Defense Secretary Ash Carter, accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon, Friday, March 25, 2016.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon, Friday, March 25, 2016. Mauel Balce Ceneta/AP

Carter Seeks New Powers for Joint Chiefs, Top Commanders in War on Terrorism

Obama’s defense secretary unveils his Goldwater-Nichols reform plan, and the most sweeping changes to the military's top command in a generation.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter wants to elevate the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, yet keep the top flag officer out of the chain of command — among a host of other changes he wants to make at the Pentagon in coming months.

Carter also wants to cut the number of four-star generals and admirals (and trim their staffs), give more power to the generals and admiral atop each branch of the military, and better coordinate between the Pentagon’s regional combatant commands. The changes are among Carter’s recommendations as the Defense Department and Congress look to update the 30-year-old Goldwater-Nichols Act, the law that lays out military lines of command.

“[W]e can see that the world has changed. Instead of the Cold War and one clear threat, we face a security environment that’s dramatically different from the last quarter-century,” Carter said Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s time that we consider practical updates to this critical organizational framework, while still preserving its spirit and intent.”

Carter said he would not recommend combining or eliminating any of the six regional combatant commands, which oversee all military operations and are a topic oft discussed by military insiders. Instead, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs would be given greater authority to “help synchronize resources globally for daily operations around the world,” Carter said. This would allow more “flexibility to move forces rapidly across the seams between our combatant commands.”

For instance, the Pentagon’s current campaign against Islamic State militants spans three combatant commands across Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. While Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, leads the bombing and training missions in Iraq and Syria, some American forces are based in Turkey, which falls under Gen. Philip Breedlove at European Command and NATO. And as ISIS spreads to northern Africa, another four-star commander, Gen. David Rodriguez, oversees all troops there.

“The lines are as clean as we could make them…You’ve got to divide the pie up somehow,” Carter said. “But once you’ve done that, you need to make sure the slices are able to work together and you haven’t artificially created barriers. That’s what I’m looking to the chairman for.”

Instead, the Pentagon will look “to be more efficient by integrating functions like logistics, intelligence, and plans across the Joint Staff, the combatant commands, and subordinate commands, eliminating redundancies without losing capability,” Carter said.

Earlier this year, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Congress would look at the combatant command boundaries as it comes up with its own Goldwater-Nichols reforms in the coming months.

Carter also said that U.S. Cyber Command, a subordinate to U.S. Strategic Command, could become a full combatant command.

Before Goldwater-Nichols, which took effect in 1986, the military’s individual service branches had much of the power inside the Pentagon. The legislation looked to balance the power between the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff. But in the 30 years since Goldwater-Nichols was passed, much of the power in the Pentagon has shifted to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and joint military commands.

Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general and former Senate Armed Services Committee aide who helped write the Goldwater-Nichols Act, said that the military is not broken.

“It’s a very different situation" than 30 years ago,” Punaro said. “What you’re really talking about is fine-tuning for threats and complexity and the decision cycle of the world we’re in today.”

The defense secretary also said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should remain out of the the chain of command, a move also recommended by John Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary who runs the CSIS think tank.

“That would seriously erode civilian control of the military,” Punaro said. “In the world that we’re in, it probably makes sense for the chairman to have some delegated authority to basically allocate day-to-day activities.”

Punaro also argues that the chairman should serve in a four-year tour. Today, the CJCS serves a two-year term, and is usually re-nominated for another two, which usually comes as a formality.

“I think we made a mistake when we did that,” Punaro said. “We should revisit that.”

The Joint Chiefs, Punaro said, should be have more control over military operations. Today, the role of the generals and admiral that lead the military services is to train and equip forces for a combatant commander who leads those troops in battle. For now, Carter has proposed getting the chiefs more involved in acquisition.

“You’re not going to change the fundamentals,” Punaro said. “You’re not going to change civilian control of the military. The chairman is still going to be very independent and very powerful. But I think you’re going to see the military service chiefs, in their joint hat, get more authority and responsibility both on operations and acquisition.”

In an effort to cut bureaucracy, Carter said the Pentagon would look to downgrade some positions occupied by four-star generals and admirals, reducing the sizes of the staffs that support them.

“Where we see potential to be more efficient and effective, billets currently filled by four-star generals and admirals will be filled by three-stars in the future,” he said.

Unlike the last time lawmakers tried to legislate organizational changes to the military, there is widespread agreement in Congress and the Pentagon that the current law needs an overhaul. McCain and his House counterpart, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, have held hearings as they come up with their own reforms.

“You have cooperative folks in both the legislative branch and in the executive branch,” Punaro said. “It’s a much different environment when you’re trying to pass legislation where people are hopefully working together and collaborating and sharing ideas.”