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The military services counterattack Pentagon reform

IT was as predictable as the tides. No sooner was a very modest bit of legislation passed last year to prod the United States armed forces into working better together as a team than the counterattack began to get things back into the same old comfortable rut. Considering that the sponsors of the legislation - then-Sen. Barry Goldwater, Sen. Sam Nunn, and Rep. Bill Nichols - were the armed services' strongest friends on Capitol Hill, you might have thought that the services would get the message that the country was about fed up with the notion of preparing for an ``Army'' war, a ``Navy'' war, etc., and that the Goldwater-Nunn-Nichols bill was the gentlest treatment they could expect.

The roots of the reform effort go much further back, to Gens. George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, whose efforts to train the senior military leadership in a single National War College were undone by service leadership intent on maintaining nearly absolute bureaucratic autonomy.

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The result has been a long history of dismal and outrageously expensive military performance. The bumbling and stumbling that led to national humiliation and human tragedy in the Pueblo incident of 1968, the successive failures of the Son Tay raid to free United States prisoners in North Vietnam, and the attempt to free the US hostages in Iran in 1980, together with the mismanaged Grenada operation of 1984, led even members and former members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to call for corrective action.

Central to the mild, not to say timid, reform measures of the Goldwater-Nunn-Nichols legislation is a requirement that senior officers entrusted with management of multiservice (``joint'') operations have some knowledge of services other than their own, gained through at least one 42-month tour of duty in a joint assignment. More junior officers are to be granted a joint service ``designator'' based on special schooling and service in joint assignments. That designator is to assure them of promotion opportunities at least equal to those of contemporaries who never go beyond the sheltered domain of their own service.

This supposedly special protection for officers in joint assignments was deemed necessary because, quite frankly, such assignments have often been used as a dumping ground for officers whose service was less than outstanding, and because capable officers in such assignments found themselves left behind when they returned to their own service. And, it almost goes without saying, any officer in a joint assignment who dared to oppose the bureaucratic interests of his or her own service was not likely to survive the next promotion board.

What the congressional halfway measure of a joint designator created, in fact, was a corps of pariahs whose loyalty to service-vested interests is brought permanently into question by that designator. Long after congressional interest in such matters has waned, bureaucratic knives will settle the matter in myriad, devious ways.

Unhappy even with this entirely inadequate reform effort, the service secretaries, prodded by the uniformed service chiefs, are now parading to Congress to call for ``relief'' from the requirements for joint duty and joint education imposed by the 1986 legislation.

Hopefully, Congress will recognize that its conciliatory stance in 1986 only invited contempt. If we are to have a corps of competent officers capable of managing multiservice operations to the benefit of the country rather than of one or more of the several services, then those officers must be removed permanently from the possibility of retaliation by their ``parent'' service. The logical break point is at the level of Navy captain and Army and Air Force colonel, at which the officer concerned has learned all that he or she is ever going to learn about primarily one-service operations.

The time has come to give to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the power to select from the services competent officers for permanent joint duty, initially on joint staffs and then to command of joint operations. No officer who has failed selection to joint status should be permitted to command or serve in a senior operations and planning capacity for a joint operation. After all, we do not permit people licensed only to drive a passenger automobile to drive an 18-wheeler. Joint as compared with single-service military operations are far more complex. While they could and should continue to wear the uniform of their service of origin, officers selected for senior joint duties should look to the joint structure rather than to the parent service for assignments and promotion.

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As the long series of failures and embarrassments with attendant loss of life should have taught us, these are not narrow ``technical'' issues. They affect the lives of every member of the armed services and the future of this country. Public understanding and public action are needed if Congress is to withstand the bureaucratic counterattack now under way.

William V. Kennedy is a journalist specializing in military affairs. He has served in civilian and military capacities on the Army staff and with three joint staffs, in the office of the secretary of defense, and on the faculty of the Army War College.

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