Missing the Point: Why the Reforms of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Won’t Improve U.S. Defense Policy

  • Downloads
  • Related Content

On September 30, 1986, the Goldwater‐​Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 became law, thus marking the end of one cycle and the beginning of another in the long‐​standing debate about how to organize America’s military forces and command structure.[1] Goldwater‐​Nichols was the culmination of more than four years of passionate, often bitter debate dating from 1982 when former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. David C. Jones called for fundamental change in the operation of the JCS.[2]

The reorganization act dealt with many issues, but the JCS reforms were the most significant.[3] The reforms may result in some short‐​term improvements, such as clarifying the functions of the JCS chairman and the joint chiefs’ role in the command and employment of combatant forces. In the long run, however, policymakers will still confront the same dilemmas as before, because the JCS reforms do not address the fundamental problem of U.S. defense policy: i.e., the increasing mismatch between foreign policy goals and resources to meet those goals.

More than a year after the passage of the legislation, it appears that claims of both its supporters and its critics were exaggerated. Adm. William J. Crowe, Jr., perhaps said it best when he commented, “It isn’t as great as the advocates said it would be and it won’t be as bad as the critics thought.”[4]

Criticizing the JCS has become somewhat of a national pastime, one that cuts across ideological and party boundaries.[5] Yet arguments about how to organize it can be traced back to its inception. As former assistant secretary of defense Lawrence Korb once wrote,

The Joint Chiefs of Staff is one of the most controversial bodies in the American political system. Yet it is probably one of the least understood. One author places the JCS on a par with the National Security Council in the decision‐​making process, while another feels that the JCS has as much impact in the policy process as does a group of cadets studying political science at West Point.[6]

However one feels about the performance of the JCS, one cannot say that it has not been scrutinized over the years. Between 1944 and 1982, 20 studies on how to restructure the JCS were conducted.[7] Indeed, in the past four years alone, hundreds of articles in the news media, reports and studies by public policy groups, and congressional hearings have been devoted to the subject.[8] To understand the criticisms of the JCS, one must examine the circumstances that led to its creation and post‐​World War II development.

David Isenberg

David Isenberg is an independent policy analyst who has written widely on military affairs.