There’s been complaining lately about federal legislators spending too much time raising money for re-election while neglecting their duties. You wouldn’t think that was a problem to look at the work of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Before beginning their Memorial Day recess, the committee’s 26 members completed work on a 1,666-page defense authorization bill that will take most of June to review on the Senate floor. Committee chairman John McCain (R-AZ) didn’t let his own challenging re-election bid get in the way of doing a thorough job.
The problem with a 1,666-page bill, of course, is that many Senators not serving on the committee won’t know all the details of what’s in it before they must vote. They will likely rely on staffers for insights concerning the programs that impact their constituents – which might mean that they overlook the defense bill’s most important innovation this year. After holding 13 hearings and interviewing dozens of experts, McCain’s panel wants to refine the military chain of command.
The McCain initiatives, fashioned in bipartisan cooperation with ranking minority member Jack Reed (D-RI), would shrink and streamline a military bureaucracy that has become too big to be agile. As the end-strength of the military has shrunk by nearly 40% over the last three decades, the system has become top-heavy with redundant players who do not communicate well across organizational boundaries. The bureaucratic result looks more like the Ottoman Empire circa 1913 than a military system ready for the challenges of the 21st Century.
What most worries McCain and his colleagues is that the organizational structure crafted by Reagan-era reformers does not match up with the “multi-regional, cross-functional, multi-domain” threats the military now faces. The system is too complicated to respond quickly and in a unified way to dangers like cyber warfare and transnational terrorism. So the defense bill that the full chamber will begin debating on June 6 aims at achieving better “strategic integration” in seven areas.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and Ranking Minority Member Jack Reed are moving to make the military chain of command more agile and responsive to emerging threats. (Retrieved from Wikipedia)
National Security Council.
At its inception in 1947, the National Security Council was a handful of cabinet-level officials with a small White House staff created to coordinate action across federal agencies. Over time, though, the staff has grown to 400 personnel, in the process duplicating and competing with functions of the cabinet departments. The armed services committee wants to cap the size of the permanent staff at 150, and restore the leading role of the defense and state departments in managing policy.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The committee wants to strengthen the chairman’s role as senior advisor to civilian officials on military matters. In addition, it wants to bolster the chairman’s contribution to integrating military operations against threats that cut across current organizational jurisdictions – which is difficult for the nation’s top military officer to do today because he is not in the chain of command for combat operations. The Senate bill would allow the defense secretary to delegate authority to the chairman for the worldwide allocation of military assets.
U.S. military operations are executed through a series of regional and functional “combatant commands” scattered around the globe. For instance, U.S. Central Command oversees military operations in the Middle East and adjacent areas. However, the responsibilities of the combatant commands are not spelled out in law, so the Senate bill proposes that key functions be formalized in order to improve integration of the overall warfighting system. It would also experiment with streamlined organizational constructs.
General and Admirals. The committee believes there are too many generals and admirals, particularly at the most senior three-star and four-star levels – potentially contributing to the system’s lack of responsiveness and unity. It therefore proposes to reduce the number of senior military officers by 25%, noting that the end-strength of the force has shrunk by 38% since the end of the Cold War while the ranks of generals and flag officers has not.
Office of the Secretary of Defense. Like the staff of the National Security Council, the staff surrounding the Secretary of Defense has grown over time. It now includes five under secretaries – each with his or her own dedicated bureaucracy – and a sixth is being added. The committee believes that this organization “too often inhibits, rather than enables, strategic integration” because it arranges functions in disconnected stovepipes. The committee calls for “mission teams” that can address threats cutting across bureaucratic boundaries. It would also strengthen oversight of cyber threats.
Staffs and Headquarters. The committee believes that the military departments and defense agencies are top-heavy with highly-paid civilian personnel, and it therefore would reduce the number of Senior Executive Service personnel across the defense department by 25%. Although there are already statutory caps on the number of senior uniform and civilian personnel, these caps have been circumvented by hiring contractors and relying on emergency exemptions. The committee proposes legislative language that would largely preclude such moves.
Strategy Documents. Congress requires that the Executive Branch generate high-level strategy documents and force-posture assessments on a set schedule. For example, a “quadrennial defense review” is produced at the beginning of each new administration. The value of these costly, labor-intensive exercises has long been questioned, and now the committee proposes that they be replaced with less demanding, classified products of greater use to legislators and policymakers. Reporting requirements are streamlined to focus on critical information.
Collectively, the strategic-integration proposals contained in the Senate Armed Services Committees 2017 authorization bill would simplify and improve the functioning of a byzantine military system that contains too many smart people and competing organizations for its own good. Of course, the bill’s proposals will have to be reconciled with a less ambitious authorization bill passed by the House, assuming the integration measures pass muster on the Senate floor. Nonetheless, they are an important contribution to the military reform debate, and could make the difference between victory and defeat in a future war.