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Sen. Barry Goldwater (R—AZ) and Rep. William Flynt Nichols (D—AL-4), the co-sponsors of the Goldwater–Nichols Act of 1986.

The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 Pub.L. 99–433, (signed by President Ronald Reagan), made the most sweeping changes to the United States Department of Defense since the department was established in the National Security Act of 1947 by reworking the command structure of the United States military. It increased the powers of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and implemented some of the suggestions from The Packard Commission, commissioned by President Ronald Reagan in 1985. Among other changes, Goldwater-Nichols streamlined the military chain of command, which now runs from the President through the Secretary of Defense directly to unified combatant commanders (CCDRs), bypassing the service chiefs. The service chiefs were assigned to an advisory role to the President and the Secretary of Defense as well as given the responsibility for training and equipping personnel for the unified combatant commands.

Named after Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona) and Representative William Flynt "Bill" Nichols (D-Alabama), the bill passed the House of Representatives, 383-27, and the Senate, 95-0. It was signed into law by President Reagan on October 1, 1986. Admiral William J. Crowe was the first Chairman to serve under this new legislation.


The Goldwater–Nichols Act was an attempt to fix problems caused by inter-service rivalry, which had emerged during the Vietnam War, contributed to the catastrophic failure of the Iranian hostage rescue mission in 1980, and which were still evident in the invasion of Grenada in 1983.[1][2]

Such problems existed as well in World War II, during which two independent lines of command flowed from the President, one through the Secretary of the Navy to naval forces, and the other through the Secretary of War to land and air forces. In 1947, the military restructuring placed all military forces, including the newly independent Air Force, under a single civilian Secretary of Defense.

However, the United States military was still organized along lines of command that reported to their respective service chiefs (Commandant of the Marine Corps, Chiefs of Staff of the Army and Air Force, and Chief of Naval Operations). These chiefs in turn made up the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Joint Chiefs of Staff elected a Chairman to communicate with the civilian government. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in turn reported to the Secretary of Defense, the civilian head of the military. Both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense reported to the President of the United States, who holds the position of commander-in-chief of all U.S. armed forces.

This system led to counter-productive inter-service rivalry. Peacetime activities (such as procurement and creation of doctrine, etc.) were tailored for each service in isolation. Just as seriously, wartime activities of each service were planned, executed, and evaluated independently. These practices resulted in division of effort and an inability to profit from economies of scale, and inhibited the development of modern warfare doctrine.

The formulation of the AirLand Battle doctrine in the late 1970s and early 1980s laid bare the difficulty of coordinating efforts among various service branches. AirLand Battle attempted to synthesize all of the capabilities of the service arms of the military into a single doctrine. The system envisioned ground, naval, air, and space based systems acting in concert to attack and defeat an opponent in depth. The structure of the armed forces effectively blocked realization of this ideal. The US invasion of Grenada in 1983 further exposed the problems with the military command structure. Although the United States forces easily prevailed, its leaders expressed major concerns over both the inability of the different service branches to coordinate and communicate with each other, and the consequences of a lack of coordination if faced with a more threatening foe.


The Goldwater–Nichols Act brought sweeping changes to the way the U.S. military forces were organized. The first successful test of Goldwater-Nichols was the 1989 United States Invasion of Panama (code-named Operation Just Cause), where it functioned exactly as planned, allowing the U.S. commander, Army General Maxwell Reid Thurman, to exercise full control over Marine Corps, Army, Air Force and Navy assets without having to negotiate with the individual services.

Chain of command and military advice

Under the Goldwater–Nichols Act, military advice was centralized in the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs as opposed to the service chiefs. The Chairman was designated as the principal military adviser to the President of the United States, National Security Council and Secretary of Defense. The act also established the position of Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and simplified the chain of command. It increased the ability of the Chairman to direct overall strategy, but provided greater command authority to "unified" and "specified" field commanders. According to the Act, the Chairman may not exercise military command over the Joint Chiefs of Staff or any of the armed forces.[3]

Section 162(b) of the Act prescribes that 'unless otherwise directed by the President, the chain of command to a unified or specified combatant command runs- “(1) from the President to the Secretary of Defense; and “(2) from the Secretary of Defense to the commander of the combatant command.'[4]

Interaction of services

Goldwater-Nichols changed the way the services interact. The services themselves "organize, train and equip" forces for use by the combatant commanders (CCDRs), and the service chiefs no longer exercise any operational control over their forces. Rather than reporting to a service chief operationally, the service component forces support the commander responsible for a specific function (Special Operations, Strategic, and Transportation) or a geographic region of the globe (Northern, Central, European, Pacific, Southern, and Africa Commands). The combatant commander then fielded a force capable of employing AirLand Battle doctrine (or its successors) using all assets available to the military. The restructuring afforded a combination of effort, integrated planning, shared procurement, and a reduction or elimination in inter-service rivalry. It also provided unity of command, conforming with leading military science. Individual services changed from relatively autonomous war-fighting entities into organizational and training units, responsible for acquisition, modernization, force-development and readiness as a component of the integrated force. Thus USCENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) for example, would be assigned air, ground, and naval assets in order to achieve its objective, not the inefficient method of individual services planning, supporting, and fighting the same war.

Personnel management of officers

Another major effect of the Act is the way it has dramatically changed the personnel management of military officers. Officers are routinely assigned to Joint Duty positions and are educated in Department of Defense joint professional development schools as part of their career development and progression. For example, in order to be eligible for promotion to Flag Officer rank (i.e., Admirals and Generals), colonels (Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force) or Navy captains must have had at least one Joint Duty assignment.

Shared procurement

Shared procurement allowed the various branches to share technological advances such as stealth and smart weapons quickly and provided other ancillary benefits (such as the interoperability of radios between services, heretofore unknown in the military). Joint implementation of new technology allowed for joint development of supporting doctrine. The Goldwater–Nichols Act could be seen as the initial step of the currently ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) with its concept of Network Centric Warfare (NCW).

Changes since 1986

On October 24, 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered that the functional and regional commanders be referred to not as "CINCs" but as "combatant commanders" when applied to "unified" regional organizations (e.g., USCENTCOM), or "commander" when talking about "specified" units such as the U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM). Rumsfeld said the term "CINC" was inappropriate notwithstanding its employment for many decades, because under the U.S. Constitution, the President is the military's only commander-in-chief. His decision was described as intended to clarify the military's subordination to civilian government.[5]


  1. Cole, Ronald H. (2003). "Grenada, Panama, and Haiti: joint operational reform". Joint Force Quarterly. Retrieved 2008-12-01. 
  2. Richard W. Stewart, ed (2005). "Chapter 12: Rebuilding the Army Vietnam to Desert Storm". American Military History, Volume II. United States Army Center of Military History. Retrieved 2008-12-01. 
  3. Section 152c of the Act
  4. Goldwater-Nicholls DOD Reorganization Act, 10 USC 162, Combatant Commands; Assigned Forces; Chain of Command, Section (b), Chain of Command.
  5. Garamone, Jim (2002-10-25). ""CINC" Is Sunk". American Forces Press Service. Retrieved 2009-06-08. 


  • Bourne, Chistopher. "Unintended Consequences. of the Goldwater-Nichols Act." JFQ (Spring 1998) 99-108. online version argues it gives too much power to the Chairman
  • Gordon Nathaniel Lederman; Reorganizing the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Goldwater–Nichols Act of 1986 Greenwood Press, 1999 online
  • James R. Locher; Victory on the Potomac: The Goldwater–Nichols Act Unifies the Pentagon. Texas A & M University Press, 2002. 524 pp. ISBN 1-58544-187-2

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