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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 6, 1996

79 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act was the most significant legislation for the U.S. Armed Forces since the National Security Act of 1947. The increased unification the Goldwater-Nichols Act was intended to bring to the Department of Defense was considered too extreme by some, but insufficient by others. Professor Douglas Lovelace assesses many of the act's major provisions. He describes the congressional motivation for passing the act, assesses the extent to which the act has been implemented, discusses its impact on the Department of Defense, and offers recommendations for furthering the purposes underlying the act.

The author's critical analysis leads him to conclude that the Department of Defense and the nation have benefited from the substantial implementation of the Goldwater-Nichols Act. As we approach its 10-year anniversary, however, Professor Lovelace finds significant room both for the Department of Defense to complete implementation and for the Congress to enact modifications to more coherently focus the act on its central purposes. His thought-provoking analyses, conclusions, and recommendations should fuel discussions of the extent to which the act has, or can, achieve its intended results.


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.

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, 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." 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.

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. 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.

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