Military Reforms Hit at the Wrong Targets

<i> Harry G. Summers Jr., senior military correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, is the author of "Vietnam War Almanac" (Facts on File). </i>

Constantly trying to escape From the darkness outside and within By dreaming of systems so perfect That no one will need to be good. T.S. Eliot’s words a half-century ago capture almost perfectly the thrust of current initiatives to reform America’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“The darkness outside and within” is real enough. The debacle in Vietnam, the abortive rescue attempt in Iran and the disaster in Beirut evidence that something is not right with the upper echelons of America’s organization for combat. To put it right those in the Congress committed to a strong national defense have led the way toward reform of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In addition, a presidential commission headed by industrialist David Packard has also proposed sweeping changes in both the organization of the Joint Chiefs and in the way the Defense Department does business.

To their great credit they have rejected some so-called reforms that would have made conditions even worse. Proposals to eliminate “interservice rivalry” were the most pernicious, for they attacked a problem that exists primarily in the minds of those (as former JCS Chairman Adm. Thomas Moorer put it) who have never missed a meal nor heard a shot fired in anger. As any combat veteran would testify, problems plaguing America’s military are not caused by lack of cooperation at the fighting level. And few today are caused by parochialism at the top.

At issue is not interservice rivalry but interservice competition. And that’s not all bad. There are some things one service does better than another, and at one time the Joint Staff played to such strengths. The Army, for example, was the JCS executive agent for the conduct of land operations in the Korean War, and the Navy was the executive agent for the landing in Lebanon in 1958. But soon thereafter this system was abolished and the United States ended up fighting a land war in Vietnam commanded by an admiral in Honolulu, thousands of miles away from the battlefield. Instead of advocating a return to the executive agent system, reformers argued for elimination of the service staffs, to be replaced by a U.S. variant of the German general staff.


As Ohio State Prof. Williamson Murray, an expert on the German military, has pointed out, this was an especially dumb proposal. True enough, on the battlefield in two world wars the German general staff system was extremely effective. But at the strategic level, it was an unmitigated disaster and it failed at the primary task for which the American JCS is responsible--coordination of air, land and sea forces.

Another dumb proposal was to remove the chiefs of staff from their respective services and make them a kind of superstaff (an allied proposal was to eliminate the service chiefs entirely and substitute a staff of “wise men” drawn from retired senior officers). Unlike the red herring of “interservice rivalry,” the divorce of authority and responsibility throughout America’s armed forces is a serious and potentially fatal deficiency. Instead of correcting this flaw, these proposals would have made the problem worse.

Why such wrong-head approaches? The main reason is that such reformers do not understand the true nature of the problem. The abortive Iran raid is a case in point. Breakdown of the helicopters was blamed on interservice rivalry, but the real cause was fear that the operation would be leaked and the Iranians tipped off. Since surprise was essential for the mission’s success, the plan for the raid was so closely controlled that even senior commanders were not made privy to it. When the request went out to the commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet (a four-star admiral) to detach some helicopters then engaged in operational missions, he was told that they were to be used for “training” purposes. Not aware that they were for the Iran raid, he quite naturally sent those clunkers he could best afford to lose.

The resulting disaster should have been foreseen. “Secrecy,” wrote Austrian Gen. Alfred Krauss in World War I, “cannot be maintained by hiding one’s intentions from subordinates. . . . Such secrecy is not desirable, because any operation must be thoroughly trained and rehearsed if it is to be successful.” How to include subordinate commanders in the planning process, how to train and rehearse for sensitive military operations in an open society presents a dilemma for which a solution has yet to be found. But blaming the resulting problems on “interservice rivalry” only clouds and confuses the issue.


Too many of the reformers fail to understand either the nature of the problem or the internal dynamics of the military. The Packard commission, for example, properly criticized Pentagon procurement practices, but as a solution recommended further managerial involvement of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The commission failed to appreciate that the military is composed of complementary opposites-- management (procurement, programming and budgeting), and operations (peacetime planning for and wartime execution of battlefield operations), a distinction pointed out by the master military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, more than 150 years ago. Both are essential, but both depend on entirely different skills.

The solution to current problems should not be the further involvement of the JCS chairman and his operational commanders in management functions, it should be to rid them of such functions and concentrate their attention on operational matters. Management should be the province of the civilian secretariat, best capable of making the hard choices among competing military demands, for at heart these are more political than military decisions. Until such a clear division of labor is made, the best that can be expected of JCS reform is tinkering at the margin.

But even that is better than nothing at all. The issues that pending legislation addresses primarily have to do with strengthening the role of chairman of the JCS and of commanders in the field. This later point remains the major difference between House and Senate bills, with the House recommending that field commanders be given full authority and the Senate retaining some Washington-based controls. If they are really serious about JCS reform, the House version ought to be the way to go--for then authority is commensurate with responsibility.

But those concerned with America’s future security shouldn’t kid themselves that such changes will produce anything even close to a system where “no one will need to be good.” Indeed, the Joint Chiefs had better be good if they’re going to continue to make that still-flawed system work; America’s survival depends on it.