- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2016

Congress is moving to increase the war powers and longevity of the nation’s top military officer, while removing any whiff of politics by delinking Senate confirmation from presidential election years.

Giving the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff more say in how to fight an ongoing war is a result of Congress‘ frustration with the Obama administration’s execution of conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, a former war planner says.

The reforms are part of Congress‘ and the Pentagon’s ongoing restructuring under the landmark 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. It transformed the armed forces into regional combatant commands to run operations in the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and other areas. It also gave rise to U.S. Special Operations Command, putting unconventional warriors on a par in importance with infantry and air power.

Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff currently serve two two-year terms, unlike their brethren — the chiefs of the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Army and National Guard — who serve one four-year stint.

The change would mean the chairman, who is the chief military adviser to the commander in chief and to the defense secretary, would serve a four-year term and undergo only one Senate confirmation, not two, unless a president wants to extend the tenure.

“The committee believes that a longer term of office for the chairman provides greater stability and continuity of military leadership at the Department of Defense,” the budget policy bill states. “Furthermore, by staggering the chairman’s term of office such that it is not aligned with the 4-year presidential election cycle, the committee believes that the chairman’s role in providing independent military advice to the president and Secretary of Defense is reinforced.”

The chairman turnover is now on such a schedule, with Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford having taken the job as the top military officer in September 2015. He is scheduled to retire in 2019.

“It is already off cycle, but we want to make sure it stays that way,” said Claude Chafin, a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee.

Gen. Dunford will remain on the two-year schedule, as the bill would not take effect until 2019.

All chairmen have served their full two two-year terms since 1986, except Marine Gen. Peter Pace. He was not renominated by President George W. Bush due to his ties to the Iraq War.

The chairman also would receive new powers under the House measure. By law, the post now advises the president on strategy development and war planning for, say, Iran or the Islamic State terrorist organization.

The bill would broaden the role to also advising on ongoing operations. In other words, the Joint Chiefs chairman would have a bigger voice in how to fight a war carried out by combatant commanders.

The chairman also would weigh in on which forces to move from one command to another to meet the war’s demands.

The logic here is that the Islamic State, for example, is a transregional target not confined to one geographically combatant commander. Islamic State has positioned thousands of fighters in the areas overseen by European, Central and Africa commands — all of whom are supplied commandoes by U.S. Special Operations Command.

To remain an independent voice, the chairman stays outside the chain of command. Operational orders go from the president to the secretary of defense to the combatant commanders.

In downsizing the top brass, the new law would direct the military to reduce the number of officers at four-star rank by five billets. These would hit commands that are subordinate to combatant commanders.

Mr. Chafin said Pacific Command would lose three four-star officers and European Command would lose two. The billets would go down at least one rank to lieutenant general or vice admiral.

“The committee remains concerned that a top-heavy chain of command within the combatant commands adds unnecessary headquarters staff, adds distance and layers between commanders and war-fighters, and slows decision-making and agility of command,” the bill states.

There are currently 38 active-duty four-star generals and admirals, the Pentagon says.

Dakota Wood, a retired Marine and former Central Command planner, said the House bill shows that Congress is “frustrated with the poor results of current ops and a lack of a clear practical strategy from the White House.”

Republicans and some Democrats bemoan the slow pace of the war against the Islamic State, which still holds territory in Syria and Iraq. Republicans also fear Mr. Obama is pulling so many troops from Afghanistan that the Taliban will take over.

“I think this current effort is an attempt to address the poor outcomes by making organizational and process changes, but also think this will have zero impact since the real problem isn’t organizational or procedural but rather policy and implementation that is controlled by the White House,” said Mr. Wood, an analyst at The Heritage Foundation. “It won’t matter what structure or authorities are specified in law if the commander in chief and his/her national security team aren’t competent in such matters or are unwilling to take the steps necessary to accomplish the objectives stated in policy.”

Lawmakers have an ally in Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who has said the armed forces are too top-heavy and that the chairman needs more defined powers.

“This year, as Goldwater-Nichols turns 30, we can see that the world has changed,” Mr. Carter said in a speech last month. “Instead of the Cold War and one clear threat, we face a security environment that’s dramatically different from the last quarter-century. It’s time that we consider practical updates to this critical organizational framework, while still preserving its spirit and intent.”

The Pentagon has plans for major conflicts with Russia, Iran, China and North Korea.

The Joint Chiefs told Congress last winter that, due to budget cuts and troop reductions, they would meet difficulty in fighting one major war on a schedule dictated by the National Military Strategy.

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