Yesterday, the Niskanen Center held a panel on defense reform, “Goldwater-Nichols: Past, Present, and Prospects for Reform,” at Cannon House Office Building. The panel featured a trio of defense policy experts discussing the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reform Act of 1986. Goldwater-Nichols is the legislation that underpins the structure of the Pentagon and the U.S. military. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, one of major purposes of Goldwater-Nichols was to increase the “jointness” of the military services—allowing them to keep their unique identities and capabilities while encouraging greater collaboration in military operations, strategic planning, and resource allocation.

Jointness served as theme for each panelist in their remarks. Most of the debate among the panelists centered on the degree to which jointness is desirable or necessary.

Benjamin Friedman of the Cato Institute led off with a discussion of jointness grounded in organizational theory. He argued that jointness was largely a response by the military services to former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s reforms in the 1960s. McNamara had used system’s analysis as a way to diminish the political influence of the military services. Jointness allowed the services to strengthen their hand against a powerful secretary of defense by presenting a unified front. Friedman observed that there are multiple forms of jointness. Operational jointness refers to military service cooperation on the battlefield, which Friedman argued should be preserved. Managerial jointness, he said, helps the military services collude to preserve favored programs, and we would be better off without it. Friedman wondered whether the push for greater operational jointness led to managerial jointness. If so, they may be difficult to disentangle. Friedman proposed neither a return to a pre-Goldwater-Nichols system, nor a Goldwater-Nichols 2.0, but pushed instead for a Goldwater-Nichols 0.5, where operational jointness is preserved but greater competition between the services encourages them to find tradeoffs between competing capabilities.

As a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for resources and planning, Dr. Christopher Lamb of the National Defense University saw the post-Goldwater-Nichols Pentagon from the inside. Lamb cast himself as a “defender” of jointness, but offered self-consciously limited defense. He argued that jointness was needed for unified command and control. However, the Pentagon needed to get rid of the “religion” of jointness, as Friedman called it in his remarks. Lamb identified the areas in which jointness has proven successful: ongoing operations and contingency planning. Jointness had been successful in these areas, he argued, because it deals with forces that already exist. However, jointness has not been successful in future-force planning, he said, because it encourages the services to collude to overestimate requirements, and provides no incentive to look for tradeoffs in performance requirements for future programs. He argued that jointness is necessary, but that Goldwater-Nichols “overshot” in encouraging it. Not every program need be joint.

Jim Thomas of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for resources and planning, said that after three decades of Goldwater-Nichols, fresh thinking was needed. He argued that the Pentagon has performed poorly in three interrelated areas: (1) planning, (2) preparation, and (3) fighting. Thomas claimed that jointness had taken priority over results, and the need to be joint led to inter-service collusion and watered-down decision-making. He offered a proposal which, by his own admission, might not prove politically acceptable. Thomas called for the creation of a general staff. There have been calls for a general staff since the Spanish-American War, but the proposal has always been rejected due to its association with the Prussian military system and German militarism up until World War II. Thomas argued that the general staff was needed because it would act as an arbitrator for the competition between the services that Friedman proposed.

All three speakers offered nourishing food for thought and a rousing question-and-answer period followed their presentations. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced in March that he would review Goldwater-Nichols, and has set forth proposals for the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to devolve some of the acquisition authorities under the law from the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics to the military services. As McCain’s review continues into next year, the conversation needs to move beyond acquisition reform. The ideas presented at “Goldwater-Nichols: Past, Present, and Prospects for Reform” would serve as useful basis for that conversation.