The landmark 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act was widely credited with repairing the institutional damage done to the military by the Vietnam War and putting America on the path to military dominance in the 1990s.
Often likened to a "constitution" for the Pentagon, the act was aimed at getting the military services to fight together jointly, rather than as separate air, land and sea forces. The reforms led to the military's impressive performance in 1991's Operation Desert Storm and during the initial invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan.
But while Goldwater-Nichols may have been the correct framework for the military in the immediate post-Cold War period, it may not be the right one for the 21st century, said Peter Roman, a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center. Now, Roman said, the United States no longer faces single threats but a challenging mix of guerrilla fighters, factional militias and terrorist cells.
Roman spoke at a conference called Goldwater-Nichols: A Critical Look, sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Goldwater-Nichols streamlined the chain of command leading from the president through the Defense secretary to combatant commanders in the field. It made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the principal military adviser to both the president and the Defense secretary.
But some observers say that as a result, too much power is now vested in the Joint Chiefs chairman, and that the other service chiefs essentially have been relegated to the sidelines -- where they tend to focus on pleading for larger budgets and costly weapons programs. The quality of military advice to civilian decision makers has suffered, said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Link.
Effective strategy often comes from a bottom-up process, rather than from the military leadership, argued Thomas Donnelly, a fellow at AEI. The Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual is an example of a small group of intellectuals within the military making big changes in the larger military, he said.
Some critics said the services are moving away from joint war fighting as they try to reassert their specific roles and missions in a budget-constrained environment. The recent push by the Marine Corps to take over the Afghanistan mission from the Army is an example, said Lani Kass, special assistant to the Air Force chief of staff.
Conference participants also noted that Goldwater-Nichols did not address problems with the Pentagon's weapons buying process, which often results in costly and delayed programs. Many of the problems stem from service leaders efforts to win over lawmakers by overpromising about how weapons will actually perform, said Peter Levine, general counsel of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The military also has tried to fit in more large weapons programs than its budget can handle, he said.