Both springtime and defense reform are in the air in Washington, D.C. Tuesday morning at the Brooking Institution, Representative Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, will release the latest of his proposals for reforming defense acquisitions. Even more interesting is the broader effort at defense reform that Thornberry’s Senate counterpart, John McCain, is currently undertaking. However, the direction of Senator McCain’s reform plans remain anybody’s guess at the point.
Since his announcement a year ago that he would review the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act—the three-decade-old legislation governing the Pentagon’s structure—the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman has played his cards close the vest. Despite some aggressive acquisition reform measures in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, and a series of hearings stretching from late 2015 through the early parts of 2016, Senator McCain has provided little indication of the shape the larger defense reform effort will take.
The absence of information has not stopped rampant speculation among defense watchers or ample amounts of advice from the larger community of defense analysts. Potential reforms under discussion include the consolidation of several regional combatant commands (CoComs), the inclusion of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the chain of command, and rethinking the joint service requirement for promotion to flag officer.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which held an event on Goldwater-Nichols reform on Monday morning, has provided several resources to help get a handle on potential direction the effort might go. However, upon review, it is clear how little is actually known where changes might occur at this point. For example, Mark Cancian, a CSIS senior advisor, recently posted an essay on the organization’s website delineating nine categories of potential reforms gleaned from expert testimony given before McCain’s committee—as well as a handy spreadsheet summarizing each witnesses recommendations. Cancian’s categories included personnel and training reforms, the merits of General Staff versus the current Joint Staff, the previously mentioned structural changes to the CoComs, reductions in Department of Defense civilian employees and military service headquarters staff, reducing Pentagon overhead, improving strategic planning, the aforementioned acquisition reforms, greater predictability in defense appropriations, and potential force structure changes. There is obviously a lot there, with many of the categories only tangentially related to one another—if at all.
CSIS also released on Monday the results of a survey about what the most important guiding principles should be for the reform effort. According to Politico, the winners are: “maintaining civilian authority and ensuring the quality of military advice.” However, CSIS also released an open letter the same day signed by a number of former top-level defense officials and military leaders. Their focus was on the ability of the Pentagon to respond to a complex security environment, and making the Department of Defense more efficient.
While CSIS has provided a helpful service in condensing a great deal of disparate information, it is unclear whether anything more is known now about the direction of Senator McCain’s Goldwater-Nichols review than there was before. That absence of a clear direction might be for the best though. It means there is still fertile ground to be tilled. While there is good material in many of the recommendations in Cancian’s spreadsheet, only a few hint at a major overhaul in the way the Department of Defense operates. And yet a major overhaul is exactly what is needed.