The Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 was implemented on 1 October 1986. It has been called the most significant Defense policy change since the National Security Act of 1947. Goldwater-Nichols gave us a globe divided into Combatant Commands, each with a CINC (until 2002, when they became COCOMs). It also made the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the principle military advisor to the President, whereas previously the Service Chiefs had a much larger role in providing that advice.

Born of the desire to end inter-service rivalry that was evident in Vietnam, the failed Desert One 1980 hostage rescue mission, and in the invasion of Grenada in 1983, Goldwater-Nichols became the driver for “jointness”, with individual services being tasked as force providers, with the “organize, train, and equip” mission, but without any longer having operational control over their respective services. I was told once that the final driver for Goldwater-Nichols was the adoption of the USAF/US Army Air-Land Battle Doctrine. That without something mandating joint cooperation, even the primary services would not play well enough in the sandbox to make ALBD viable.

The first test of the new landscape was Desert Shield/Desert Storm, and in those operations, the new system under Goldwater-Nichols received high marks. Since, however, opinions have been somewhat less sanguine regarding the effects of the Act.

While supporters of Goldwater-Nichols point to a reduction in unwanted redundancy, critics will point out that some of the redundancy that was eliminated was a necessary and prudent hedge to ensure maintenance of capability.

Supporters also laud the broader focus of our senior officers, having a requirement for a Joint tour that has them work with other services, where they learn to interact and gain insight into other service cultures. Critics charge that the mania for Joint tours has stunted the learning curve for Officers’ own-service tactical and technical knowledge, and that “jointness” is a ticket punch operation with little inherent value.

Goldwater-Nichols was intended, in part, to reduce the inefficiencies at the senior strategic level of DoD, to streamline function and role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a part of the National Security apparatus and the decision-making process. In that way, advocates can rightly argue that the Act has been a success.

Some have charged that, instead of strengthening civilian control of the Military, Goldwater-Nichols actually reduced civilian influence, and created an American version of the Prussian General Staff, setting CJCS as the primary military advisor. They argue that the inherent inefficiency of the previous arrangement was desirable as a means of self-limiting uniformed influence. In addition, the “dual-hatting” of Service Chiefs to both advocate for their respective services AND provide sound strategic input, to be an “honest broker”, was not a realistic expectation.

Certainly, weapons and equipment procurement continues to be a source of anxiety for the Defense Department, even though Goldwater-Nichols required a revamping of that entire system. Whether Goldwater-Nichols is to blame or not, I couldn’t say. Whether the Act has improved anything, I could not say, either.

Goldwater-Nichols encompasses much more than I have mentioned here, including implications for other uniformed services, and even the realm of Homeland Security, which was known as Civil Defense when provisions of the Act were implemented.

So, to open it up for discussion, has the Goldwater-Nichols Act been a success or a failure? Did it do what it was intended to do? If so, were the changes for the better? Did it really change anything as much as touted? What might be revised regarding Goldwater-Nichols after 25 years? Is it time to modify or repeal Goldwater-Nichols? Is it still serving its intended purpose well?

Let’s open up for discussion. I would love to hear some perspectives on Goldwater-Nichols as we approach the quarter-century mark of its implementation.

Oh, and Uniform of the Day will be Service Dress Purples.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Foreign Policy, Hard Power, History, Homeland Security, Marine Corps, Maritime Security, Navy

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  • Grandpa Bluewater

    One work. Narmy.

    In case you haven’t noticed, Pax Oceana Americana is one with the American Manned Space program. Soon to be a memory.

    Stategic and Logistic Failure. Or rather, vice versa.

    (There, advocates, is the kickoff. Your ball, headed to your end of the field’s end zone.)

  • Mike M.

    It was a disaster on several fronts.

    First, G-N mandated and specified the theater commands, depriving the President of the flexibility to organize forces as conditions changed. Does anyone seriously think that the G-N theater structure aligns well with current needs? Of course not – but it’s mandated by law.

    Second, G-N tended to lock DOD into a force balance optimized for the conditions of the mid-1980s. That force was designed to fight a land war in Europe from the soil of friendly local allies. It meant a big Army with heavy armor, a big Air Force with lots of tactical jets, and a medium-sized Navy with lots of convoy escorts. That strategic environment no longer exists. The new strategic environment demands a lot more flexibility, placing a premium on the sea services.

    Third, the theater structure put in place by G-N led to a dramatic proliferation of General and Flag Officers. Each theater commander is a 4-star. Each joint force component commander is a 3-star. Toss in deputies and staffs, and it’s not surprising that the Navy has more Admirals than ships – and the other services are in no better shape.

    Fourth, the theater structure of G-N works against a global strategic view. Each theater is its own fiefdom, fighting the other theaters for resources. In principle, the CJCS is refereeing the fights…in practice, he’s refereeing conflicts among the service chiefs. There is nobody with a synoptic view of the whole global strategic battlespace. This is particularly bad for the Navy, as the Fleet is an asset that can be rapidly redeployed from theater to theater as needed.

  • So there I was, a few weeks away from a relief arrival, with orders in hand to NPGS for Weapons Systems Engineering…and the phone rings “This is your detailer: Your orders are cancelled. Do you want to go to Navy War College, or Armed Forces Staff College, and BTW, 95% of the AFSC Grads go right to their 3 year joint tour?” My response: “I am going to Monterey.” His: “Let me repeat this: Your orders are cancelled…”

    Result: NWC, oh, and having to make part of the cruise coz my relief boned his INSURV as WEPO on a DDG and his CO held him to fix it….

    I enjoyed it. I already had a lifetime of being around all services, but it was icing on the cake for me, and I had Gen Danny Troutman as a classmates in Maritime Ops. Smart man. I read about every book they made us check out, too.

    Then couldn’t get a Joint gig at SOCOM in Bragg, because I didn’t have a technical degree to oversee making any fancy elex stuff the snake eaters asked for….even with a proven record in doing that stuff, so the Navy gave up their joint billet foothold to the Signal Corps guy.

    So, pass at one level, fail at another….and it was a Blackshoe CDR (who was the first in the billet and a steam engineer, who turned me down….): Fail to me….

  • Mike M.

    Fifth, G-N works to cut Congress out of strategic discussions and resource debates. Under G-N, Congress gets handed a single overall DOD position…and the services chiefs are required to back it in front of Congress, regardless of whether or not they agree. I believe a fair amount of the budgetary problems we are facing are a result of the G-N straitjacket suppressing any serious discussion of resources before Congress.

    Sixth, G-N is particularly hard on Naval Aviation. The JFAAC position is regarded as an Air Force fiefdom – even if the Navy and Marine Corps are providing most of the aircraft. This works strongly against the full exploitation of Naval airpower.

    Seventh, G-N’s requirements for senior officers to have a joint tour stress the career schedule. They add to the tendency of officers to follow a cookie-cutter career path – and to avoid unflattering fitness reports by doing nothing risky in their careers. And successful command demands taking calculated risks. The schedule pressure also makes it much harder to squeeze in any sort of exchange tour…and combined warfare is every bit as critical as joint warfare, particularly for the Navy.

  • Mike M.

    Eighth, the G-N requirement for jointness in procurement has added another layer of approvals to an already painfully slow requirements approval/validation process.

  • It is time to find another template. As we’ve discussed over at Midrats a few times with out guests – its time has passed.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Any chance you could elaborate on the new template?

  • If I didn’t think you were going to steal another of my post ideas, I would. 😉

    No, even bald people will have to wait for my post on the topic.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Heh. So, my brain worked faster than yours, huh? You really should get that checked. 🙂

  • Haaginator

    As a Navy JO growing up with the system, I actually prefer most of the aspects of G-N. First, it exposes you to different ways of doing things. I’ve now had the pleasure of serving with both Army and Air Force officers, and I’ve learned how they do business. Both services excel in some areas and suck at others, as does the Navy…and I’ve taken back lessons from this to make my piece of the Navy better.

    Secondly, I disagree with the cookie cutter career comment. Navy careers were certainly cookie cutter before. As a submariner, you did a JO tour, then a shore tour (which better be nuclear or submarine ops related), then a department head tour, then another shore tour (nuke/sub ops), etc. Now, you get a joint tour. Maybe you’ll work on the flight side. Maybe on the Army side. You’ll challenge the way you think, which can only be a good thing.

    Now, there are two pieces I think should be fixed. First is joint credit. They added the E-JDA points system in 2007 to help alleviate the need to do a JDAL tour. That’s good. AND, they made lots of options to get JPME Phase I credit. That’s good too. BUT, how do you get JPME Phase II without hitting up the War Colleges or the JFSC? Right now…you don’t, which is crap. Also, the people that manage the E-JDA program, at least for the Navy, are not the easiest to work. This may perhaps be a problem of execution and personality, rather than of setup, because I hear (rumors only, nothing to back it up) that if you are O-5/O-6, they respond more quickly to your emails.

    My other piece is acquisition. Before we even start throwing stones at G-N for that, we have lots of other garbage rules on acquisition, AND Congress has to fess up that they have meddled quite often in the process to preserve jobs in their districts. Plus, every time I read about people getting together to “fix” acquisition, I never see Program Managers, Engineers, or Users invited. It’s always some big wigs that have little experience navigating the rules on acquisition. If Congress would get together the folks that have run programs and find out why it takes them years to succeed, we could fix the acquisition process.

    The other gripes I feel are more execution. Why do we have too many admirals/generals? Well, start cutting them. Nothing in G-N says you have to make all your department heads at a COCOM a 1/2 star billet. Cut it down to an O-6. What about the Navy Safety Center, or the Regional Commanders? They could be O-6 too. If we have too many flag officers, it is more likely a problem of increasing the work scope, or decreasing the responsibility allocated for an officer (aka rank inflation of jobs). We used to let second lieutenants and ensigns run whole commands, and now unless you’re in the restricted line, that doesn’t happen. Perhaps we had it right before, and have gotten off course?

    As for things like the JFACC, yes, it is crap, but again, that’s execution. We’ve had JFMCCs be Marines. We’ve had JFLCCs be Marines. Why not JFACCs be Navy? Nothing says we can’t, we just let inter-service rivalries get in the way. Someone complains that the AF won’t be in the fight on this one. Because, somehow, the Army is out of the fight when the CENTCOM commander is a Marine? Or the Air Force doesn’t get to play when the PACOM commander is a Navy guy? Hardly.

    We’d do well to remember we all fight for Team America, and confine the cheering for our service to the football stadiums.

  • Derrick

    To me, the true evaluation of whether a command structure is a success or not would be its effectiveness in combat. Since this command structure could only be properly tested in World War 3, I’ll never know. 🙂

    Not sure if Desert Storm counts as evidence of the effectiveness of this law, because that was a contained conflict and thus not all pieces of the management chain were used.

    What type of command structure was used for World War 2?

    To me, at a 600 mile level, the principle sounds good…though I wonder how much autonomy is allowed to individual combatant commands:

    If the guy in charge of the southeast asian military forces sees suspicious activity by Chinese forces (ie increased naval warships near the Spratly Islands), can that person send a carrier battle group nearby to deter possible conflict without contacting the Pentagon first?

    Can the person in charge of operations in central asia order an attack on a terrorist hideout in Afghanistan without consulting with the Pentagon first?

    Can the commander of the anti-piracy task force order a pirate mothership boarded or fired upon without consulting with the Pentagon first?

    I can understand where this management structure may cause confusion when it is required to rapidly move resources between regions. But if the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is properly managing the situation, that role should be able to set priorities and adjust resource locations appropriately, right?

    I am confused as to the contingency where the US navy would have to provide presence/deterrence against another theoretical global navy…how would this law handle that scenario? Currently I am not concerned because the US navy is the only global navy around, but that may change. Even though the US navy is forward deployed, it cannot really stop other navies from moving around in international waters without committing an act of war…

  • Craig Madsen

    In “Victory on the Potomac”, the excellent recounting of the passage of G-N, the author points out the failure of one of the provisions – the ability to influence investment decisions across service boundaries. As previous comments have noted, the acquisition system (of which I am now a part) has many issues, some of which can be traced back to the flawed implementation of the design of G-N.

    In a perfect world, there would be true requirements prioritizations that would reduce our large land army in Europe, perhaps retaining the infrastructure needed to stage crisis response forces or serve as way stations for global positionsing and response. The shift to an Asian focus would be enhanced, as would our investments in “small wars” sorts of forces. The traditional 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 rough split of the DoD budget (those proportions aren’t exactly right, but we continue to fund services close to “the same proportion they had last year” over decades) whould be shifted to meet a different military needs-based strategic approach.

    It’s not a flaw in the legislation – it’s a flaw in our implementation.

  • Truthful James

    G-N eventually shifted promotion preference to the desk pushers.

    It also, IMHO, inhibited Naval Warfare Planning, and thus encouraged short sighted thinking…and now up pops the PRC and its PLA-N. It escalated DOD spending in the fat years, as earlier QDRs merely divied up the procurement pot and anticipated it would forever grow. Now the lean year are upon us, the perceived threat is different and unfortunately my USN is stuck with the problem of a limited shipbuilding capability (ignored by previous SECNAVs), and the longest lead time, most expensive capital assets of any of the armed services.

    Thank the Lord for the the 2010 QDR requirement that we develop a Sea Air Battle Strategy and get away from our Land War in Asia (since we don’t anticipate one in Europe) Strategy and the crusader mentality of converting Muslim tribes and sects to Judeo Christian democracy.

    The only lasting effect of G-N is that we have a surfeit of General and Flag officers.

  • To answer your question – partial success. GN legislation largely accomplished what it was written to do.

    However the more relevant questions today are – is GN still affordable? Is GN the best organizational structure to counter the current threats the nation faces today?

    First, over the past two years DoD and the MLDEPS have undertaken extensive cost savings efforts. It was clearly evident that a significant amount of growth over the past two+ decades can be directly attributed to “Jointness” – Joint billets (created to support officer promotions), joint doctrine, joint organizations (COCOMS +Service Components), joint training, and joint processes (failures such as JCIDS) are all very costly. Hopefully the closure of JFCOM will be the nail in the coffin of joint growth.

    On the second issue, the failed experiments of AFRICOM and CYBERCOM (although DoD continues to pour $$$ down this rat hole) provide evidence that the COCOM organizational structure is no longer effective. COMBATant Commands don’t align well to recent national security strategies and objectives. COCOMS do not support interagency effort which is a critical flaw.

    My recommendation is to form interagency task forces, similar in concept to JIATF-S or the National Counter Proliferation Center to support various national security interests. These task forces should report directly to the NSC – so no single agency or department has too much influence. DoD will never give up this level of control but the concept needs to be debated further.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    I have spend considerable time in Iraq, and have a number of friends who did likewise, and AFG, too. Never, ever, did we have a “crusader mentality of converting Muslim tribes” to Christianity. In fact, any efforts of the sort are strictly verboten.

    The idea is to keep those who would convert we Christians forcibly to Islam (or kill us instead) from doing so.

  • Lazarus

    Overall I would say G-N has NOT been successful. Despite fervent testimonials from its chief author James Locher, its stated goals of increasing military decision-making effectiveness and strengthening civilian control have not been achieved. Strong Secretaries such as Rumsfeld and Gates have manipulated the Chiefs and scorned their advice as much as Secretary McNamara did. Cutting out the Service Secretaries and Service Chiefs from operational decision-making has (as critics such as John Lehman predicted) limited the President’s and Congress’ venues of military advice. I find it especially sad that the Army, who was the prime mover behind G-N, has been penalized the most by its measures. Had Army Chief of Staff Shinseki had more power in 2003, the occupation force for Iraq might have been large enough in the opening phase of the war to crush the insurgency before it ever got off the ground.
    The Joint Operational aspects of G-N have been successful, but they were driven more by Air/Land battle and the development of Link 11/16 etc in order to maximize a Cold War America’s potential to blunt a Soviet attack more so than Congressional action. The modifications to the power of the Chairman and the Service Chiefs and Secretaries have been crippling and need to be re-visited. A direct chain of command is strongly desirable when the chief preoccupation of your force is defense. The Surface Navy’s detect to engage sequence when defending against threats is one example. When contemplating offensive operations such as Gulf War 2003, a plethora of advice is needed . G-N does not deliver on that requirement.
    G-N was crafted for a Cold War operating environment. If Congress / the Administration really want to be effective in the 21st century it is time to overhaul G-N for a modern operational environment that includes both offensive and defensive courses of action.