Defense chief unveils proposal to update chain of command

Defense chief unveils proposal to update chain of command
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Defense Secretary Ash Carter unveiled Tuesday his proposal to update a landmark 30-year-old law that reorganized the Pentagon and set the chain of command it still follows today.

Under Carter’s proposals, the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be clarified, the number of four-star generals would be whittled down and service chiefs would have a greater role in the acquisition process, among other changes.

“Instead of the Cold War and one clear threat, we face a security environment that’s dramatically different from the last quarter-century,” Carter said during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s time that we consider practical updates to this critical organizational framework, while still preserving its spirit and intent.”


At issue is the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which in 1986 reworked the Pentagon’s command structure.

Under Goldwater-Nichols, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the chief military adviser for the president and the secretary of Defense.

Carter’s proposal would clarify that role and specify the chairman should look across all services and combatant commands to make recommendations.

"It doesn't say he’s also the one who supposed to be, everyday and periodically as we move forces around, giving me that advice on where things ought to be and how they ought to be used," Carter said. "That is self-evidently required in today's world, and it wasn’t part of the original conception. As a practical matter, everyone knows I look to [current Chairman] Gen. [Joseph] Dunford to do that, but I think it's worth writing it down."

Carter also proposed streamlining the combatant commands, though he does not want to combine any of them. While the world becomes ever more interconnected, Carter said, there’s still a benefit to having geographic commands.

“Instead of combining these commands to the detriment of our friends, our allies, and in fact our own command and control capabilities, we intend to be more efficient by integrating functions like logistics, intelligence and plans across the Joint Staff, the combatant commands and subordinate commands, eliminating redundancies wherever we find them without losing capability,” he said.

He also hinted at greater role for Cyber Command, which is currently part of Strategic Command. He said he would consider changes to Cyber Command’s role in the Pentagon’s Unified Command Plan, but did not say what those changes would be.

The number of the four-star generals and admirals have made headquarters top heavy, Carter added. As such, in the future, billets will be filled with three-stars.

Another proposal was to change the requirements for officers to serve in joint roles as they advance in their careers. Carter would shorten the amount of time required to spend in a joint role from three to two years and expand what officers can get joint duty credit for to areas such as intelligence and transportation.

On acquisition, Carter said the service chiefs will have a greater role, a step that was started in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act.

With new responsibilities, though, comes more accountability, he added.

“The chiefs themselves, and their military staffs, will need to sharpen this skill set, which in places has atrophied over the years, to be successful in discharging their new acquisition responsibilities” Carter said.

He also proposed streamlining the Defense Acquisition Board, which has 35 principals and advisers, and cutting down on required documentation, the magnitude of which Carter said can be “burdensome.”

The House and Senate Armed Services committees have also been working updates to Goldwater-Nichols.

Carter pledged to continue working with Congress on this issue. 

“Both committees have their own important reviews of this issue underway, as well, making this area ripe for working together, something I’m pleased to report we’ve been doing effectively and will continue to do on this topic,” he said. “Because when it comes to these fundamental matters of our national security, that’s what we have to do — work together.”