Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Tuesday unveiled the first overhauls to the Pentagon’s organizational structure, targeting changes to acquisition policy, solidifying the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and paving the way for the potential elevation of Cyber Command to an independent combatant command.

These reforms are the first major changes to the Goldwater Nichols Act—which clarified the chain of command and strengthened joint operations—since it was passed 30 years ago. That legislation was “overwhelmingly beneficial,” Carter said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, but it made sense to take a second look at the organizational structure of the Pentagon because the security environment has changed dramatically over the past quarter century.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Photo: Pentagon
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Photo: Pentagon

“We can see in some respects how the pendulum between service equities and jointness may have swung too far—as in not involving the service chiefs enough in acquisition decision-making and accountability—or where subsequent world events suggest nudging the pendulum further, as in taking more steps to strengthen the capability of the Chairman and the Joint Chiefs to support force management, planning, and execution across the combatant commands,” he said according to prepared remarks.

Last year Carter tasked Peter Levine, the department’s deputy chief management officer and Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser of the Joint Staff to lead a department-wide review that would complement congressional efforts to streamline and update the Pentagon’s organizational structure. Carter said he had spoken on Tuesday to leaders from the Senate and House armed services committees—including SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) —and previewed the review’s preliminary findings.

“Over the coming weeks, we will execute some of these decisions under our own existing authority,” Carter said. “For others, where legislation is needed, we will work with the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on implementation as they consider this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.”

Acquisition Reform

The Pentagon plans to build on reforms passed by Congress last year that handed greater acquisition responsibility to the service chiefs, including naming them as the Milestone B authority that designates when engineering and manufacturing development begins, and giving them a seat on the Defense Acquisition Board. Carter said the department will also evaluate where it may be able to reduce the number of members on that board, which could help eliminate some bureaucracy.

“It’s currently composed of about 35 principals and advisers, each of whom is likely to feel empowered as a gatekeeper for acquisition,” he said. “Reducing these layers will both free up staff time and focus decision-making energy on overcoming real obstacles to program success rather than bureaucratic hurdles.”

The proposed reforms also include a reduction of acquisition documentation, which currently is overly burdensome. Currently, the process requires 14 separate documents for programs where the defense acquisition executive acts as the milestone decision authority, Carter said. If a program is doing well, allowing other lower-ranked officials to give approval could help speed up the review process.

Combatant Commands

The defense secretary did not announce any major changes to combatant commands, although a senior defense official noted that his comments are meant to “open the door to elevating the role of Cyber Command” to an independent unified combatant command.

Carter himself spoke sparingly on the subject, mentioning briefly that the department continues to assess CYBERCOM’s role in the unified combatant command plan.

Earlier that morning, CYBERCOM commander Adm. Mike Rogers told SASC the elevation of the cyber organization would allow it to move faster and strengthen its role in the budgeting and planning process (Defense Daily, April 5).

­Despite some suggestions that the Pentagon should consider merging U.S. Northern Command with U.S. Southern Command and U.S. European Command with U.S. Africa Command, Carter stressed that it would not consolidate its regional combatant commands, which are only becoming busier and more active, he said. The department can meet its congressionally-mandated target of reducing headquarters staffs by 25 percent without such a sweeping change.

“Instead of combining these commands to the detriment of our friends, our allies, and in fact our own command and control capabilities, we intend to be more efficient by integrating functions like logistics, intelligence, and plans across the Joint Staff, the combatant commands, and subordinate commands, eliminating redundancies wherever we find them without losing capability,” he said.

The department will also look into downsizing the number of four-star positions, which in some cases made headquarters “top heavy or less efficient,” Carter said. Some billets currently filled by four-star generals or admirals could be filled by 3-star officials in the future.  

Role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Goldwater-Nichols strengthened the role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but Carter said that role needs to be clarified to give the chairman the ability to look across services and combatant commands and give the defense secretary advice on how to coordinate resources for daily, ongoing operations.

“Some have recommended the opposite course–to put the chairman into the chain of command–but both Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph] Dunford and I agree that would erode the chairman’s objectivity as the principal military adviser to the president and the secretary of defense,” he said.