Small Wars Journal

Carter Unveils Goldwater Nichols Reform

Carter Unveils Goldwater Nichols Reform by Aaron Mehta and Joe Gould, Defense News

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter wants to clarify the role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, see service chiefs have a greater hand in acquisition, and winnow the number of four-star billets, all part of a major reform effort to the rules that govern the Pentagon.

Carter’s proposals come under the aegis of reforming the 1986 Goldwater Nichols Act, which gave the Pentagon its modern structure. While the system worked well for a time, both members of Congress and Pentagon leaders have expressed a belief that the system needs to be reworked for the modern battlefield.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Tuesday, Carter made the case for why and how the Goldwater-Nichols legislation should be changed…

Read on.


An opportunity for meaningful change was presented and squandered. The proposals for change offered are little more than window dressing. I see no alignment between the proposed changes and the new and evolving security environment beyond cyber. No discussion on what was broke and why it needed fixed. It appears that this effort was led by those who benefit from the status quo.

“This year, as Goldwater-Nichols turns 30, we can see that the world has changed,” Carter said in his prepared remarks. “Instead of the Cold War and one clear threat, we face a security environment that’s dramatically different from the last quarter-century. It’s time that we consider practical updates to this critical organizational framework, while still preserving its spirit and intent.”

I suggest that we view SecDef Carter's "dramatically different" security environment -- and his reforms suggested in the face of same -- through the following dramatically changed strategic context:

In the Old Cold War of yesterday, when the Soviets/the communists sought to promote "world revolution" via the "expansion" of their way of life, their way of governance etc., it was the Rest of the World (to include the U.S./the West) that faced (a) "one clear threat," to wit: that posed by (b) the Soviets/the communists and their such expansionist designs. (The Soviets/the communists -- for their part in the Old Cold War of yesterday -- faced a myriad of difficulties presented to them by an uncooperative, incapable and/or opposed Rest of the World.)

In the New/Reverse Cold War today, this threat/difficulties paradigm has essentially been reversed.

Thus, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, when it is the U.S./the West that is now seeking to promote "world revolution" via the "expansion" of, in our case today, our way of life, our way of governance, etc., it is the U.S./the West that now faces a myriad of difficulties and threats, these presented to us by an (equally?) uncooperative, incapable and/or opposed Rest of the World. (The Rest of the World today, to include such great nations as Russia, China and Iran? They see themselves as being faced with "one clear threat," to wit: that posed by the "expansionist" West.)

Bottom Line:

"We" now have -- in the New/Reverse Cold War of today and re: "our" contemporary "expansionist" designs -- (a) an unending number of opponents and (b) a seemingly similar number of difficulties, strategic disadvantages and problems presented by same. (Much as the Soviets/the communists faced, re: their expansionist designs, back in the Old Cold War of yesterday.)

"They" now have -- in New/Reverse Cold War of today (and much as we did in the Old Cold War) -- (a) just "one clear threat" (that posed by the "expansionist" West) and (b) all the clarity and strategic advantages that come with such enviable position.

SecDef Carter's proposed reforms for Goldwater-Nichols to be viewed -- exactly -- through the dramatically changed (i.e. actually reversed vis-a-vis the Old Cold War) strategic lens offered above?

(Certainly seems to explain how we went from "one clear threat" to "holy crap!")