Dr. Mackubin Owens

Professor, US Naval War College

February 18, 1998

The US government passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act to encourage increased jointness between the branches of the US military. In many ways, jointness has improved the performance of US forces, but Goldwater-Nichols has had some unintended consequences. Therefore, it is useful to evaluate both the negative and positive aspects of jointness.

Jointness is defined as events in which elements of more than one military service participate. Jointness has become an essential part of fighting wars, but there are two approaches to jointness that must be differentiated. The first approach, integration, combines the unique capabilities of each of the services in order to increase the US warfighting capability. This was the goal of the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The second approach is unification. Through unification, some capabilities would be subordinated to others. The goal of this approach would be to improve the military by stressing a single dominant capability.

Since World War Two, the US has favored integration rather than unification, the more radical approach to jointness. But recently, some have suggested that US forces should move toward unification by leveraging technologies to maximize military capabilities. This can blur the strategic concepts that shape the various services.

The debate over the form and extent of jointness is really a debate over defense planning in general. There are three approaches to defense planning. Jointness as integration is consistent with the first. Jointness as unification corresponds to the other two. The first approach, which Sam Huntington has called strategic pluralism, argues that the US must maintain balanced forces to hedge against uncertainty in the future threat environment. Strategic pluralism advocates a variety of capabilities such that the US can shape its strategic environment in any situation rather than simply respond to it. Strategic pluralism maintains a hedge against uncertainty, stressing comparative advantage and complementarity. Strategic pluralism complicates the enemy’s planning. A variety of approaches to military problem-solving promotes competition to maintain one’s advantage, increasing the likelihood of innovation. Critics charge that strategic pluralism leads to bureaucratic inertia and rigidity that may actually prevent innovation, and that precious resources are wasted through the duplication of capabilities between the services. However, duplication is mitigated somewhat if the strategic concepts of the services are different enough to employ the capabilities in unique ways. Strategic pluralism is advocated by both the US Army and the US Navy.

The second approach, strategic monism, advocates that the US can and should focus on one superior capability. Strategic monism leads to the right dominant capability only if defense planners correctly guess which capabilities are necessary for the future. The approach is based upon the idea that it is possible to predict the future of warfare and then control any conflict fully to utilize the capability in which you specialized. However, if the assumptions made by the defense planners are wrong, the ability to adapt to a future conflict has been lost. Some, though not all, in the US Air Force favor this approach, stressing that air power can be decisive both in the present and the future without reliance on any other service capability.

However, there is also a third approach, which I call technophilia. That is favored by the more radical advocates of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). These individuals believe that new technologies will eliminate friction and disperse the fog of war. Therefore, decisions will be made with little uncertainty. According to the technophiles, resources should be devoted to developing new doctrines to take advantage of the RMA, and the technologies that will become dominant on future battlefields. Those who take their bearings from Clausewitz, however, believe that friction and the fog of war is attributable to human action and cannot be alleviated through new technologies.

Overall, there is something to be said for a decentralized approach to the US defense posture. In the near future, integration -- and not unification -- is the key to US military success. There is value in the different service cultures as well as in maintaining the competition and organizational imperatives that make US forces so capable. The danger of Joint Vision 2010 as the "template" for future US forces is that it might lead to the replacement of America’s traditional strategic pluralism by a combination of strategic monism and technophilia.

Dr. Owens is Professor of Strategy and Force Planning at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Before joining the faculty of the war college, Dr. Owens served as National Security Advisor to Senator Bob Kasten, Republican of Wisconsin, and Director of Legislative Affairs for the Nuclear Weapons Programs of the Department of Energy. Dr. Owens is also a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, where as infantry platoon commander in 1968-1969, he was wounded twice and awarded the Silver Star medal. He retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a Colonel in 1994.

Rapporteur – Andrea Gabbitas

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