Declining Defense Budgets and the End of ‘Jointness’
History provides a warning about the acrimonious results of cutting defense.

Barry Goldwater and William F. Nichols


Mackubin Thomas Owens

Since the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reform Act of 1986, “jointness” — cooperation and harmony among the armed services — has been an important consideration in the planning and funding of U.S. military forces. Congress passed the act in response to the operational deficiencies it perceived to be plaguing the military during Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted Iran hostage-rescue mission in 1980, and Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada in 1983. The expectation was that jointness would spur cooperation among the services at all stages of the defense process, including research and development, procurement, and operations, thereby ending the baleful effects of inter-service rivalry.

While Goldwater-Nichols no doubt contributed to the inter-service harmony that seems to have prevailed since the 1980s, the more likely explanation for the tradition of cooperation is that high defense budgets assured each of the services that their favored programs would be funded. That era is coming to an end. Indeed, even if Congress manages to avoid sequestration, the programs of one service are now likely to be funded at the expense of another service — the president’s budget proposes $487 billion in defense cuts over the next ten years, which sequestration will only deepen by another $500 billion.

Although on one level this is inevitable, the historical record demonstrates that declining defense budgets can lead to a degree of inter-service competition that threatens the very security of the United States.

We have only to look at the vicious inter-service battles that took place after World War II to see one effect of sharply reduced defense budgets. The catalyst for these fights was the emergence of an independent Air Force, which threatened the fragile consensus that had governed Army-Navy cooperation during the war against Germany and Japan.

Those battles involved both competition between development programs, and services’ claims to responsibility for certain roles, missions, and functions. One example of the former is the Truman-era fight for funding between the Air Force’s B-36 strategic bomber and the Navy’s “super-carrier,” the USS United States, each of which was seen as essential to the very existence of its respective service. An example of the latter type of conflict was the attempt by the Air Force to gain control of naval aviation. During these debates, military-civilian coalitions emerged to do battle in congressional committee hearings and the opinion pages.

A major figure in the post–World War II debate was Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson, who supported a sharp reduction in defense spending but was also a vocal supporter of the Air Force. In December 1949, Johnson told Admiral Richard L. Connelly that “the Navy is on its way out. There’s no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps. [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] General [Omar] Bradley tells me that amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do nowadays, so that does away with the Navy.” This particular battle culminated in the “revolt of the admirals” that same month, when a number of high-ranking naval officers, including the chief of naval operations, Admiral Louis E. Denfield, were either fired or forced to resign.