There is a narrow, but perilous, window of opportunity for the Defense Department and Congress to work together to revamp how the military’s top brass is configured. If the DOD can take that opportunity, the U.S. will be able to better confront ISIS and other transregional threats, experts say.
Chatter about overhauling the Pentagon’s cherished seating chart has picked up ever since Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top military advisor to the president, proposed shaking up the joint staff, including downsizing or creating a new team whole cloth to better plan and execute the country’s war efforts.
“This is not the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs saying, ‘I need a general staff and I need more authority.’ That’s not actually what this is about,” Dunford said last week at a conference hosted by the Center for New American Security and DefenseOne.
Instead, the new team would give “a common operational picture” and “frame decisions” for the Defense secretary with scenarios that “involve multiple regions simultaneously,” something the existing, stove-piped staff simply doesn’t do, he said.
Dunford also signaled he’d be willing to alter the Unified Command Plan, which defines the boundaries of each of the military’s combatant command.
Multiple administrations have attempted to reinvent the military to adjust to the times. In one of his final acts, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Dunford’s predecessor, issued a strategy report that stressed among other things that the Pentagon must become more agile to fight a prolonged war against terrorist groups in the Middle East and nations that use proxies to fight on their behalf.
Dunford’s plan, which at this point is nothing more than a suggestion, could prove crucial to defeating ISIS and the persistent terrorist threat facing the nation.
“The concept makes sense and reflects reality, but the implementation would be a controversial mess, there is not a consensus within the Pentagon to do so, and the proposal is rife with all kinds of election year-allergic politics and political landmines,” according to Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
However, unlike past instances, Dunford may have an invaluable ally on Capitol Hill: Senate Armed Services Committee chair John McCain.
Earlier this month the Arizona Republican held the first in what is expected to be a series of hearings aimed at overhauling the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. That legislation created the combatant command system and streamlined the chain of command structure of the Pentagon.
Thirty years later “we have to take a hard look at this command structure in light of current threats and how our model of war fighting has evolved,” McCain said during a December 10 hearing.
He said the U.S. is facing the “most diverse and complex array” of national security challenges since the end of World War II, from states like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, as well as Islamic jihadists and cyber terrorists that have no set borders.
The threats “cut across our regional operational structure,” according to McCain. “So we must ask, what … combatant command structure best enables us to succeed in a strategic environment of the 21st century?”
Dunford wouldn’t have floated the idea of an overhaul unless he had “some idea of changes in mind,” such as tweaks to the Unified Command Plan, according to Jim Cook, an associate professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College
That the four-star started the conversation during a public think-tank forum shows “he’s trying to be transparent in making changes” and “more collaborative than just having a set number of people doing this themselves,” said Cook, stressing he was only giving his personal opinion, not that of the Navy or the Pentagon.
“I only hope we’re not talking change for change’s sake,” he added, predicting that a formal plan likely would be unveiled during a separate, major address by Dunford, or during an Armed Services hearing on the topic.
Still, there are plenty of challenges that could trip up any proposed reforms before they even get out of the gate, including the Defense Department’s known predilection to resist change.
Eaglen pointed out that Defense Secretary Ash Carter has already established his own “Goldwater-Nichols review” office to “get in front of Senator McCain’s efforts and to water them down because they are seen as a threat to many of the current structures, organizations, headquarters, head count, processes and, ultimately, power at the Pentagon and across the regional commands.”
“So in this case, it is ironically Congress that is more inclined to go along and the administration that is not,” she said.
Cook agreed that there are bound to be obstacles, both within the joint staff and the military services.
“Any time you try to make changes you’re going to have friction,” he said.
For instance, a long-simmering bureaucratic war between U.S. Northern and Southern commands, which both have responsibility for the Western Hemisphere, could boil over if Dunford decides to tinker with the existing regional scheme.
There is also a question of whether change is needed at all.
“The issue of reorganizing commands is an interesting one, but I disagree with the notion that it is central to defeating ISIS,” according to Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon.
He said a regional command focused on the broader Middle East that works closely with relevant parts of the State Department and international partners “is the best way to address ISIS because it puts the threat of terrorism in its proper regional and political focus, and recognizes that addressing the problem requires considerable attentiveness to the wants and needs and resentments and aspirations of local populations.”
Whether a revamp becomes a reality or not, Cook said it’s only “prudent” for Dunford to take a hard look at the team advising him and, by extension, President Obama. “If the joint staff is not serving him well, the sooner the structural changes then the better,” he said.
Cook said that if Dunford does propose a shake-up, he must devote serious energy to the task and “be very deliberate in the analysis and conclusions before moving forward.”
“Change is never going to be universally popular,” he added.