US to kick off a new round of national defense reform

China Military
Yao Jianing

BEIJING, October 12 (ChinaMil) -- The US National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2017 focused on reform will enter the key questioning period in October.

Lately high-ranking officials in the US military had frequent interactions with famous American think tanks such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to actively create the momentum for a new round of national defense reform.

As a major part of the reform, the change of the US military joint operational commanding system has drawn special attention because it is more drastic than expected and marks a bold attempt by military reformists to break through the Goldwater–Nichols Act.

According to the testimony provided by senior military officials at the US Congress and the acts passed by the House and the Senate, the reform on joint operational commanding system is focused on addressing several key problems in the top commanding organizations, such as the lack of coordination, slow decision-making and low efficiency, so as to make the US military better able to deal with crisis and win battles in the age of major power competition.

Reinforce the power of Joint Chiefs of Staff and enhance the capability of strategic integration

Based on the Goldwater–Nichols Act passed in 1986, the current combatant command system implemented by the US military draws lessons from the military's failure in the Vietnam War, Operation Desert One and Operation Urgent Fury, and is characterized by the command-oriented military chain of command.

This system endows the US combatant commanders with the rights to command and control all troops in the combatant command, realizes "integrated combat" and can therefore effectively deal with military conflicts with medium-and-small-sized regional countries, as evidenced by the Gulf War in 1990 and several regional wars afterwards.

In recent years, the rise of regional powers, proliferation of guided weapons and spread of international terrorism have caused profound changes in the security environment faced by the US, and security challenges, which are cross-regional, cross-field and cross-functional, are far more than what a single combatant command or functional command can handle.

The combatant command-oriented command system that has a relatively narrow vision cannot deal with the multi-dimension security challenges, which forces the US military to review its combatant command system that basically hasn't changed in the past 30 years.

As Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the US' command and control system actually doesn't fit the features of modern warfare, and needs some major reforms.

Besides, as security challenges become more complicated and diversified with obvious spillover effects, the US usually has to deal with crisis in multiple regions at the same time, which requires better strategic coordination, so that the US joint forces that are deployed worldwide can quickly form synergy effects across fields, layers and regions to win "integrated battles".

Through this reform, the US military hopes to enhance the capability of demand integration and coordination on the strategic level by reinforcing the power of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, especially its chairman.

In the current chain of command, the US president and Secretary of Defense only decide "whether to fight" and "when to fight", while "how to fight" is a decision up to the combatant commanders.

As chief military advisor for the president and Secretary of Defense, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff has no command rights and is mainly responsible for making long-term plans for military construction, developing joint directives and working out joint education and training policies.

This round of reform will endow the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff three rights.

The first is to know America's global defense status. The second is to advise on the military's current actions, which means combatant commands will not only have to report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the future, but their operation plans will be reviewed by it and the chairman can pass comments. The third is to dispose the US military's global combat resources, on which the Department of Defense and the Congress have reached a consensus.

Although still out of the chain of command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, especially its chairman, will become an "invisible hand" that can influence the military chain of command after they obtain more rights.

To make sure that the chairman is independent and his advice is objective, the US Congress asked to extend his term from two to four years because if the chairman needs the support of the president and Secretary of Defense for reappointment after the two-year term expires, his independence may be compromised.

There are historical reasons why so much importance is attached to the chairman's independence. When the Congress deliberated on the Goldwater–Nichols Act in the early 1980s, the then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger expressly opposed it, and the US Navy even set up a "war room" that specialized in resisting the new act. But the then Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman David Jones bravely supported the reform and played a positive role in passing the act.

Streamline top institutions and make command decisions more efficiently

The US military has considerably downsized the standing army in the past few years, but the top command institutions including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and staff departments of United Combatant Commands are growing instead.

Statistics show that the US Office of the Secretary of Defense has more than 5,000 employees, the Joint Chiefs of Staff nearly 4,000, and the nine United Combatant Commands more than 38,000. This obviously goes counter to the Goldwater–Nichols Act that was aimed to establish a lean and capable joint operational commanding organization.

The biggest problem with an oversized organization is slow decision because of layers after layers of approval, which results in the US military's slow response to emerging threats.

For instance, RAND Corporation warned the Obama administration long ago about the Islamic State (ISIS), the terrorist organization that developed quickly in the past two years, but the US military failed to come up with a plan for a long time.

After launching the Operation Inherent Resolve in August 2014, the authority of the US military failed to provide solid strategic guidance according to ISIS' new features, so the Central Command continued the same operations they used against Al-Qaeda, which were barely effective as could be imagined.

Moreover, the leading group of the US military was obviously slower in response than its Russian counterpart during the Syria civil war and Ukraine crisis, and the US Department of Defense was seriously criticized for this.

The large lead and command organization also squeezed the limited defense resources, so the military didn't have enough money for the right things.

In terms of parity purchase power, the US military's current defense budget is on a par with that in 1986 when the Goldwater–Nichols Act was adopted, but the current military is only 2/3 as large as it was then.

According to statistics, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, United Combatant Commands and bureaus directly affiliated to the Department of Defense have a total of 240,000 employees and spend $113 billion every year, which is almost 20 percent of the whole defense budget.

The immense administrative expenditure puts a heavy burden on the precious defense resources and seriously impairs the military's combat capability development.

Therefore, the US Department of Defense and the Congress planned to "downsize" the top command institutions in two ways.

On one hand, organizations of similar functions will be integrated. According to an internal investigation report of the US military, a key reason for the oversized top command institutions is function overlapping.

For example, Deputy Secretary of Defense is responsible for formulating national security and defense policies, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff, United Combatant Commands and various services all have their own strategic planning and policy department.

Therefore, the US military will integrate the intelligence, logistics and planning departments in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, United Combatant Commands and service component commands, slash overlapped positions and cut internal frictions arising from too much hierarchy.

However, the Northern and Southern Commands or the European and African Commands won't be integrated for now, and the six major combatant commands will remain unchanged.

On the other hand, the number of general officers will be reduced and the staffing size will be strictly controlled.

The US Department of Defense is working hard to downsize the management by 25 percent, and the Senate requested it to cut the number of general officers by the same ratio, particularly cutting the number of generals or admirals from 41 to 27.

After Obama came into office, the National Security Council (NSC) bloated rapidly to more than 400 people, which led to its serious "micro-management" of the military. Therefore, the House and the Senate planned to limit NSC to 150 people, thus giving the military leadership more autonomy.

Rationalize command relations and improve coordination

The US military claimed that their current security challenges include four states, and one terrorism non-state actor. To deal with any one of them, several combatant commands have to work closely together.

Let's use Operation Internal Resolve targeting ISIS for example. Three geographic commands (the Central, European and African Commands) and two functional ones (Special Operations Command and Strategic Command) participated in it, and such a large-scale joint operations naturally caused questions like "who leads, who commands and who supports".

Meanwhile, as the US military has stepped up the development of new-type combat forces in the cyberspace in recent years, the cyber warfare force has gradually come to the fore and begun to participate in front-line operations as an important part of the joint forces.

Under such circumstances, the US military is paying more attention to rationalizing the command relations of the cyber warfare force and intensifying its coordination with other forces, so as to bring this strategic force into the best play.

To rationalize the command relations, the US military will take actions in three aspects.

First, the "Combatant Commander Committee" will be set up as a platform for top-level coordination. The Senate suggested setting up a "Combatant Commander Committee" that comprises heads of the nine United Combatant Commands, Secretary of Defense, and chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The committee will serve as a platform to discuss major global crisis and challenges and coordinate the operations of different commands.

Considering that there isn't foundation of public will either inside or outside the US military for the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman to join the chain of command, the " Combatant Commander Committee" is more likely.

Second, the Cyber Command will be elevated and coordination between cyber warfare and warfare in other areas will be enhanced.

Under the concept of "global integrated warfare", the emerging battlefield of cyberspace will be the starting point of future warfare and also the key to victory or defeat.

At present, the US military has reached a consensus with the Congress to elevate Cyber Command from a level-2 organization under the Strategic Command to an independent functional command.

As a matter of fact, US military leaders such as Carter and Dunford already put Cyber Command side by side with the Strategic Command in open statements. After the elevation, the cyber warfare force will coordinate better with other joint combatant forces and better play its role as a "power magnifier".

Third, some leading positions will be downgraded to reinforce the authority of core leadership.

At the moment, the heads of service commands under combatant commands are four-star generals, the same level as heads of combatant commands. Such an arrangement is not only bad for combat commanders to exercise their rights of command, but also impedes the report and communication of important information.

Therefore, the House of Representatives passed an act to downgrade the heads of some service component commands to be three-star lieutenant generals, and some bureaus directly affiliated to the Department of Defense may also be downgraded.

It must be pointed out that as the most profound and extensive reform in 30 years, this round of reform of the US joint operational commanding system has encountered resistance, and some topics, including whether the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should be included in the chain of command, have triggered intensive arguments.

Furthermore, unlike in the early 1980s when the US military was defeated in two major wars, it has done quite a good job in several large-scale wars in recent years, so there isn't a strong motivation for reform.

Nevertheless, as the focus of America's war preparedness efforts shifts to high-end warfare in the age of major power competition, the US military, Congress and academic circle have agreed on the urgency and necessity of the reform.

Once the reform goes into action, it will leave a major impact on the organization and implementation of the US joint operations for the next decade.

By Chen Hanghui

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