Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


A More Rational Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines

By Noam Scheiber / July 31, 1997



As is evident from this week's defense hearings, Congress is incapable of moving expediently. After all, numerous committees are planning hearings on defense, and each must plod through an interminable preliminary exercise known as opening statements.

Skip to next paragraph

Some may think it desirable for Congress to move with all deliberate torpor. But that cannot be said of the institution that is the subject of these hearings. Indeed, the United States military will continue to operate more like a group of middle-aged lawyers than a streamlined fighting force until it fundamentally reorganizes.

Today's increasingly obsolete division between Army, Navy, and Air Force derives from congressional attempts to assert control over the military by making it less efficient. It is a vestige of the 1947 National Security Act, which acknowledged the need for increased coordination among different areas of the military, but spawned three separate, independent services - Army, Navy, and Air Force - each headed by its own Cabinet-level official.

The consequences have dogged us ever since. The various branches have not only developed redundant capabilities, but they can't coordinate these overlapping capabilities even when called on to do so. Each branch, moreover, has sophisticated bureaucracies and high-powered constituencies to protect its parochial interests.

To resolve this chronic inefficiency, the military must abandon the traditional service structure and reorganize according to function. Unlike today's dysfunctional military, each of a functional military's sub-organizations would have a unique mission and the lone ability to perform it.

Take air attack capability. Between the Air Force's F-15 and F-16, the Navy's F-14 and F-18, the Marines' F-18 and AV-8B, and the Army's Apache and Kiowa attack helicopters, all four branches currently have the ability to wage formidable air campaigns. A functional scheme would replace these diffuse capabilities with a single entity responsible for air operations.

What's more, because the primary purpose of air capability is to complement land operations, it makes sense to consolidate the two. Inefficiencies from lack of coordination between, say, the Army and Air Force would then all but disappear.

A similar solution would obtain for nuclear capabilities, also currently distributed among several branches. A single organization would manage our entire nuclear arsenal. We would continue to pursue the strategic diversity afforded by a combination of silo-based ICBMs, submarine-based SLBMs, and long-range nuclear bombers. But gathering these weapons under one organizational structure would make redundant capabilities easier to root out.

In both cases, efficiency gains would be realized by eliminating inter-service rivalry. Because of the prestige associated with flying air missions or controlling nuclear weapons, the services have tended to compete for the privilege of doing so. Typically, each service accepts the demands of the others as long as it gets its own piece of the pie. Thus, capabilities balloon beyond strategic need. With organization by function, however, this costly logrolling simply couldn't get started.

Moreover, functional reorganization actually increases the role of civilian authorities to set military objectives. With each division tied to a specific task, only the defense secretary and president will have the wherewithal to synthesize the military's discrete functions. For its part, Congress gets greater control over the interests that drive runaway defense spending (often individual congressmen). Functional organization would mean that all related projects get considered at once - and openly. In this context, Congress determines which security needs actually merit funding.

Which is why the defense establishment itself will scuttle any reorganization attempt. Neither military commanders nor industry lobbyists want their power diminished. They'll cry foul at the mere suggestion of deep-seated problems, then go right on exploiting our permissive attitudes on defense. Isn't it time for a little therapy?

* Noam Scheiber is a policy analyst at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation in Alexandria, Va.