After failure in Vietnam and the disaster of the Iran hostage rescue raid, there was a hue and cry to improve the coordination among the armed services. The solution that most politicians and military reformers favored was to increase the power of the Joint Staff system and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Accordingly, the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols (G-N) legislation was enacted. The Joint Staff system was indeed transformed, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs became a true chief of the general staff in the manner of the German system which was so admired by military reformers in the 1980s. The resounding victory of the American-led coalition in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 appeared to have validated Goldwater-Nichols. However, as some recent critics have pointed out, we haven’t clearly won a conflict since then. Not all of that can be purely attributed to military failure, but it is time to ask if G-N was all that it was cracked up to be.
G-N operations did much to improve joint military logistics as it reduced redundancy. But, other than that, most areas of American military excellence are the result of individual service initiatives in training and equipping. Our Special Forces are superb as are the tactical formations of the Marine Corps and Army. Service programs such as Top Gun and Red Flag keep our air crews at a high level of efficiency. The Navy has had some notable problems in the last few years, but those cannot be attributed to deficiencies caused by the G-N.
The G-N has caused some unintended consequences that have hobbled us in places like Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the most vexing of these is the bloated size of joint staffs. The G-N attempted to improve improve the quality of the Washington-based Joint Staff and staffs of the regional commands by mandating that to become eligible for selection to flag (general officer) rank, individuals must have at least one joint tour. Prior to the G-N, joint staffs were often viewed as dumping grounds for unwanted officers.
This had some element of truth, but by making joint duty a prerequisite for high-level promotion, hundreds of new and unneeded billets had to be created on joint staffs. It is difficult to see how mandated service as a Joint Graves Registration Officer will improve the performance of an individual or the combat effectiveness of a command.
To manage these bloated staffs, too much emphasis is placed on process over product. What passes for joint education is an insipid series of briefs on the joint staff planning process. The U.S.-led U.N. command in Somalia failed to anticipate the actions that led up to Blackhawk Down, and U.S. Central Command failed miserably to see an insurgency coming in Iraq due to a process-oriented mindset that concentrated on our and their own plans rather than on the enemy’s actions.
Many of the advocates of military reform who pushed for the G-N urged us to learn from the German General Staff system and its “genius for war” at the operational and tactical levels; the G-N actually produced the exact opposite. German staffs tended to be small and highly educated in tactics and operational art. The staff of the panzer army with which Rommel overran North Africa was smaller than a normal U.S. Army brigade staff today.
The Germans were masters of enemy-oriented maneuver warfare. Although maneuver warfare is officially U.S. doctrine, the Power Point driven and self-oriented nature of a U.S. staff brief today would make Erich von Manstein or Helmuth von Moltke double over in laughter. In actuality, the best U.S. joint staffs are usually those of ad hoc joint task forces built around existing service staffs and “purpled up” with competent officers from other services; this is why such joint task forces generally perform so well in humanitarian operations and emergency evacuations.
The next round of military reform legislation should limit the size of our joint staffs to one-third of what they are today, and the officers manning them from the various services should be the products of a rigorous Armed Forces Staff College program that emphasizes excellence in war games where the students play against a thinking adversary. Those who cannot make timely and innovative decisions should be washed out and returned to their parent services.
None of that will compensate for poor grand strategy which requires solid civil-military leadership and cooperation. Despite excellent tactical leadership and staff work, the Germans went zero for two in the 20th century when that balance ceased to exist.
• Gary Anderson lectures on Wargaming and Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.