Dr. John T. Kuehn has served at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas since 2000.  He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2004 with the rank of Commander.  He presently teaches as a Professor of Military History in the Department of Military History, as well as teaching for Norwich University (Vermont), Naval War College (Rhode Island), and Wolverhampton University (UK) as an adjunct professor.  He can be found on Twitter @jkuehn50 and writes at https://networks.h-net.org/node/12840/blog.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Editor’s Note:  This article is an entry into our 70th Anniversary Writing Contest: Options for a New U.S. National Security Act.  The author submitted this article under the contest heading of Most Disruptive.

National Security Situation:  Updating the National Security Act of 1947 (NSA 47) so that Department of Defense (DoD) decision-making is as streamlined as possible.

Date Originally Written:  August 30, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  December 4, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a retired Naval Officer and values a return to a national defense structure that includes a broader range of advice and decentralization of power as represented by cabinet secretaries.

Background:  NSA 47 has outlived its utility in the service of the national security of the United States.  In a post-Cold War world of the 21st Century, the system the United States used prior to 1947 is much more suitable to its traditions, Constitution, and the range of threats posed today.  NSA 47 has gone beyond the utility it provided to the United States after World War II.  NSA 47 once had value, especially in a bi-polar Cold War strategic dynamic informed by the terror of atomic and thermonuclear weapons[1].  However, NSA 47’s utility and value have degraded, especially with the end of the Cold War in 1989-1991.  History moved forward while the United States’ macro-security structure remained static.  Subsequent reforms to the 1947 re-organization, such as that by the Goldwater-Nichols Reform Act of 1987 (GNA), have merely “polished the bowling ball,” not recast it into a new shape[2].

Significance:  The Project for National Security Reform (PNSR) began looking at this issue in 2008 and found that NSA 47 no longer fit the strategic environment we are currently facing or will face in the 21st Century[3].  The 2011 PNSR did a good job of describing the problem and challenges in reforming and reorganizing the system[4].  However, the 2011 PNSR provided little else—no bold recommendations about how to make this happen.  What follows are options I modified from a summation of recommendations the PNSR solicited from me in 2011-12:

Option #1:  Disestablish the position of Secretary of Defense (SecDef) and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD).  The SecDef / OSD structure has too broad a span of control and this limits the scope of strategic advice Presidents receive.  The SecDef functions would move back under the civilian secretaries of the military departments: Army, Navy and Air Force.

Risk:  Medium.  The risk here was much lower when I first made this recommendation in 2010.  It is higher right now because of the North Korean situation and the need for unity of command of the nuclear arsenal if the worst happens and the U.S. needs to conduct a retaliatory strike should North Korea use nuclear weapons first.  However, the ultimate transfer of that unity of command could go to the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) although the President would have to be a direct participant in any nuclear release, just as he is now.  One need not burn the Pentagon down and start afresh, but certainly who answers to whom is a legitimate topic worthy of serious discussion and, more importantly, serious action—by Congress AND the President.

Gain:  DoD decision-making is decentralized to the Military Departments and thus decisions are made quicker.  OSD manpower is redistributed to the Military Departments and the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff thus increasing their respective capability to support the military operations conducted by the Combatant Commands.

Option #2:  Move the civilian Secretaries of Navy, Air Force, and Army back into the cabinet, but retain the SecDef, similar to the way things were organized prior to and during World War II.  The SecDef would still be a part of cabinet, but would be co-equal with the other civilian service secretaries.  Retain the current JCS organization and staff, but enhance the Chairman’s role on the National Security Council (NSC).  As an appointed position, the Chairman can always be relieved in the same manner that President Truman relieved General MacArthur.

Risk:  Low to medium low, for similar reasons listed for Option #1, the security situation is fluid as of this writing with threat of nuclear war.  No other current “crisis,” though, need impede the move to reform.  JCS Chairman role on NSC should include a substantial decrease in the size of the NSC staff, which should leverage more the capabilities of existing organizations like the JCS and the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Gain:  A balance is struck between decentralizing and streamlining decision-making to the Secretaries of the Military Departments while maintaining a SecDef in a coordinating role.  Option #2 is likely more palatable to Congress as current structures are maintained manpower wise yet power is shifted around.

Other Comments:  Congress must be a part of the solution[5].  Policy recommendations need Congressional oversight, responsibility, and accountability so that if a President goes against an NSC-recommended policy or strategy Congress will be in the loop.  One fear has been that this might drive the U.S. toward a “cabinet” system of government and curtail Presidential power.  That fear sounds like a benefit to me.

Additionally, there will be a need for a national debate that includes social media—where politicians quit pre-emptively tweeting and sniping at each other and instead “message” about national security reform—staying on task and staying on message as the public participates in the dialog.  We might turn again to the past, as a generation of millennial Publius’s step forward in a new round of Federalist Paper-type thinking and writing to kick these ideas around and to build real consensus—not just that of Washington insiders[6].  There is no deficit of political and intellectual talent out there-despite what the pundits say and write.  All too often, however, we consult the advice of specially constituted commissions (such as that for 9/11) and then ignore their advice or imperfectly implement only the portions that stop the media howl.

The United States has time.  The current system, as ineffective as it is, is not so broken that we must act quickly and without reflection.  However, I prefer to close with an even more powerful means of highlighting the problem—a story.  Every year, at the end of my World War II series of classes to military officers attending the Army Command and General Staff Office Course, I post the following questions: “The security system that existed prior to and during World War II was so ineffective that it had to be replaced in 1947, right?  This was the same system that the United States used to lose the most desperate and far-ranging war in its history, right?”  Wrong—we won World War II–handily–and we can win again by adopting a system that proved successful in a pre-Cold War world that looks a lot like our world of today.  So-called progress does not always lead to better solutions.  The founders looked backwards to go forward, so can we.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] This is not the first time the author has made this argument, see John T. Kuehn, “Abolish the Office of the Secretary of Defense?” Joint Force Quarterly, Issue 47, 4th Quarter 2007, 114-116.

[2] Recent attempt have been made to have a second round of GNA via the Project for National Security Reform effort, see James Locher et al. “Project for National Security Reform: Preliminary Findings” January 2008 (hereafter PNSR 2008), Washington, D.C.; and more recently the follow-on report from the PNSR from November 2011, “AMERICA’S FIRST QUARTER MILLENNIUM: ENVISIONING A TRANSFORMED NATIONAL SECURITY SYSTEM IN 2026,” see www.pnsr.org (accessed 7/31/2017). Full disclosure, the author was an unpaid consultant for the second report.

[3] PNSR, 2008 and 2011.

[4] PNSR, 2011, p.5.

[5] John T. Kuehn, “I Liked Ike . . . Whence Comes Another? Why PME Needs a Congressional Advocate,” in Joint Force Quarterly 83 (4th Quarter, October 2016): 40-43.

[6] Publius was the pen name for the authors of the Federalist Papers who argued the merits and reasoning behind the Constitution: Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and (especially) James Madison. See, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison, The Federalist Papers (New York: Penguin, 1987), paperback.