Since the founding of the republic, the United States has struggled to keep the proper balance between civilian and military authority in planning for and carrying out its national defense policies.
Gen. David Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), retires June 18 at a time when this relationship is under the greatest scrutiny and criticism in at least 20 years.
It all boils down to the quality of advice that the armed services chiefs give the nation's top elected and appointed officials. Critics charge that because of the way the Pentagon is organized, JCS members primarily look out for their branch interests -- to the detriment of broad military planning, procurement, and operations.
This practice not only wastes vast sums, critics say, but is increasingly dangerous in a world of growing military might, regional wars, and heightened tensions between the superpowers.
Many of these criticisms are coming from top military men, including General Jones and the man who replaces him as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Army Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., as well as civilian defense experts who have participated in or observed the Pentagon bureaucracy for years.
What's to be done about it? Suggestions abound, and Congress is probing deeply and widely.
Under the current structure, the JCS consists of a chairman and the four-star officers who head the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Except for the chairman, the JCS members therefore wear two hats -- one as staff chief commanding and promoting their own service, and one as JCS member charged with formulating interservice policy.
But there is growing concern that, in a system that demands such dual -- and sometimes conflicting -- roles, the best advice may not be reaching the Pentagon's civilian overseers, who must set broad defense policy.
For one thing, severe conflicts of interest within the JCS keep them from offering defense planners a wide variety of clearly defined options, Congressional Research Service senior specialist John Collins notes in a recent report to Congress.''Their compromise papers on complex problems are banal, ambiguous, and short on substance,'' he writes.
What's more, others note, military staff assigned to the JCS typically have very little interservice experience and can find their careers harmed if they advocate anything perceived as detrimental to their service branch.
''The sad fact of the matter is that, while we would not dream of letting an officer fly an F-15 without years of highly specialized and immensely expensive training, we are perfectly willing to let him, without a trace of preparation, tackle matters demanding the most complex professional military skills,'' writes former Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Russell Murray in a recent issue of Armed Forces Journal International.
General Jones would strengthen the JCS chairman's position, limit the service chiefs' role in joint planning, and provide greater opportunity for officers to get interservice experience. Army Chief of Staff Edward Meyer goes further by proposing a national military advisory council, made up of five four-star officers, who would not be responsible for the individual services.
In general, senior Army and Air Force officers have favored such changes, while Navy and Marine Corps officers have been opposed. Chief of Naval Operations Thomas B. Hayward (who also retires from the JCS this week) says he was ''deeply offended by the slanderous criticisms which one frequently hears about the Joint Chiefs. . . .''
Others have suggested that since the Navy and Marine Corps are closely allied in budget and operations matters, they have a special stake in preserving the status quo.
The House Armed Services Investigating Subcommittee so far has heard 24 witnesses on JCS reform, including former JCS members and individuals who have served in top civilian Pentagon posts. More witnesses are to be heard, but 70 percent so far generally agree that substantial changes must be made.