Clash Brewing Over Congressional Proposal to Create Nimbler Military Commands

By Sandra I. Erwin
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.

Photo: Washington State Dept. of Transportation

As the House and Senate begin the process to reconcile vastly different defense policy bills, House Armed Services Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., hinted that he is weighing support for Senate language that would downsize the military command structure and require the secretary of defense to create nimbler organizations.

This is one of many provisions in the Senate version of the fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that seek to overhaul the Pentagon’s civilian and military organizations. These reforms have long been advocated by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as part of a broader effort to rewrite the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act.

McCain has pressed the case that current geography-based organizations are too rigid to respond to opportunist enemies like the Islamic State.

During a breakfast meeting with reporters July 6, Smith insisted that he has not yet made up his mind on whether he will support the Senate language on this matter, but suggested he would be inclined to back measures that flatten the military bureaucracy and give commanders more flexibility to respond to threats.

“I am intrigued by the possibility of going in this direction,” Smith said.

The White House firmly opposes the Senate language on grounds that it micromanages the military and creates additional bureaucracy.

Smith said he would weigh the objections raised by the Obama administration as the NDAA conference moves along. This is far from a “yes” or “no” answer, he said. “Does McCain have the exact right formula? Is the White House completely wrong in the criticism? No and no. But I think we have to move in that direction.”

Enemies like ISIS demand an unconventional response, he said. Smith is a fan of how former Joint Special Operations Command chief Gen. Stanley McChrystal organized teams to fight al-Qaida. “I was always impressed by his line that ‘it takes a network to defeat a network.’”

The U.S. military operates six geographic commands and over the years these organizations have become bloated and inefficient, Smith said, agreeing with McCain’s view. “We have too many mid and high-level managers,” he said. “They are not providing value added. We need to consolidate.”

McChrystal was able to “grab the assets from different parts of the Department of Defense” to deal with the threat at hand, he said. “We need to do that with cyber,” Smith said. “McChrystal was given wide latitude to do that against al-Qaida.”

In the current fight against extremist groups, he added, “We need to be able to get out of the CENTCOM or SOCOM command structure.”

Smith predicts change will not come easy. “It requires adaptability that most bureaucracies are hostile to,” he said. “I would like to see the possibility of infusing that type of flexibility to respond to the threat.”

The Senate's version of the NDAA would eliminate five positions among general officers or admirals commanding combatant commands. It requires that the grade of an officer serving as the commander of a service or functional component command be no higher than lieutenant general or vice admiral. The bill directs the secretary of defense to create six “cross-functional teams” to take on high-priority missions.

The White House has pointed out that the Pentagon already is a proponent of using cross-functional teams, and the Senate bill only creates more administrative burdens. Obama issued a statement strongly objecting to the language, arguing that it “would undermine the secretary of defense's ability to exercise authority, direction, and control over the department. The provisions would blur lines of responsibility and control over resources within the department, and would require the issuance of numerous unnecessary and burdensome policies, directives and reports.”

The administration contends that the Senate bill “undermines the secretary's ability to create effective cross-functional teams, which are already an extremely common feature of the way the department is organized today.”

McCain recently praised McChrystal's transformation of the Joint Special Operations Command and compared it to similar reforms now unfolding at the National Security Agency and the CIA.
“The premise is simple. To succeed against our present and future challenges, we need flatter, faster moving and more flexible organizations,” McCain said during a June 29 hearing.

McCain rebutted the administration’s pushback as “bizarre.” The legislation is being “attacked for undermining the secretary's authority when the legislation would do the opposite,” said McCain. “The secretary would identify the missions of the teams, pick their leaders, approve their membership and direct their efforts.”

In testimony, McChrystal spoke about the “power of the cross-functional teams” he stood up in 2003 when he took over the Joint Special Operations Command. “Probably the best special operations force ever fielded,” he said. “On paper we had everything we needed to succeed — quality people, generous resourcing and aggressive, thoughtful strategies. And yet in Iraq, we were losing."

McCain’s reforms do not weaken the Pentagon, as the administration argues, said James Locher, senior fellow in the Joint Special Operations University. He said the Senate language “gives a broad mandate from the Congress, but then leaves it to the secretary of defense to identify which areas he's going to create mission teams in. And he can disestablish those teams when they've served their purpose.”
The president has threatened to veto the bill if it includes the Senate language on combatant command reorganization, but it is early to predict what could happen, as there are other, even more contentious items in the NDAA that are being negotiated.

Smith said the NDAA conference can be expected to last through the summer. “I'm optimistic that we will get something done.”

The outcome of the NDAA debate could upend an ongoing Pentagon initiative to realign forces to combat ISIS. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said June 20 that he is working with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs ofStaff Gen. Joseph Dunford on a high-level plan to “develop a trans-regional network approach to counterterrorism.”

The goal is to tap into existing organizations in different geographic commands to provide “first response,” and to give U.S. Special Operations Command “coordinating authorities” to work across geographic divisions.

“We have to change how the Defense Department works and is structured, to ensure better trans-regional and trans-functional integration and advice,” said Carter. “Right now, the responsibility for integration among the combatant commanders and combatant commands reposed in the secretary of defense is inadequately supported by the formal authority of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he added. “That's why, in some of our proposed improvements to the 30-year-old Goldwater-Nichols Act, we want to clarify the role and authority of the chairman to, among other things, help the secretary of defense synchronize resources globally for daily operations around the world.”

Senior policy analyst Linda Robinson, of the Rand Corp., said Dunford is pushing hard to implement this proposal. Dunford’s vision is to increase reliance on the U.S. Special Operations Command to coordinate counter-ISIS campaigns, Robinson told National Defense. “What’s going to make it more successful bureaucratically is the heavy role of the chairman and the joint staff in orchestrating this. Then it becomes less of a food fight with different combatant commanders perceiving they are being elbowed by the others.”

Topics: Defense Department, International

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