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After 30 Years, Senate Eyes New DoD Reforms

WASHINGTON (CN) - Among Defense Department reforms debated in a Senate committee hearing Tuesday, one witness spoke about classifying U.S. national-security strategy.

This would be in contrast to the public document the president prepares every few years, which resembles more of a "marketing brochure" than a security strategy, said Jim Thomas, with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Congress put the last the Pentagon's last reforms in place with the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986.

In pushing the Armed Services Committee to make defense reform a central part of its legislative agenda in the upcoming year, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., noted that the U.S. faces a vastly different security landscape than existed during the Cold War era.

Written testimony by Thomas says the staffs of the Defense Department's headquarters, especially the Joint Staff and Office of the Secretary of Defense, have grown too large, making their processes "too cumbersome."

This has created a culture of maintaining the status quo. "When senior leaders want to get something done, they must work around the existing processes rather than through them," Thomas told the committee.

Thomas urged the committee to consider forming a general staff, which "would assume the role of the military's global brain."

He said Congress of the Goldwater-Nichols era considered this move too radical because it could lead to concentration of power within the military, or bury alternative viewpoints and courses of action.

At the hearing, members of the committee and witnesses alike acknowledged successes that the nearly 30-year-old reforms achieved. In his opening remarks, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., credited the reforms for the lack of significant military operational failures these past 29 years.

James Locher III with the Joint Special Operations University told the committee "no organizational blueprint lasts forever," however, a sentiment seemingly shared by all present as they discussed problems with the current structure of the Defense Department, and possible ways to reform it.

Calling the Defense Department unmodern and outmoded in its approach, Locher said "there would be a high price" for doing nothing to reform it.

Locher considers the Defense Department's weak but "rigid" mission orientation "the Pentagon's greatest organizational shortcoming."

Added to that, Locher said the department lacks adequate strategic direction. This was noticeable in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and now as the DoD fumbles for a strategy to confront the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, he said.

Locher blamed the problem on senior leaders getting pulled "into crisis management" instead of focusing on major issues.

"Strategy is an explicit choice among alternatives, and DoD is unable to rigorously assess risks and benefits among competing courses of action and alternative capability sets," he added.

The department also suffers from the inability to make integrated decisions, Locher said.

John Hamre, who worked on the Goldwater-Nichols reforms, agreed that the Defense Department's overall interoperability remains limited despite those sweeping changes in 1986.

Now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Hamre said the Goldwater-Nichols reforms resolved much of the parochial competition between the different branches. "Senior officers genuinely think 'jointly' now, something that was quite rare 35 years ago," Hamre said in written testimony.

Enumerating a few "birth defects" in the original reforms from the reforms' drafting nearly 30 years ago, however, Hamre said "there was no consciousness" then of cybersecurity issues.

Hamre said another issue - the problem of chain of command for acquisition - got fixed with the new National Defense Authorization Act. Indeed the Senate sent that bill off to the White House for the president's approval just this morning.

"It made no sense to have the Service Chiefs responsible for training, equipping and housing their respective forces, but not accountable for acquisition," Hamre testified.

Under Goldwater-Nichols, the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics oversaw acquisition programs. At the behest of McCain, the new National Defense Authorization Act will give that authority to service chiefs and secretaries in 2017.

The other major defect in the reforms has not been fixed yet, Hamre said, noting that 30 years ago it was believed that regional combatant commanders would fight U.S. wars.

"That is not how we go to war today," he said. "Today we largely conduct operations through joint task forces or combined task forces," that are operation-specific, he added. Regional combatant commanders today oversee and support them, Hamre said.

They retain their importance but do not need "the kind of war-fighting structure and staffs that they have," he said. Such assets should instead nurture strategic visions to manage tensions, deter conflict and develop operational plans to meet those goals, Hamre suggested.

With the understanding that reforms will be difficult, Hamre urged caution and encouraged the committee to work with the secretary of defense throughout any reform process.

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