Goldwater‐Nichols Act

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Goldwater‐Nichols Act (1986).The Goldwater‐Nichols Department of Defense (DoD) Reorganization Act of 1986, sponsored by Senator Barry Goldwater and Representative Bill Nichols, was enacted primarily to improve the ability of U.S. armed forces to conduct joint (interservice) and combined (interallied) operations in the field, and secondarily to improve the DoD budget process. The act contained three major changes: it greatly strengthened the influence and staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) chairman, compared to those of the service chiefs and military departments; it increased the authority and influence of the unified combatant commands that control U.S. forces in the United States and around the world; and it created a “joint officer specialization” within each service to improve the quality of officers assigned to the Joint Staff.

The act's supporters felt that U.S. military operations since World War II had suffered from conflict and inadequate coordination among the services. They believed that individual service programs and priorities, rather than the needs of actual joint military operations—the ultimate purpose for which the armed forces were maintained—dominated DoD. Enough retired senior officers, former civilian DoD officials, and private analysts and commentators, as well as members of Congress, agreed with these views to make it possible for the act to be enacted over the objections of the uniformed military leadership.

The intensity of objection was much greater in the navy and Marine Corps, as had been the case for all disagreements about service unification since the end of World War II. In general, those who objected to the act felt that DoD operational and budgetary problems in the post–World War II era resulted from lack of political will, inadequate defense budgets, excessive civilian “micromanagement” of military operations and defense budgets, and the inevitable chaos and friction attendant on war or the operations of any large organization. They were also skeptical of “jointness,” believing that service‐unique assets and views needed to be nurtured, not submerged; and that increased requirements for joint and central organizations created unnecessary bureaucracy, subsuming service assets and doctrine into less than optimal joint doctrines or systems.

The act has been accepted by most officers and civilian analysts, but certain issues remain: Is the increased authority of the JCS chairman compatible with an appropriate degree of civilian control of the military, or does it threaten that control, as some—for example, military historians Richard Kohn and Russell F. Weigley—have charged? Has pressure for more joint operations added unnecessary layers of command and awkward “marriages of convenience” among the services, or has it been material in various military victories since 1989? (Many analysts regard the act as instrumental in ensuring the success of U.S. combat operations in Panama in 1989–90, and in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, although it proved no substitute for clear political guidance during the U.S. military operations in Somalia in 1992–94.) Is increased Joint Staff involvement in weapons system procurement a long‐overdue step toward effective management of DoD acquisition, or does it remove service‐unique perspectives where needed?
[See also Civil‐Military Relations; Civilian Control of the Military; Command and Control; Defense, Department of.]


Vincent Davis , Defense Reorganization and National Security, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 517 (September 1991), pp. 157–73.
Russell F. Weigley , The American Military and the Principle of Civilian Control from McClellan to Powell, Journal of Military History, 57, no. 5 (Special Issue, October 1993), pp. 27–58.
Edward N. Luttwak , Washington's Biggest Scandal, Commentary, 97, no. 5 (May 1994), pp. 29–33.
Richard H. Kohn , Out of Control: The Crisis in Civil‐Military Relations, The National Interest, no. 35 (Spring 1994), pp. 3–17.

Robert L. Goldich