Is Congress finally taking a serious look at the interservice rivalries that for years have led to duplication of weapons purchased, overlapping military capabilities and closed-door fights over defense dollars?
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Thursday held the first of a series of hearings on what he described as “who should be responsible for what military missions.” Much more than that is involved, as another hearing, scheduled for Tuesday, will show.
The last time this subject was formally tackled was in 1948, when James Forrestal, the first defense secretary, gathered the service chiefs together for four days in Key West, Fla., to settle confusion and infighting that emerged in the aftermath of World War II.
“To be sure, interservice rivalry did not end at Key West,” McCain said, adding that subsequent efforts to bring about change “have come to naught.”
The result, McCain said, has been “duplication of effort, inadequate responses to increasingly important missions, programs of record that continue along despite changes in the strategic environment, and interservice fights over resources that get papered over in the belief that everyone can do everything with roughly equal shares of the pie.”
McCain last week questioned who does what when the services fight as a joint force with missions that include various elements of warfare.
He used as an example long-range precision strikes where, he said, “aircraft carriers, long-range bombers, and ground-based missiles and rockets all have roles to play.” With tight budgets, McCain asked what is the most efficient allocation of roles “when a carrier now costs $13 billion, one bomber costs half a billion dollars, and individual missiles cost millions of dollars each?”
One “unintended consequence” of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which set up combatant commanders to carry out missions using joint forces, was described to the committee by Robert Martinage, a former deputy undersecretary of the Navy and currently senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
He said that Goldwater-Nichols created “acceptance of what is often referred to as ‘Little League rules,’ meaning that every [military] service is entitled to a role in planning and conducting nearly all military operations across the spectrum of conflict regardless of whether or not it makes the most sense operationally or is the best use of available resources.”
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told the panel, “A dollar spent on duplicative capability comes at the expense of essential capacity or capability elsewhere.”
Deptula asked, “Why are services procuring weapons to achieve effects already possessed by another service?” His example was the current overlap where the services all are developing and producing medium- and high-altitude drones.
Switching to another area, McCain pointed out that World War II was fought with two geographical commands: Europe, headed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the Pacific with command shared by Adm. Chester W. Nimitz and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Now, McCain said, there is a proliferation of geographical military commands that has created added positions for admirals and generals with “everyone having large staffs.”
It is clear that McCain and other committee members will look at cutting back the number of geographic combatant commands because of current budgetary demands.
The panel was told by Bryan McGrath — a former Navy commander and now managing director of the FerryBridge Group, a defense consulting firm — that since the Vietnam War, 20 percent of the defense budget has gone to Defense Department agencies while the remaining 80 percent has been split by the services.
The fiscal 2016 Defense Authorization Act before Congress has a 7.5 percent across-the-board cut in Defense agencies, including the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff, McCain said. He joined others in saying it ought to go to 20 percent.
Of the services’ 80 percent, McGrath said in his prepared statement, the Navy generally was allocated “the largest share (it contains two armed services), the Department of the Air Force next and the Department of the Army the least.”
McGrath said, “Key West and Goldwater-Nichols have created an atmosphere in which comity and consensus are the coin of the realm, and that consensus is ‘purchased’ with defense spending that ensures each of the services generally get much of what they want and rarely get all of it.”
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) added that the roughly $70 billion being spent annually on intelligence also ought to be reviewed for overlapping activities among the 16 members of the intelligence community.
McCain, other senators and panel members also discussed missions such as special operations, cyber, space and strategic communications that didn’t exist 20 years ago but are central to national security.
“There are serious questions about how to properly prioritize new and untraditional missions. We cannot afford for these vital functions to be orphaned within services that will undercut and underfund them in favor of parochial priorities,” McCain said. He even went so far as saying for “those new domains of warfare, such as space and cyber, should we even consider creating new services, much as the Air Force was created seven decades ago in recognition of the vital role of air power?”
He is right, but let’s see whether this Congress or the next does more than just hold hearings. The legislators ought to act on updating Goldwater-Nichols with input from the Pentagon.
Otherwise, as McCain pointed out, “The defense bureaucracy and the services have a healthy track record of reverting back to their original forms and functions once their overseers of the moment move on.”