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Unification of the United States Armed Forces: Implementing the 1986 Department of Defense Reorganization Act

Authored by Professor Douglas C. Lovelace Jr.. | August 1996

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Reorganizing the military establishment of the United States has been a subject of considerable congressional interest throughout much of this century. As early as 1921, Congress began considering proposals to combine or unify the military departments under a single executive agency. Between 1921 and 1945, for example, Congress considered some 50 proposals to reorganize the United States armed forces. Due largely to opposition from the Departments of War and Navy, however, none of these initiatives resulted in legislation.1

The experiences of World War II made it clear that, for the U.S. armed forces, future warfare would be increasingly characterized by unified operations,2 and that a centrally coordinated process for providing U.S. military capabilities was needed. In a message to Congress (December 1945), President Truman stated that "there is enough evidence now at hand to demonstrate beyond question the need for a unified department." He urged Congress to ". . . adopt legislation combining the War and Navy departments into one single Department of National Defense."3 President Truman's message led to the National Security Act of 1947 which created the "National Military Establishment" and initiated a trend toward unification of the U.S. armed forces that would continue throughout the remainder of the century.4

The type of unification advanced by legislation and considered in this study would not ultimately eliminate the separate services or merge the military departments into one.5 As used herein, unification refers to the centralized direction of the U.S. armed forces and the concomitant subordination of the military departments and services to a centralized control structure. This contrasts with a separatist approach by which each military department would be a relatively autonomous organization coordinating, and perhaps synchronizing, its activities with the other departments, but retaining essential decision making autonomy in most areas.

The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, informally called the Goldwater-Nichols Act or GNA, was the most comprehensive defense reorganization package enacted since the 1947 National Security Act. Designed to accelerate the unification of the U.S. armed forces by fundamentally altering the manner in which they were raised, trained, commanded, and employed, the GNA impacted virtually all major elements of DOD. Many consider the GNA as instrumental in the success of U.S.forces during Operation DESERT STORM. Nonetheless, a decade after its passage, there is evidence which suggests that this seminal legislation has yet to be fully implemented. There also are indications that implementation may have already gone too far in consolidating authority within the offices of the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), at the expense of the military departments and services. The first purpose of this study, therefore, is to assess the extent to which the provisions of the GNA have been implemented within the framework of the act's eight stated objectives.6 The study also assesses the general effects the GNA has had on the U.S. armed forces and offers conclusions and recommendations for achieving the improvements Congress intended when it passed the GNA. The assessment begins by taking into account the act's historical context, particularly the events that directly contributed to its passage.


The result of DOD's implementation of the GNA has been continued evolution toward unified armed forces. The Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the combatant commands, and the services are arriving at a balanced relationship in which civilian authority is supreme. The lively debate that accompanied the recent Commission on Roles and Missions deliberations demonstrated that the services are still distinct and independent, despite certain movement toward unified operations and joint organizations. Implementation of the act has not resulted in the combatant commands gaining as much, nor the services losing as much, influence as Congress intended, particularly within the resource management area. Service parochialism has been significantly mitigated but still exists. An admiral assigned to the Joint Staff summed-up the current situation when he said, "I may wear a purple suit, but it is still double-breasted." Increased effectiveness and greater efficiencies are possible through further implementation of the act. However, the DOD must ensure that the services are not so reduced in stature and influence that they lose their motivations and abilities to compete for scarce defense resources and accomplish their other national security roles and functions. Determining which portions of the act require more strict implementation and what supplementary legislation is required to achieve the increases in effectiveness and efficiency Congress anticipated are the relevant issues.


1. U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Defense Organization and the Need for Change, Staff Report, 99th Congress, 1st Session, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985, p. 49.

2. Unified operations are those that take place within the unified combatant commands which are composed of forces from two or more military departments. Unified operations is the generic term used to describe the wide scope of actions that take place under the direction of the commanders-in-chief (CINCs) of the unified combatant commands. U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Pub 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, March 23, 1994, p. 400.

3. Office of the Secretary of Defense Historical Office, The Department of Defense; Documents on Establishment and Organization, 1944-1978, edited by Alice C. Cole, et. al., Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1979, p. 7.

4. Defense Organization and The Need for Change, pp. 49-53.

5. Although some of the early proponents of unification advocated such a radical reorganization, that option has not been seriously considered since at least 1949. Lawrence J. Korb, "Service Unification: Arena of Fears, Hopes, and Ironies," Naval Institute Proceedings, Naval Review, 1976, p. 176.

6. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, Conference Report 99-824, 99th Congress, 2nd Session, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986, p. 3. The provisions of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act have been codified in Title 10, United States Code, Armed Forces. Several provisions have been modified by subsequent legislation; however, none have been deleted or significantly altered. Therefore, an assessment of the act's implementation, based on the provisions of the act itself is appropriate.