The Durf Reorganizing the military

Current U.S. military reorganization efforts primer

Gaius Marius reorganized the Roman military in a way that made the soldiers more dependent on their generals than on their civilian leadership. Then, the Roman Republic fell into tyranny.

OK, so there’s more to the story, but nonetheless, how a nation organizes its military can have a huge impact on that nation’s security, prosperity, and liberty. The U.S. military recently started the process of modifying its own organizational structure. Here’s what you should know.

Our Military Today comes from Yesterday

Department of Defense organization

Department of Defense organization

In 1947, President Truman signed into law the National Security Act of 1947, providing the foundation for the organization of our modern military. After some amendments in 1949, the structure of the Department of Defense took shape and entrenched itself as a standard design not only for the U.S., but many other militaries across the globe. The military went through another round of major changes in 1986 with the Goldwater-Nichols Act, giving us most of our current military today.

Most Americans can name the main branches: Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines – and many probably know that the Marines exist as a sort-of a sub-branch of the Navy. This organization divides our expertise and military doctrine around the three primary domains of operation: Land, Sea, and Air. Everything from training, to procurement, strategic thinking, knowledge capture, administration, and resource allocation gets channeled by this seam.

The branches do not directly administer operations. The day-to-day fighting and operational use of the armed forces fall under the control of “Unified Combatant Commands.” The Department of Defense currently has 9 combatant commands: 6 commands divided by region, and 3 divided by special functions (Special Operations, Strategic, and Transportation, plus a new Cyber Command on its way). The generals in charge of the different branches of the military allocate their forces for use by the different combatant commands under the direction of the secretary of defense.

Like the branches, the Joint Chiefs of Staff do not have operational authority. Instead, they provide advice on military matters to the President, the Secretary of Defense, and several security counsels. Somewhat ironically, this means that the highest ranking military officer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has no operational command authority. Instead, the Joint Chiefs act as impartial counsel to other leaders.

Bubbling underneath these organizations is a slew of other government agencies, military organizations, and operational task forces. To the uninitiated, the org chart seems confusing, redundant, and inefficient.

But Yesterday’s Military is not Ideal for Today

Most (but not all) servicepeople will say that, even though the military organization looks confusing, stuff still gets done. Incredibly, perhaps the largest single organization in the world manages planning, logistics, and human capital well enough to move quickly, deliberately, and flexibly to their targets. In a short period of time, soldiers can arrive anywhere in the world, and the U.S. can sustain their presence there for months, or even years.

But most (if not all) will agree that the organization contains built-in problems. It’s not for lack of trying. As I mentioned earlier, the Goldwater-Nichols act of 1986 tried to fix some of the problems in the military. Specifically, it attempted to

  • Improve military effectiveness
    • Strengthen civilian authority
    • Improve military advice
    • Place clear responsibility on combatant commanders
    • Ensure commensurate authority for combatant commanders
    • Enhance effectiveness of military operations
  • Improve administration
    • Increase attention to strategy and contingency planning
    • Provide more efficient use of resources
    • Improve joint officer management
    • Improve Department of Defense management

The Act tried to make these improvements by increasing the powers of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, streamlining operational command to the Combatant Commanders, and putting the service chiefs in an advisory role.

How effective was Goldwater-Nichols? Pretty good actually. Those 9 goals are pretty lofty, and making change in an enormous government organization is really difficult. In spite of the challenges, they believe that they largely accomplished the first five goals on the list (the green ones). However, the last four goals (the red ones), which relate more to efficiency and effective management than accomplishing military action, have not come to fruition.

So the Military is Reorganizing Again

The U.S. Senate’s Committee on Armed Forces held hearings in late 2015 to start the process of doing a full evaluation and initiate improvements to the U.S. military’s structure. The committee members and those invited to speak provided a long list of challenges they hope to overcome. These include

  • Geographical rigidity
  • Functional rigidity
  • Fiscal rigidity (as a result of how money is allocated from congress)
  • Rapid technological advancement
  • Increase in overhead/back-office functions (especially as compared to operating forces)
  • Slow, siloed decision-making
  • Complicated decision-making hierarchy
  • Inadequate strategic direction
  • Absence of resource rationalization to missions and capabilities
  • Weak civilian leadership
  • Outdated joint officer management system
  • Sporadic guidance of the 17 defense agencies
  • Limited oversight of the 17 defense agencies
  • Creation of task forces to fight wars instead of the combatant commands
  • Failure of cyber-interoperability

That’s quite a list of problems, and these are just the ones that made it in to the hearing. To avoid trying to deal with an endless list of problems, Senator McCain outlined 6 principles for their new strategic direction:

  1. Build a more efficient defense management
  2. Strengthen the all-volunteer force
  3. Enhance innovation and accountability in defense acquisition
  4. Support the warfighter of today and tomorrow
  5. Improve development of policy, strategy, and plans
  6. Increase effectiveness of military operations

This provides a direction, but it’s a pretty vague one that seems difficult to discern from much than “do better.” This is fine for a hearing, but doesn’t really progress the initiatives very far. Fortunately, the committee members came prepared with their own ideas for the necessary changes.

But what should the Military Reorganize into?

The committee members came prepared with their own ideas for what to do.

The Committee’s ideas

  • Make the organization less top-heavy
  • Clarify roles of top military leaders
  • Adjust the manner in which civilian control of the military is exercised
  • Modify the size of the defense agencies
  • Adjust the size of the field activities
  • Consolidate or rethink the Unified Combatant Commands
  • Put chairman and service chiefs back in the operational chain of command
  • Consolidate the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) and TRANSCOM (the transportation combatant command)
  • Empower, instead of impose, collaboration
  • Incentivize, instead of mandate, appropriate behaviors

Their proposed solutions aren’t without controversy, however. Even in the hearings, the members disagree over whether to specialize or consolidate the combatant commands, and whether to put the Joint Chiefs (particularly the chairman) in the chain of command or keep them in a primarily advisory role.

The Former Secretary of Defense

Several months after the hearing, then Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) with some comments about the reorganization. He provided his own opinion for what should change, including

  • Improving trans-regional and trans-functional integration
  • Clarifying the role of the Joint Chiefs, especially the Chairman
  • Updating the Unified Combatant Commands
  • Improving the military’s acquisition system
  • Modifying the joint education requirements for top ranks

He also mentioned that they’re already underway to reduce Department of Defense Headquarters management overhead by 25%, improving the acquisition process, and involving service chiefs more.

Having taken place almost 5 months after the initial hearings, this speech gives a glimpse into what ideas stuck as priorities for the change initiative. Geographic rigidity had clearly stayed an issue, and the Joint Chiefs question hadn’t gone away. Combatant Commands tie closely to geographic rigidity in their current form, as do the joint education requirements.

In short, the operational tie to geography doesn’t see a lot of love from the top brass. More on that later.

The new administration

Many of the ideas from the former Secretary of Defense are underway – acquisitions systems are being improved and the Unified Combatant Commands are receiving updates. In August of 2017, President Trump announced the elevation of Cyber Command as its own Unified Combatant Command. I haven’t found as much about updates to the role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but the term length was extended from 2 years to 4.


Besides the committee and the Secretary, plenty of other “armchair generals” have periodically published their own two cents. Usually, they recommend larger-scale sweeping suggestions, such as the ever popular “get rid of the air force” suggestion.

Others provide ideas for a different structure than our current domain/geography & shared service structure we have today. One proposal from the 80’s outlines a task-oriented structure, buliding 3 branches around attacking opponents, stabilizing areas, and defending the homeland.

War is Boring also published a simple method around a more direct strategic theater. The concept is to have 3 branches, one for land, one for sea, and one for “strategic deterrence.” The strategic deterrence would handle nuclear capabilities, and aircraft capabilities would be integrated into the army and navy.

Another proposal recommends establishing 5 major branches of the military: Naval, Heavy Land, Low Intensity Conflict, Transportation, and Strategic (including nuclear deterrence, strategic bombing, and tankers). This would ruffle significantly more feathers as it involves upending not only the Air Force, but the Army and Marines as well. However, this begins to truly align the armed forces across necessary expertise. Servicemen and women would have the chance to develop their entire careers around certain functions, which I think would improve our military’s efficacy.

Unfortunately, the latest approach still ends up mixing domains and functions. The Navy sticks out as a branch defined by the water. Heavy Land also restricts itself to performing terrestrial functions, and would likely amplify coordination issues between other branches when performing its duties.

These ideas are decent, but many of them continue to divide the forces by domain (air, land, sea, etc.). This leaves us with many of the same problems currently plaguing the military, and would likely leave the messy cross-section of something resembling Unified Combatant Commands.

Proposals that base themselves around a functional orientation have a higher probability of solving the military’s current problems. It can avoid the problems of geographic rigidity, and start to address personnel and human capital issues that often get ignored in changes like this.

One More Outsider’s Proposal

Initiatives like this can get very listy, very detailed, and very complicated very fast. Guiding principles are easier to understand, and may provide groundwork for more sweeping changes that can help us address the changing world around us.

Next week, I’ll stay true to other outsiders and suggest sweeping changes to the basic structure of the military.

Keep seeking truth.




You may also be interested in:

Primer on Modern U.S. Military Aircraft

U.S. Military Aircraft: Current Controversies

Ethics and Snowden


DoD organization image credit: By Directorate for Organizational and Management Planning / Office of the Director of Administration and Management / Office of the Secretary of Defense –;, Public Domain,

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