A Senate staff proposal to abolish the Joint Chiefs of Staff "would be a mistake" because it would add another layer to the Defense Department bureaucracy and make military advice to the president "less relevant," according to Gen. John A. Wickham, the Army chief of staff.
Wickham, first sitting member of the chiefs to zero in on the Senate report, said in an interview that the nation would be better served if changes in the Joint Chiefs were "evolutionary" rather than revolutionary as recommended by "so-called experts who have not participated in the joint arena."
The Senate Armed Services Committee report concluded last week that the Joint Chiefs of Staff "is unable to adequately fulfill its reponsibility to provide useful and timely unified military advice to the president, National Security Council and secretary of defense."
The chiefs are composed of the uniformed heads of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marine Corps, plus a chairman chosen by the president from among the services.
The committee staff recommended that the Joint Chiefs be abolished, that members confine themselves to running their services and that a new military advisory body be established, consisting of a chairman and a four-star officer on his last tour of duty from each of the services.
The chairman of this Joint Military Advisory Council would provide military advice to the president "in his own right" rather than give the group's view. He would also direct the council staff and have a deputy representing a service other than his own.
"The desire for unanimity has not only forced Joint Chiefs of Staff advice to the lowest common level of assent but also has greatly limited the range of alternatives offered to the secretary of defense," the Senate report said.
Wickham countered that the president would still seek military advice from the uniformed leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps if the Joint Chiefs were abolished while hearing from the new council.
"So now the secretary of defense and national command military authorities would have two groups to get advice from," Wickham said. "You may end up with less relevant military advice than we have today.
"Furthermore, what are the body of military advisers going to do with all their time? Are they going to be out in the field or stapled into Washington? If they are going to be stapled into Washington, there's not enough for them to do as military advisers. We meet about 30 percent of the time as military advisers" under the current system, he said.
The report concluded that the current chiefs are torn between championing their services and taking the corporate view of a military issue. It added that the chiefs "do not have sufficient time" to lead their services and serve as corporate members of the Joint Chiefs.
Wickham, a former director of the staff that works for the Joint Chiefs, said the proposed advisory council would need a staff of its own. The council's four-star officers "are not going to dispense themselves of their colorations of service experience," he added.
"Separation of powers does not lead to speed of action," he said, "but it's a hell of a good system of government.
"The structure of dividing military advice which we have today, however imperfect, has served us quite well. I don't think it is broke, but it could stand some changes" to improve it without wholesale restructuring, he added.