The military services seem to be losing their intellectual way. Their responses to challenges, whether budgetary, technological, strategic or operational appear to be to do more of the same. They all rely on the mantra that the security environment is marked by uncertainty in order to make the case for little or no change.
The Navy is fixated on the problem of maintaining credible forward deployed combat power with a fleet that they know will shrink in numbers. The Army, whipsawed by the demands to respond to everything from complex, protracted stabilization operations to major conventional operations fantasizes that it can develop and maintain a full spectrum force. The Air Force has totally lost the bubble. This service has gone from one that propounded theories of war and developed doctrine for the domination of the aerospace domain to a purveyor of services: ISR, movement of people and supplies and delivery of ordinance.
A major part of the problem is the unintended consequences of an effort begun in the 1980s to improve the integration of the various services thereby avoiding problems of execution that had plagued combined forces in the past. In 1986 Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act. This act significantly reduced the power of the individual services and centralized authority in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It also took the service chiefs out of the line of control over operational forces and gave that to a Combatant Commander or COCOM.
Individual services changed from relatively autonomous war-fighting entities into organizational and training units, responsible for acquisition, modernization, force-development and readiness as a component of the integrated force. Like any good provider of services, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps increasingly stopped trying to shape the market and simply began to respond to changes in fashion and whims from their consumers OSD, the Joint Staff and the COCOMs.
The growing role of the COCOMs also may have contributed to the deadening of strategic thought by the services. The focus of the COCOMs is for forces and capabilities that are immediately available. In some cases, like naval forces, they are largely a free good to the COCOM. No COCOM ever got into trouble by having too much capability. Thus, the needs of the COCOMs force the services to foreshorten their planning horizons and to keep forces in a higher state of readiness and deployment than may truly be necessary.
There is also the problem that if a senior officer develops a stand-alone conception of the role of his or her service in future warfare they are immediately branded as “unjoint.” So all writings have to pass a test for political correctness. For the most part, self-censorship is enough to keep radical, independent ideas from seeing daylight.
Current service publications on strategy, doctrine and future force constructs have become so homogenized and pasteurized that they lack flavor and nutrients. Each reads like a clone of the others. All promise to do about the same things and to do it hand in hand with their brethren.
Despite the pressure for jointness above all else, the individual services remain the best organizations to develop an understanding of the future of warfare and to define an intellectual, organizational and force structure plan to address that future. The national security would be better served by allowing greater independence of thought among the services.
Each service should be encouraged to develop a vision of its future force and the appropriate investment strategy to get there. The services should even begin by creating their own appreciation of the strategic environment rather than relying on joint publications or even analyses from other departments of the government.
The problem the Pentagon has with finding original creative thinking by the services is that it allows so little of it to take place.