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

Of course, Johnson was wrong. There was an amphibious landing less than a year later at Inchon, which broke the back of the North Korean invasion of South Korea. Johnson was blamed for the lack of readiness on the part of the U.S. troops that were initially sent to Korea — and his tenure as secretary of defense came to an abrupt end shortly after the outbreak of that conflict. But the effects of the budget and doctrine debates of the late 1940s lingered, adversely affecting inter-service relations for years.

That the inter-service bloodletting of the late 1940s occurred during an era of austere funding suggests that much of the success later attributed to Goldwater-Nichols actually came about as a result of increasing defense budgets. Jointness works best when all of the services get most of what they want. From the Reagan defense buildup of the 1980s up to today, the defense budget, though less than 4 percent of gross domestic product and less than 20 percent of the federal budget, was sufficient to allow the services to build the capabilities required to implement their respective “strategic concepts.”

But defense planning and budgeting are, in essence, about managing risk. Given the security environment that prevailed after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States military was not required to balance risk in a way that benefited one service at the expense of another. The United States was rich enough — and, even after 9/11, safe enough — that the country didn’t have to choose less land power in order to acquire more sea or air power.

This, of course, is changing, and the first shots have already been fired. The Obama administration’s “pivot” to the Pacific favors naval and air forces because the region is maritime in character (although there are also substantial ground forces in the theater).  Further, in 2010, even as the defense budget was declining, former defense secretary Robert Gates requested a comprehensive plan to ensure that the United States could maintain access to strategic waterways around the globe. This led to the emergence of a doctrine called Air-Sea Battle that describes the way U.S. forces would engage an enemy in a primarily maritime theater. While this doctrine suggests major roles for  the Navy, Marines, and Air Force, there’s not much room for the Army, which is already facing substantial force reductions.

No doubt jointness will remain the official position of the military in the future, and the U.S. military will not soon lose the ability to conduct effective multi-service operations. But reduced defense budgets are likely to pit the roles, missions, and associated programs of the services against each other. The present danger is that declining defense budgets will re-stoke the inter-service budget and doctrine battles of the late 1940s. Let us hope that those battles of that era provide a cautionary note for the force planners of today.

— Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the editor of Orbis. He is a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam.