Some Ideas from Goldwater-Nichols Act

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By Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)

This is the third article on threatrisation.
Previous articles can be accessed by clicking on the following titles 

Theatrisation – Are We Ready ?
Prickles of Theatrisation of Commands
Shapes of Theatres

This article has rough edges. The underlying theme needs more focus. I have only highlighted the really important aspects of the Goldwater-Nichols Act to drive home issues which we need to examine in our transformation.

Theatrisation of Commands, will be transformative if done sensibly. We need a base to work from. Most advanced forces have  adopted the joint system. Only USA, Russia and China have transitioned to Theatrisation.  Very clearly Jointness is the priority.  Theatrisation is next. I am now taking a dive to highlight some aspects of the Goldwater- Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. Why this Act? This Act puts in perspective a lot of issues which we will have to confront in this transformation.  We  need to understand them for implementation in our context.

Prior to 1986, in USA, each Service had a Chief. The Service Chiefs made up the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose Chairman (elected)  reported to the Defense Secretary who in turn reported to the President. This system, akin to ours before the CDS was appointed,  led to intense inter-service rivalry in procurement, doctrine, and all other peace time activities.  During wartime, operational activities of each service were largely planned, executed, and evaluated independently. This fractured system contributed to the failures in the Vietnam war, the failed attempt to free US hostages from Iran and the blotches in the Grenada invasion.

Law

Goldwater- Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 was enacted to bring sweeping changes in the way the US Military functioned. The first thing one needs to understand is that it is an Act of a legislative body. It is Law! Hence no choice but to follow it.

Reorganisation

In large measure, many people in India understand that this Act was meant to bring about Theatrisation. NO! it was meant for a total reorganisation of how the US military functions; . covers almost everything it is expected to do. The act is meant to

  • Reorganize the Department of Defense and strengthen civilian authority.
  • Improve the military advice provided to the President, the National Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense.
  • Place clear responsibility on theatre commanders for the accomplishment of missions.
  • Ensure that the authority of the theatre commanders is fully commensurate with their responsibility for the accomplishment of missions.
  • Increase attention to the formulation of strategy and to contingency planning.
  • Provide for more efficient use of defense resources.
  • Improve joint officer management policies.
  • Improve the effectiveness of military operationsand improve the management and administration of the Department of Defense.

Civilian Political Authority

The major issue is that in US parlance ‘civilian authority’ actually refers to  ‘civil political authority’.  As per the Calusewitzan dictum ,‘War is Politics by other means’. Hence there must be direct relationship between the Political and Military authority. The Act establishes that relationship. In our system, a ‘Bureaucracy Sans Responsibility or Knowledge’ has interposed itself between the Political and Military authority to national detriment. This is a major flaw in our system. If this is not rectified, theatrisation will be retrograde.

To understand this better one needs to examine the composition of the US Department of Defense as it exists now. It is composed of  :-

  • The Office of the Secretary of Defense.
  • The Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  • The Joint Staff.
  • The Defense Agencies.
  • Department of Defense Field Activities.
  • The Department of the Army.
  • The Department of the Navy.
  • The Department of the Air Force.
  • The unified and specified combatant commands.
  • Such other offices, agencies, activities, and commands as may be established or designated by law or by the President.

Each department has a Secretary (their Rajya Raksha Mantri), who reports to the Defense Secretary (their Raksha Mantri). All these are political appointees and hence the political control.   The bureaucracy is also political in nature. All the Deputy, Under and Assistant Secretaries in Departments and Directors of  Agencies are appointed by President from civilian life, co-terminous with his tenure. They are handpicked by merit, have adequate background knowledge, and are accountable. It is assessed if political appointees have sufficient experience or expertise, to be capable of contributing immediately to effective policy formulation and management.  As a result though the US system has a large bureaucracy, it is knowledgeable enough to deliver. Some duties of the Secretary of Defense, highlighted below,  provide clarity of what is expected from the civil bureaucracy.

  • The Secretary of Defense, with the advice and assistance of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,provides annually,  written policy guidance which encompasses :-

o   National security objectives and policies.

o   The priorities of military missions.

o   The resource levels being made available.

  • The Secretary of Defense, with the approval of the President and after consultation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,provides annually,  written policy guidance for the preparation and review of contingency plans.

Integration

The underlying theme of  the Act is emphasis on integrated approach. Every office from that of the Secretary down wards has personnel of the armed forces working alongside civilians. Officers of the armed forces are  posted on  permanent duty in the Offices of the Secretaries. This is periodically reviewed to achieve balance. Integration in the system is achieved by having members of the Armed Forces on the active-duty list, members of the Armed Forces in a retired status, and members of the reserve components who are employed in a civilian role.

Joint Chiefs of Staff 

Another recurring feature of the Act is the emphasis on jointness. Theatrisation is seen as a by-product of jointness. In our case we seem to be putting the cart before the horse and hoping that theatrisation will breed jointness. It won’t happen. Hence let us see the major aspects which bring in jointness.  The composition and functions of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  tells us a lot.  Some details are as under :-

Composition. The Joint Chiefs of Staff consist of the following:-

  • The Chairman.
  • The Chief of Staff of the Army.
  • The Chief of Naval Operations.
  • The Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
  • The Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Function As  Military Advisers

  • The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the principal military adviser to the President, the National Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense.
  • The other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are military advisers as specified.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff 

The Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff is the pointsman of jointness as also theatrisation. Hence a look at his sphere of activities is mandatory.

Responsibility. He is responsible for the following:-

  • Strategic Direction. Assisting the President and the Secretary of Defense in providing for the strategic direction of the armed forces.
  • Strategic Planning. Preparing strategic plans, including plans which conform with resource levels projected by the Secretary of Defense to be available for the period of time for which the plans are to be effective.
  • Preparing joint logistic and mobility plansto support those strategic plans and recommending the assignment of logistic and mobility responsibilities to the armed forces in accordance with those logistic and mobility plans.
  • Performing net assessmentsto determine the capabilities of the armed forces of the United States and its allies as compared with those of their potential adversaries.
  • Contingency Planning Preparedness. Providing for the preparation and review of contingency plans which conform to policy guidance from the President and the Secretary of Defense.
  • Advising the Secretary on critical deficienciesand strengths in force capabilities (including manpower, logistic, and mobility support) identified during the preparation and review of contingency plans and assessing the effect of such deficiencies and strengths on meeting national security objectives and policy and on strategic plans.
  • Establishing and maintaining after consultation with the commanders of the unified and specified combatant commands, a uniform system of evaluating the preparedness of each such command to carry out missions assigned to the command.

Role of Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff 

  • Communications between the President or the Secretary of Defense and the theatre commandersare  transmitted through the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He assists the President and the Secretary of Defense in performing their command function.
  • He is responsible for overseeing the activities of the combatant commands. It does not confer any command authority on the Chairman and does not alter the responsibility of the commanders of the combatant commands.
  • The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff serves as the spokesman for the Theatre commandersespecially on the operational requirements of their commands.

Joint Staff 

If we are to get anywhere with theatrisation and jointness, we need good joint staff.  We  need a major relook at our MS and Personnel Branches in management of officers. In turn we also need to relook at our training. The importance and detail given to joint staffing in this Act is simply astounding. What follows is a summary.

The Joint Staff functions under the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They  assist the Chairman and, other members (Joint Chiefs of Staff)  in carrying out their responsibilities. Officers of the armed forces are assigned to serve on the Joint Staff. They  are selected in approximately equal numbers from the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Air Force. Each officer who is selected is  among those officers considered to be the most outstanding officers of that armed force. The Secretary Of Defense lays down the policies, procedures, and practices for the effective management of Joint Staff. An  officer is selected for the joint specialty after he  successfully completes an appropriate program at a joint professional military education school and after  successfully completing  a joint duty assignment. The Secretary, with the advice of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, establishes career guidelines for joint staff officers. Guidelines include selection, military education, training, types of duty assignments; and promotion. To put it in perspective, promotion of officers in Joint appointments especially to command is based on their performance in previous joint appointments.

Combatant Commands

The Act has scope for joint and single service commands. It clarifies that ‘unified combatant command’ means a military command which is composed of forces from two or more military departments and a  ‘specified combatant command’ means a military command which is normally composed of forces from a single military department. The term ‘combatant command’ means a unified combatant command or a specified command.

Chain Of Command. The chain of command to a unified or specified combatant command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense; and from the Secretary of Defense to the commander of the combatant command.

Assignment as Combatant Commander. The President assigns an officer to serve as the commander of a unified or specified combatant command only if the officer  has the joint specialty and has served in at least one joint duty assignment as a general or flag officer. A major issue which emanates is that the Command and the Staff are separated at one level and are also fully integrated with each other by legislation. Prima facie it appears that the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff has no direct control over the Theatre Commander. However he outranks the Theatre Commander. More importantly, one of the QRs to be a Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff is to be a Theatre Commander. The Act codifies every ones roles and duties and forces them to behave accordingly.

Summary

The Nichols Goldwater act was truly transformative for the USA. If we are to head in such a direction we need some similar document to go by. We also need politicians of calibre with authority who need not be midwifed by ignorant bureaucrats. They need to be assisted by a professional bureaucracy and a system integrated with armed forces. The current equation of generalist bureaucracy who is in agriculture one day, health the next  and defence the third leads only to egocentric and ignorant power brokers calling the shots. The equation between the Military and Political leadership has to be direct and one to one. The PM , RM and the CCS need to put their thinking hats on. This is way above any bureaucrats pay grade.

The second issue of  bother is increasing lack of jointness. Navy’s views on Theatres appear in a magazine and its views on terms of service appears in social media before it is made official. The COAS says that Theatrisation is going to take long time. The IAF is in a silent mode. Is it ominous or sullen? The CDS appears to be spending more time than necessary on contentious issues of pay and allowances. To me, as a common man, it appears that our Chiefs are like the four lions of the Ashoka Pillar – constantly looking away from each other. It is time for our political leadership to take a hard look at what can bring about Jointness and follow it by theatrisation. Otherwise? The salami slicer on our door step at Eastern Ladakh will take his toll.

-The writer was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda

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