nation. Even partially empowering the chairman to serve as the global integrator and adjudicate across domains and functions puts the department on the cusp of entering a fundamental renegotiation of the civil-military balance and the military-military balance.

Investing more power in one uniformed individual could potentially be as transformational as the original National Security Act of 1947. As the subsequent iterations of the National Security Act of 1947, to include the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, underscore, the global integrator role for trans-regional, multi-functional, and multi-domain problems could signal another move in a fundamental realignment of roles, mission, and functions across the chairmanship, services, and combatant commands. Thus, just like previous amendments to the original legislation, further empowering the chairman needs to be debated vigorously, even if the outcome of that debate is judged suboptimal by those involved in joint operations. Above all, this is a meaningful, major policy shift that deserves serious and rigorous thinking. It should neither be made in a speech nor declared by fiat.

The chairman deserves immense credit for raising a critical issue. Now, it’s incumbent on civilian decision-makers in the Department of Defense, the White House, and Congress to begin examining how his proposed solution best serves the nation. Has the chairman identified a big enough problem to rethink Department of Defense roles and responsibilities? If so, is further empowering the chairman as the global integrator the best, most effective way to do that? Or is another solution better suited to solving this critical problem? As a first step, civilian policymakers might revisit how General Marshall envisioned dealing with the original cross-cutting and global integrator problems presented by World War II. They could find wisdom, as well as caution, in his approach.


Paula G. Thornhill is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Mara Karlin is Associate Professor of Practice at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

Image: U.S. Air Force/Sara Keller

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