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Having Joint Operations Begins at Home

June 2008
By Kent R. Schneider

In 1986, the Goldwater-Nichols Act mandated jointness in the Defense Department. This affected training, doctrine, personnel management and assignments, force structure and operations. Joint operations and a joint approach to command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) have become fundamental to the way we fight.

But “joint” has been redefined since the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism. Federal civil agencies formerly not part of the fight are now embedded in the force structure. State and local homeland security structures and first responders are working more closely with the national security community than ever before. Some argue that we need a “Goldwater-Nichols II” to focus as much attention on this multi-agency approach to warfare as Goldwater-Nichols did on joint operations among the military services.

Progress has been made, as is evident in the structures of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). SOUTHCOM works closely with more than 15 federal civil agencies in its mission in Central and South America. The nature of its mission mandated such relationships long before the Global War on Terrorism. SOUTHCOM and its partners have forged processes and C4I systems that pull together their diverse set of professionals to effectively communicate and share information needed in execution of the mission. Similarly, the new AFRICOM, just forming, is bringing together a unique mix of military, Defense Department civilian and federal civil agencies to facilitate the theater engagement mission on which it is embarking. As an example, AFRICOM has a military deputy commander and a State Department deputy. Where else does that arrangement exist in a combatant command?

While these examples of new thinking are encouraging, much remains to be done. Even among the military services, Title 10 and service focus often have gotten in the way of common procurement and integration. This continues to result in a lack of interoperability—along with multiple supply and maintenance chains. Progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go in the journey to a truly joint force structure.

The journey has barely begun in approaching the larger multi-agency problem, which features duplication of systems and infrastructures, even in the procurement process. No consistency of doctrine or processes exists. Management and decision-making processes and authorities are inconsistent. Information sharing is difficult or nonexistent. Security clearances—or the lack of them—and communications systems are significant obstacles to effective sharing of critical information. It is little surprise that many are calling for a Goldwater-Nichols II approach to address this problem.

Congress and the administration must develop a comprehensive national security strategy that brings together all the resources involved in homeland security and the war on terrorism to operate effectively. This strategy would generate a truly joint structure that allows timely and effective information sharing, decision making and a common set of processes that integrate our effort. Our total force must train together, develop doctrine together, establish common processes, acquire common systems and work together to break down obstacles to effective operations.

This will not happen without leadership from the top. Right-minded people at every level are making it work today in spite of the obstacles. We need to help them. We need to equip them with the means to do their jobs effectively. Congress and the administration should work together now to establish a bipartisan commission to examine the essential first steps to achieving a truly joint, multi-agency approach. These two branches of government should not approve programs or procurements furthering parallel systems and processes that continue to separate agencies. Combatant command force structures should be re-examined using the SOUTHCOM and AFRICOM models. Special attention should be given to the systems and processes of the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Networks and applications of these two major players in the war on terrorism need to be integrated where possible. Other agencies must be brought into the fold as necessary. Obstacles between the federal and state and local agencies should be examined, particularly with regard to networking and security clearances.

Tremendous progress in the military joint environment has been made since 1986. That effort needs to continue and to be refined. But, as a national priority, we need to work the multi-agency problem. It is axiomatic that the greatest weaknesses in military defense are at the seams in the force structure. The same is true in the multi-agency fight. If, in the future, we fail to stop a major terrorist attack, it likely will be because the terrorists found a seam in our defenses between agencies not effectively sharing information.