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

The first two chairmen of the JCS since Goldwater-Nichols have redefined the position in ways that will probably be apparent only in retrospect.  Indeed, unlike other government reforms, the 1986 act has set in motion new organizational lines of command and communication that are still evolving.  The course of that evolution will be determined to a considerable extent by the outcome of the war in the Gulf.

Goldwater-Nichols and the Gulf

The first--and ultimate--test of reform is whether what was legislated has helped national leaders to plan, prepare, and execute military operations better in crisis and war.  The Gulf War provides the first real test of the quality of military advice and operations under the system that Goldwater-Nichols established.

The early results are generally positive.  First, the delineation and shortening of the chain of command from Washington to the various theaters of operations mandated by Goldwater-Nichols appear to be in place.  Indeed, the line of command from the chairman to the theater commander (the CinC) for operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf (General Schwarzkopf) and to respective ground, sea, and air commanders has been short and direct.  Generals Powell and Schwarzkopf communicate directly with one another, sometimes on an hourly basis.  Orders flow smoothly from the president through the secretary of defense to the chairman and then directly out to the field, bypassing any intermediate layers.

The reform has also dramatically increased the power and authority of the CinC.  He is now directly responsible for implementing and directing the campaign plan, with little or no interference from military or civilian superiors in Washington.  We see this very clearly in Saudi Arabia, with General Schwarzkopf primarily responsible for running the war effort in the Gulf.  (General Thurman was delegated the same authority over operational matters in Panama.)  This is quite a change from the practice during the Vietnam War when President Johnson poured over bombing targets in the White House basement.

As a third consequence of Goldwater-Nichols, the Joint Staff, specifically the Operations Directorate working with the chairman and the CinC, was primarily responsible for drafting the order of battle in Desert Storm (as it was in Just Cause).  Traditionally, the service staffs were principally involved in crafting operational plans.  Now much of that responsibility has shifted under Goldwater-Nichols to the chairman and his staff in the joint arena.

Not all the results of this first major test of the revised command system have been favorable, however.  There is the delicate and controversial matter of readiness.  In mid-December last year, Lt. General Calvin H. Waller, the deputy U.S. commander in Saudi Arabia, voiced serious public reservations about whether the troops, and specifically the Army, would be ready for operations by the January 15 UN deadline.  General Waller's remarks were widely criticized by the civilian leadership and downplayed by General Powell.  Still, many in the mid-level military leadership were grateful that a senior officer spoke out about being rushed to war without the proper preparation.  Waller's remarks raise the question of whether the administration's timetable for the onset of war was driven more by political considerations than by the best interest of the U.S. military.  Indeed, significant numbers of Army personnel and equipment continued to pour into the theater in the weeks following the January 16 decision to strike Iraq.

The logistics and transportation challenges posed by Operation Desert Storm have also exposed some shortcomings in the military delivery system.  Fast Navy transport ships are few and have performed poorly.  One transport vessel hauling an important cargo of tanks had to be towed back to the U.S. after engine failure.  Further, the Army logistics system, which provides food and water for troops and servicing and support for mechanized equipment, is under strain.  The chairman and the JCS must in future see that low-profile but essential service missions (logistics and transport) as well as military hardware (Air Force A-10 tank killers, Navy fast delivery ships, and Army transport equipment) receive enough support.

The JCS Into the Future

It is not enough for a reform like the Goldwater-Nichols Act to enable military authorities to plan and execute operations more effectively.  A second and subtler criterion of success has to do with the ways reform effects the delicate balance of civil-military relations in American society.  The early results of Goldwater-Nichols suggests some potentially important developments on this latter front. 

The present prominence of General Powell and the past performance of Admiral Crowe suggests that the primary purpose of the reform's architects--to strengthen the power of the chairman--has been achieved.  Even the drafters of Goldwater-Nichols may not have dreamed that their reform would so quickly catapult the office of the chairman to an entirely new level.  In the past, the position of chairman was usually the quiet end to a distinguished military career and a prelude to retirement and a book of memoirs.  A president's appointment of chairman must now be seen as one of his most important acts, rivaling his choices for secretaries of state and defense and national security adviser.

Indeed, the qualities and criteria for a successful chairman require him to do far more than merely offer committee-driven military advice.  Demands which are as much political as military, coupled with the effects of the Goldwater-Nichols reforms, have ushered in a new breed of military leader at the top of the uniformed services: the soldier-statesman.  (It may be significant, in this respect, that Powell went from being national security adviser under Reagan to chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Bush).  The position is even being seen now as a possible step to national political office for its occupant.  In some ways, the chairman's increased power brings to mind the postwar generation of leaders like Eisenhower and Marshall, men whose government service blurred the distinction between soldier and statesman, officer and civilian.  How much of the recent shift in power is due to the Goldwater-Nichols reform and how much to the qualities of General Powell is a matter on which senior officers and informed observers are divided.  But even if Powell's prominence is as much a result of his character as of his office, his pioneering performance cannot but help to raise the status of his successors.  In all likelihood the next president will rely on his chairman as President Bush relies currently on General Powell.

Critics of Goldwater-Nichols have argued that the new situation renders the secretary of defense "a prisoner in the Pentagon" to the power of the chairman, but it is more accurate to say that there is now a necessary partnership between the two at the top in the Pentagon.  Neither can operate effectively without the active support and confidence of the other.  In this respect, there has been a fusion, or perhaps a symbiosis, of civil-military authority.

Until now the administration has been fortunate to have had good "legislated partnerships" between Carlucci and Crowe and subsequently between Cheney and Powell.  A breakdown in this mutually dependent (or perhaps mutually deterrent) relationship would have profoundly negative consequences for government operations.  This factor will need to figure prominently in presidential appointments for both key posts.

An important question remains, however, as to whether the president and his senior civilian advisers hear enough military advice that runs counter to the chairman's counsel. In creating a single, powerful military man, the Goldwater-Nichols architects have risked creating a single, dominant military opinion.  The chairman is relied on heavily--indeed, some have argued too heavily--for military advice by both the president and the secretary of defense.  As well, the particular military advice being offered--the Powell-driven, post-Vietnam doctrine of overwhelming force, rehearsed in Panama and then practiced fully-formed in the Gulf--has come at a time when military experience and knowledge is an increasingly rare commodity among senior State Department officials and key National Security staffers at the White House.  Although there is no reason to doubt JCS representatives when they state emphatically on the record that General Powell conveys all shades of military opinion to civilian authorities, there is still a concern that the current structure creates the preconditions for some future chairman to dominate and shut out his uniformed colleagues.

The rise in the stature and strength of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs will have subtler but equally important implications for government and inter-service operations.  In the period ahead, there will be a sharp reduction in troop numbers stationed in overseas bases, beyond the already significant withdrawal of U.S. troops and tanks from Europe.  Defense budgets will shrink, perhaps precipitously.  There remain clear shortcomings in the current system of procurement and strategic planning that will continue to hamper America's capacity to field and project force.  Moreover, the past forty-five years have been marked by a stable and single overriding military threat in the form of the Soviet Union.

Between the Soviets' evident collapse and the onset of the Gulf Crisis, there was a brief, probably naive, national hope that the application of force would now become obsolete.  With the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the multilateral war that has followed, serious talk of forgoing the use of force has disappeared along with dreams of a "peace dividend."  In place of a clear and present danger (the Soviet Union) and a primary prospective theater of operations (Europe), the United States now faces a much messier and more diverse world of indirect threats, complex strategic realities, and uncertain theaters of military operations.  The current watchwords in the defense community are "uncertainty" and "flexibility."  The new international order--or to be more accurate, reordering--will require giant leaps in military thinking, training, planning, and procurement.  Discussions about creating a "strategic reserve" of U.S.-based forces ready for Gulf-like contingencies, already at an advanced stage, are but one manifestation of the change in progress.

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