Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Goldwater-Nichols Act

See? I told you I'd finish this eventually. Congratulations by the way to President Obama. Commiserations to Willard "Mitt" Romney (yes, his real name is Willard... I laughed too).

With the presidential race dominating the news lately I thought it would be interesting to look at a piece of legislation related to defense with an "S" for a change; the Goldwater-Nichols Act (1986). This will be related back to the UK at the end, I promise.

More formally known as the "Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganisation Act of 1986" (sponsored by Senator Barry Goldwater and Representative William Nichols) it was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in October of 1986. It represented a significant change in the organisation and command of the US military, one that fundamentally shifted operational control of American military forces to a lower, more unified level.

It's origin came partly from the work and suggestions of the presidentially appointed "Packard Commission" the year before (yes, that Packard), and partly due to the long standing rivalries that existed between the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.

These rivalries - like those of our own British services - date back in many cases over a hundred years. At various points in history they came bubbling to the surface with unfortunate consequences that lead to disjointed operations in times of war.

In World War Two for example the US military was effectively divided into two separate forces; the Navy reporting to the civilian Secretary of the Navy, and the land forces, which also incorporated the US Army Air Force (USAAF), reporting to the Secretary of War.

This split in military organisation created a system whereby each of the individual services effectively fought its own campaigns. Unless otherwise pressed by the President, both organisations were essentially free to manage their aspect of the war as they saw fit, without coordinating with the other.

This problem became more pronounced in 1947 with the introduction of the United States Air Force (USAF) as an independent service branch, and the rising prominence of the Marine Corps in political and command circles after their desperate fight for survival in the post-WW2 budget environment.

Over time the services developed and prepared their own doctrines for how wars of the future would be fought. By the time of Vietnam, despite the creation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the services were still effectively fighting their own individual wars.

The air environment over Vietnam was split in order to facilitate separate USAF and USN areas of operation, in what became known as "route packages". The two services prioritised different target sets, were using different communications, were in many cases using different weapons (such as the failed USAF AIM-4 Falcon, which was eventually replaced by Navy AIM-9 Sidewinders) and different tactics.

At the same time the army was keen to retain its own aviation components such as helicopters, light attack and observation aircraft, to support its operations which it felt were being over looked by an Air Force more concerned with
bombing "strategic" targets in the North.

These problems came to the fore once again in April of 1980 during the failed Operation Eagle Claw; the mission to rescue US hostages being held in the American Embassy in Tehran.

A report into the failed operation later produced by Admiral James L. Holloway III criticised the organisation, intelligence support, command, training (mission specific), and interoperatbility of the forces used, and recommended the creation of a Counter Terrorist Joint Task Force to handle future operations of a similar manner.

Some of these same problems were identified by US Congressional investigations into Operation Urgent Fury, the 1983 invasion of Grenada by the United States, especially the difficulties with intelligence and communications.

On top of the problems experienced at lower levels, the President was still having to deal with military advice (often conflicting) fed to him from all three service chiefs, who were still essentially planning for and organising their own branches individually, while seeking to maximise their share of the budget.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act changed all this.

First and foremost, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were reformed, such that the Chairman of this body was invested with the sole responsibility of providing military advice to the President, along with the creation of a Vice-Chairman position for support.

At the same time the Chairman was no longer capable of exercising military command over the other Joint Chiefs, or the wider services which they represented. Essentially the Chairman's role became one of advisory to the civilian government, while helping to guide and inform broad American military strategy.

The most significant change though - and perhaps of most interest to us here in the UK - was the way that the services were to be organised and led.

Essentially each service now became responsible for training, organising and equipping their respective forces, with a degree of joint development of doctrine. Actual operational control of these forces however was handed over to a series of new commands, known as the Unified Combatant Commands (UCC), each led by either an Admiral or a four star General from one of the other services, who reports directly to the Secretary of Defense (and by extension the President).

Originally there were as many as 15 or more different commands, but a series of mergers in a sense have reduced the number to the current nine UCC's. Six of these are based on geographic areas, while three are deemed "functional" commands on account of being responsible for a certain wider function within the US military that often stretches beyond simple geographic boundaries.

The six geographic commands are;

- US Northern Command: Responsible for the territorial defence of the North American continent and its approaches, parts of the Caribbean, and with providing military assistance to civilian authorities.

- US Southern Command: Responsible for American interests and operations in Central and Southern America.

- US European Command: Responsible for American interests and operations in Europe, including as far north and west as Greenland, Russia in the north east and Turkey and Israel in the south east.

- US Africa Command: Responsible for American interests and operations on the African continent, including Madagascar, but excluding Egypt.

- US Central Command: Responsible for American interests and operations in the Middle East (excluding Israel), Egypt and some parts of Asia such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

- US Pacific Command: Responsible for American interests and operations in the Pacific Ocean and Asia, as far west as India and as far east as Hawaii, from Mongolia in the north, to the Antarctic in the south.

In essence the Combatant Commander of each region is the sole military authority for his region. Forces deployed to his theatre fall under his command and become a component of his overall force.  Though many of these regional commands have sub-commands led by a relevant service officer to manage things such as air operations or marine corps units, the Combatant Commander has the ultimate operational control.

This was demonstrated by General Norman Schwarzkopf in 1991 during the war with Iraq. Schwarzkopf had appointed USAF Lieutenant General Charles "Chuck" Horner as the commander of allied air operations for the campaign, but still had the full authority as the combatant commander (a term that hadn't come into use at that point) to assign priorities for Horner, such as marking out the Iraqi Republican Guard as targets of an important strategic nature that should attract additional attention, and not simply as another group of tanks on the battlefield.

That order also provides an excellent demonstration of the value of the regionally focused combatant commanders. Schwarzkopf was not just looking at the operational level of fighting the Iraqi army and freeing Kuwait, he was also using his understanding of regional politics built through his visits to the various nations that fell under the scope of his command to make decisions that he hoped would shape the theatre after the war was over.

Having a senior officer who is interested in the broader outcomes for a region beyond just the length of a given operation (US combatant commanders normally serve for 3-4 years in their positions) adds great value to both the US military and to US foreign policy in general.

Combining an operational military command with intelligence and civilian diplomatic assets allows the combatant commanders to take a broader, more long term focus of their respective regions, which has obvious positive implications for things like creating stability in a region as well as developing a degree of interoperability with foreign military forces.

Combatant commanders are also responsible for (and deeply interested in) doing basic planning work for possible scenarios in their region. Again, in the case of Schwarzkopf this came to the fore in 1990/91 when some basic planning work that he and his staff had previously done became the foundation for Operation Desert Storm.

But it's not just the regional commands that have had a positive impact on the US military. The functional commands have too. The three functional commands are;

- US Special Operations Command: Set up as a direct result of the recommendations of Admiral Holloway in the aftermath of Operation Eagle Claw, responsible for managing and integrating the various special operations forces from the four services, controlling and deploying them in a coherent manner.

During congressional hearings related to the Goldwater-Nichols act, stories about the use of Special Forces in Grenada came to the fore. Congress heard evidence about how conventional commanders had misused SF, leading to unneccesary casualties and a lack of their full capabilties being exploited (events that seem to plague every special forces unit in the world, from their inception to the present day).

USSOCOM is desgined to overcome these problems, and those identified in Eagle Claw, by putting all Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps special forces under one unified command, complete with its own budget for procuring specialist equipment such as helicopters and other vehicles.

- US Transport Command: Designed to control, organise and integrate all of the US air, sea and land based logistical efforts into one unified system (Goldwater-Nichols revoked a previous law that had prohibited the consolidation of military transport under a single authority).

The transport combatant commander has access to all transport assets from all services, except those that are deemed to be "service unique" (which are usually operational level assets such as army logistic support vessels or USAF helicopters) and those assets that have been assigned to a specific theatre.

Transport Command is probably the one command that many in the US believe still needs some work. The fact that it does not control the full range of transport assets that it really should and has no budget control for transport specific assets in the same way that USSOCOM does, leaves it somewhat still at the mercy of the various services.

- US Strategic Command: It would probably be quicker to list all the things that the Strategic Command isn't responsible for. Its scope covers everything from operations in space such as communications and reconnaissance satellites, general Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance activites (ISR), cyber warfare, the US Strategic deterrent and missile defence systems, to the US global strike capability such as B-52's and B-2's.

Essentially Strategic Command is responsible for high level assets that support all four services on a global scale. Rather than having intelligence or cyber defence capabilities unique to the various services, Strategic Command centralises the collection, management, distribution and access of these systems to all.

But as wonderful as all this is, what utility does it all have to us here in the UK?

Well to me it seems like a bloody good method of organising the various elements of our services in a more coherent manner, helping to overcome some of the service centric boundaries that have plagued us in the past and allowing us to focus on the wider missions of the armed forces.

Imagine if, for example, operations in Afghanistan were under the control of a senior officer for 3-4 years at a time, who also had responsibility for the middle east, with foreign office and SIS personnel attached to his staff? The scope for developing a much wider, longer term UK strategy for the region along with developing a better, more integrated understanding of the players involved would help British interests enormously.

Our contribution to Afghanistan has often been criticised for having senior officers with too short a focus. The nature of the way promotion works in the British army means that past commanders in the Afghanistan theatre have often been under pressure to make their chance at commanding the force count, by conducting operations designed to stamp their particular mark on the proceedings.

Having a longer term appointment, someone who has plenty of time to achieve their aims, and who also has a much wider understanding of the politics of neighbouring players such as Iran and Pakistan, can only be seen as a good thing in my book.

Similarly having someone responsible for the South Atlantic, whose command covers the Falkland Islands, as well as South American countries such as Chile, Argentina and Brazil, would allow us to develop a more comprehensive approach to handling our interests in that region.

In asia people often complain that we have withdrawn. Having an Asia-Oceania-Pacific command of some form could help to at least build our diplomatic ties in the region, and maybe in time promote better working opportunities and more visits by UK assets to the region.

Also, here at home we could use a commander with a similarly broad remit.

Operation Ellamy - the UK contribution to operations in Libya - brought to light some of the troubles that NATO have in organising operations without significant US assistance. If we really aspire to be a leader in coalitions that do not involve the US, a European Theatre Commander (not sure "Combatant Commander" will go down well here) could play a key role in the interim in organising pan-European exercises and command integration work.

We already have a Special Forces directorate that encompasses all our special forces units into one unified command. Personally I don't see it being too much more of a stretch to follow the American model and develop an additional command for transport, a strategic command for looking after our deterrent, ISR, communications and cyber assets, plus regional commands for building capacity abroad (forward engagement) and controlling operational assets when they deploy around the world.

But that's just me.


  1. A very interesting piece. I like the idea of regional commands, focused on forward presence, and have often thought about a unified transport/logistics service (RAF aircraft, the RFA, Logistic Corps?). However I have read criticism of the SOCOM - it is too seperate from the regional commands; alledegally special operations often happen in a region without the commander being aware.

  2. Hi Gareth,

    Cheers for stopping by. Yeah, SOCOM has drawn a fair amount of criticism in that regard, and there's not a huge amount that can be done. The more control you hand to the regional commander over special forces, the more you run the risk of them being misused.

    On the flip side, if they'yre allowed to do as they please, then you risk a disconnect between the missions they're conducting and what the regional commander needs to advance his aims in the theatre of operations.

    Tough balancing act.

  3. Brilliant post Chris, I like it but do you think we have the scale to maintain such a command infrastructure work

  4. Many thanks TD. The question is do we have the money ;)

    Six or more regional commands, distributed potentially around the globe, with staffs and travel. The papers won't like that; "Fat Cat Four Stars Waste Millions Staying In Five Stars!!" etc.

    I think the overall benefits are worth it. They'd be - as the American commands appear to be - more than just a military issue, but almost diplomatic in a sense.

    Despite our military size, we retain interests of a manner all across the world, even if its only a smaller scale and might involve no more than organising training efforts in some places.

    I think it's worth considering. What value can we draw from such regional commands? Gareth brought up forward presence, which I know is a favourite concept of yours to and there is a lot of merit in that. A unified Logistic network also has much promise, potentially.

  5. I do like the idea, one of the things that seem continually to befall us is the lack of continuity at the top of the tree.

    One of the concepts in both mil and civil service is the rise of the generalist over the specialist. It has some merit but seems to come with so much baggage so anything that injects some stability and specialism seems to be a good thing

    Tip top idea I think

  6. The difficulty is in splitting up the world in a coherent manner.

    For example the US includes Israel in its European command and not its Central Command, because the point has been made in the past by people like Schwarzkopf that it made his life ten times easier as CENTCOM commander not having to explain to arab leaders why the next stop on his tour was Israel.

    By removing them from his remit it made it much easier for him to negotiate with people in the region that had a huge impact on his operations.

  7. I don't think after the current cuts we would have the manpower to organise in this way, though I do think its a good idea Chris.

    "The question is do we have the money "


    It's not money we are short of, we have an economy of ~£1.4 the Government spends almost £700bn a year, its political will of where we spend our money that dictates what we can/cant afford.

  8. "USSOCOM is desgined to overcome these problems, and those identified in Eagle Claw, by putting all Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps special forces under one unified command, complete with its own budget for procuring specialist equipment such as helicopters and other vehicles."

    How is the money allocated?

  9. Haha, true Mick, it is a question of where to spend. But none of the parties likely to get into power are going to spend the money required on defence, thus I always treat it as "we haven't got the cash", because the two are as good as the same at the minute.

  10. Sorry Mick, didn't see that second question at first.

    FY13 estimate for SOCOM is about $5bn. There's quite a detailed breakdown here;

    If you scroll down to page 10 it starts there. Hope that helps.

  11. Thanks Chris and no worries only checked back just now anyway.

    "because the two are as good as the same at the minute."

    I agree but lets not forget that its the choice of the government. By saying there's not the money, in my opinion, takes any blame from them on troops not having the right/enough equipment, its there usual go to excuse.

    Thanks for the link, will have a read through when I can, only had a quick glance, but my question was more, if special forces from all services are under one command, where s the incentive for each branch of the military to fund for troops that aren't under there command? Or who decides where the money comes from to fund SOCOM? My apologies if the answers to these are posted in the link, as previously mentioned haven't had a chance to read through but seems more a breakdown of SOCOM spending. Am interested in this mainly due to how the different military branches of the UK armed forces argue over money and possible better ways of deciding who gets what and so on, and I don't have much knowledge on this subject specially concerning how other nations around the world operate.

    thanks mick

  12. Hello Mick,

    As far as I'm aware, SOCOM is essentially assigned a budget for each year after much consultation with all interested parties, such as the Chiefs of Staff and depending on the expectations for SOCOM in the coming years.

    Also, again as far as I'm aware, SOCOM pays for the forces assigned to it, so the personnel budget for the SEALs for example is met by SOCOM.

    Trouble is, as with all military budgets, it can be a bit cloudy trying to figure out where the money ends up and who exactly pays for what.