Jointness, meaning cross-service cooperation, is generally a good thing. But one can have too much of a good thing, and the Pentagon has too much jointness. Jointness in organizing military operations makes so much sense that the concept is overprescribed. It is seen an antidote not only to operational failings but a way to combat waste and overlap in the Pentagon. That latter kind of jointness—management jointness— is detrimental to making sound defense policy. Enhancing interservice competition for resources and relevance would encourage military innovation, civilian control, and economies in the vast Pentagon budget.
U.S. defense reforms have occasionally decentralized control—examples include the creation of the Air Force and, lately, the Space Force. But the history of the Pentagon is largely a struggle to centralize control of the independent military services. The National Security Act of 1947 created the Department of Defense to integrate the War and Navy Departments. The Defense Reorganization Act of 1958 heightened the Secretary of Defense’s control over the service and further empowered combatant commands to jointly control deployed forces.
Failures of service cooperation in several US military operations—the 1980 hostage rescue in Iran and the 1983 invasion of Grenada in particular—led to the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986, which made three big reforms intended to heighten jointness. It enhanced the power of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) over the Joint Chiefs as a whole, in an attempt to reduce parochialism in military advice. It further empowered the combatant commands, at the expense of the services, to manage military operations. Finally, to create a more common culture across the services, the Act created a joint career track and a requirement that an officer serve in a joint billet before promotion to general or flag rank. Additional efforts to further jointness by institutionalizing joint planning, requirements and doctrine came in the next decade.
Informal roads to jointness augmented those formal ones. One is the tendency, dating back to the Kennedy administration, to give the services roughly consistent shares of the budget. Service shares of the budget have grown more stable since the 1950s and early 1960s, once you adjust for the growth of defense-wide spending and the boosts the Army typically gets during wars.
Back then, the Air Force’s preeminence in executing the “New Look” doctrine of massive retaliation allowed it grow to almost half the total defense budget. As a result, interservice rivalry intensified. Because budgetary gains more clearly came at another service’s expense, Samuel Huntington notes, “each service chief tended to attack not the overall ceiling on the military budget but rather the allocation of the budget among the services.”
Conversely, in an environment where the services benefit by growing the whole budget at taxpayers’ expense, the services have reason to avoid criticizing each other’s programs and ideas. That deprives civilians of information about the flaws in policy and of power. The interservice competition of the 1950s taught the services a lesson about public conflict. As Sharon Weiner puts it: “Determined to minimize civilian interference in the future, in the 1960s the services developed routines that encouraged compromise and internalized dissent.”
We see then that the services, encouraged by budget practice and learning from experience, achieved a kind of jointness well before Goldwater-Nichols came along. The bill’s sensible efforts to streamline command in military operations have little to do with this species of jointness. It’s not that the services stopped disagreeing about policy—their disagreements prevented the JCS from agreeing to much before Goldwater Nichols. But they quieted interservice arguments and pushed publicly for a bigger overall budget. They colluded at the expense of taxpayers, just as price-fixing firms collude against consumers.
Public service spats are loud, messy, and unpleasant for the civilians tasked with running the Pentagon. But the relative quietude of interservice harmony should not be confused with good policy. Senior civilian leaders can reify managerial jointness, believing that one best manages the Pentagon by minimizing debate within it. They write strategy documents that threaten no budget line, and budgets that keep everyone happy, like parents buying their children gifts. When budgets come under some pressure, as they did earlier this decade, they join the service chiefs in opposing even mild reductions and then implement those forced on them in roughly equal amounts across the services.
Harmony can, however, mask bad results. Democratic government, after all, is an arena for conflict and thrives by harnessing it. Good policy comes less by avoiding fights than encouraging the right ones. The opportunity costs of managerial jointness can be categorized as lost civilian control, inefficiency, and lagging innovation.
The U.S. military services have distinct personalities and approaches to warfare, borne through traditions, service academies and training. Like other strong public organizations, they infuse their personnel, especially officers, with a sense of mission and belief that their service enhances the national interest. These heterogenous commitments are a source of creative energy that should be exploited, not repressed.
Interservice conflict empowers civilians to arbitrate among competing approaches to defense. Like a judge educated by the clashing claims of litigants, civilians are educated about defense policy by these clashes. The fact that at least some military leaders will agree with civilian leaders’ decisions empowers them when they make their case in public or before Congress.
Conflict can reveal the flaws in a competing service’s plans and programs. If a service was still producing an alternative to the (unfortunately) Joint Strike Fighter, for example, its advocates might be trumpeting the F-35s flaws and offering an alternative. Competition also produces efficiency another way: when squeezed by a rivals’ success, the services have reason to protect funds for their preferred missions by hunting waste.
Interservice competition also encourages innovative military doctrine, as Owen Cote explains. The Air Force’s prominence under the New Look made the Navy desperate for relevance in nuclear deterrence. The results were not just the creation of ballistic missile submarines, a tremendous military innovation, but the finite deterrence doctrine, which offered a more affordable Cold War: a fixed number of essentially invulnerable submarines rather than an arms race in vulnerable intercontinental ballistic missiles. As Cote recounts, these innovations’ promises were not fully realized. The advent of service comity (or jointness) prevented the Navy from later using the increased accuracy of submarine-launched missiles to attack the Air Force’s budget.
Restoring useful interservice competition does not require undoing Goldwater-Nichols or the operational powers enjoyed by combatant commanders, though keeping them from further meddling in procurement would be wise. It requires, chiefly, civilian leaders willing to pursue strategies that reward one service at the expense of the others. Today the obvious choice is the Navy. That’s not only because it is best suited to deter China, especially vis-à-vis ground forces, but because its submarines and strike aircraft arguably are a more flexible means to do what Air Force missiles and aircraft offer. Let them fight.
(Photo credit: DoD Photo)