All Rise for Chairman Powell

March 1, 1991 Topic: Security Regions: Americas Tags: PostmodernismSociology

All Rise for Chairman Powell

Mini Teaser: Operation Desert Storm presents us with the opportunity to observe America's military establishment in serious action.

by Author(s): Kurt M. Campbell

Operation Desert Storm presents us with the opportunity to observe America's military establishment in serious action.  And what we see is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin L. Powell, playing a very public role as military strategist, presidential confidante, and administration spokesman.  Not since Vietnam has a military matter so occupied the nation, and not since World War II has the counsel of a sole military man figured so prominently in the making of national policy.  The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--not the secretaries of state or defense--has been the most important strategist and adviser to the president as Operation Desert Shield has been transformed into Operation Desert Storm.

Yet the chairman's new power and access both precede and transcend the war in the Gulf.  As a result of a quiet revolution in the way the American military establishment is organized and operates, the chairman and the military culture of "jointness" are now in ascendance.  Although the rise of the chairman in the bureaucratic arena of Washington has been helped by international events, strong personal ties, and good professional preparation, it owes just as much to an obscure military reform act.  The Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 stands as one of the most important, yet unheralded, military reforms in U.S. history.

Previous defense reforms sought primarily to centralize civilian authority in the Pentagon.  The National Security Act of 1947, for example, mandated the creation of the civilian office of the secretary of defense.  Goldwater-Nichols reversed this trend.  By centralizing authority in the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Goldwater-Nichols has increased the prestige of the military and dramatically raised its profile.  Even more important, the key provisions of the act created a single, dominant military voice and perspective.  The entire new military command structure rests on the good judgement of one uniformed man: the chairman.  Goldwater-Nichols has boldly enhanced the position of chairman in supreme military councils, making him, in the words of one account, "the most powerful peacetime military officer in American history."(1)  And this power has only grown during the early stages of the war in the Gulf.

Force and Fiasco

Before 1986, the Joint Chiefs of Staff--the collegium of chiefs of staff of the Army and Air Force, the chief of naval operations, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and the chairman--were collectively charged with three crucial tasks: advising the president, commanding U.S. forces in the field, and conducting military planning.  This, in theory, was the most powerful military forum in the government, where a single, coherent position could be reached by the senior servicemen after secret sessions in "the Tank" (the JCS staff and briefing room in the Pentagon).  In practice, however, the process was often much less decisive and the product much less useful; indeed, at times both were dangerously lacking.  Not only were the Joint Chiefs mandated to exercise their power by committee decision, but they also had to act by consensus, with all the chiefs in unanimous agreement.

The result was often the worst kind of military decision and advice.  Dean Acheson once referred to formal JCS products as "oracular utterances," explaining that "since [the JCS] is a committee and its views are the result of formal papers prepared for it, it quite literally is like my favorite old lady who could not say what she thought until she heard what she said."(2)  The conflicting interests and service rivalries made consensus-building inside the Tank difficult, and the result was that the JCS too often dispensed corporate advice that was broad and more or less useless to policy-makers.  Important matters were invariably sent upward for decision by the secretary of defense.

Although there were clear deficiencies in military advice and strategic planning, the most appalling shortcomings of the old system lay elsewhere.  Simply put, the Joint Chiefs were seriously handicapped when they had to plan military operations.  The JCS was usefully configured only for planning huge, multi-service campaigns.  If smaller operations were needed, tensions developed and troubles arose.  As William J. Lynn and Barry R. Posen wrote in a review of JCS performance before the 1986 reform: "This multiplication of command, coordination, and logistical problems has contributed substantially to poor military performance."(3)  These dangerous tendencies were on display in a series of subpar and small scale military misadventures.  The failed 1980 Iranian hostage rescue operation, the invasion of Grenada, and the bombing of the Marine contingent at the Beirut airport all illustrated the problems of waging limited military operations under the old JCS system.

Such flaws were particularly--and painfully--apparent in the doomed staging of Desert One in Iran.  There was no single commander of the overall rescue mission but an Army commander for the ground portion of the mission, a Marine in charge of helicopter operations, and an Air Force commander also on the ground in Iran.  Service personnel were required to perform unfamiliar missions (for example, Marine pilots flew long helicopter missions they were not trained for).  Undoubtedly the most flagrant faults of all were at the top of the U.S. military command.  Under the old JCS system, the chairman did not have a deputy and decisions became virtually impossible when he was away from the Pentagon.  During a crucial period before the Iranian rescue attempt, there were seven different acting chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, each of whom had to be briefed and brought up to speed before he could make a decision.  This confusion of command, combined with the service scramble for participation, were at the heart of the flaming disaster in the Iranian desert.

Essay Types: Essay