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.
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.