[Viewpoint] How the U.S. military was transformed

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[Viewpoint] How the U.S. military was transformed

The Gulf War of 1991 was an opportunity for the United States to test out two new revolutions in its military thinking.

First, in an effort to liberate oil-rich Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, Operation Desert Storm gave the U.S. military a perfect testing ground for its state-of-the-art aerial, space and naval warfare systems, which were powered by computer satellites and world-beating technology. Its prized, precision-guided missiles were able to accurately strike and destroy 75 percent of their military and civilian infrastructure targets in Iraq. Hours after the attack began, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein announced on a radio broadcast, “The great duel, mother of all battles, has begun!” The war thus heralded the start of modern, computerized warfare.

Second, and equally important, the Gulf War tested out a new military leadership. It was the first major battle for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and the commander of the U.S. Central Command Norman Schwarzkopf. The coalition’s war was a major success and both Powell and Schwarzkopf instantly became war heroes. But their triumph in the Gulf War was also the result of dramatic reforms of the defense system.

The Washington Monthly declared in October 1991 that the campaign was also a triumph for the U.S. Congress. The journal attributed the war’s success to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, named after its two sponsors, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater and Democratic Congressman Bill Nichols. The law brought about sweeping changes to the U.S. military by streamlining the military chain of command, enhancing the authority of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and increasing the powers of the chief combat commanders. A product of four years of bipartisan cooperation, the act helped to resolve inter-service rivalries and enhance the uniformed leadership’s power and coherence in the military field.

The act’s birthplace was a congressional armed services committee hearing in February 1982, after a critique from Gen. David C. Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was retiring in June of that year. General Jones declared the defense system to be a total mess that was impossible to reform from within, and he urged Congress to take the lead.

He blamed fierce rivalries among the different services for major failures in U.S. military campaigns in the 1980s, including the catastrophic failure of a secret military mission in 1980 to free hostages held in the U.S. embassy in Iran.

The different branches of the military were trained separately, and when they had to coordinate a mission in the remote deserts of Iran, the four field commanders failed to unify under a single leader, resulting in the loss of servicemen due to helicopter crashes when the mission was aborted. John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, later recalled that the failed mission finally woke Capitol Hill up to the reality that the individual service branches were too strong and incapable of working together in battle.

In August 1980, Congressman Nichols first passed a bill in the Democratic-controlled lower House to reorganize the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but the Republican majority in the Senate rejected it. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also suddenly withdrew his support for the reforms and the commanders of the army, navy and marines all objected as well. The intractable standoff was finally broken after Senator Goldwater became head of the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1985. The charismatic figure, dubbed “Mr. Conservative” and the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 1964, joined hands with Democratic Senator Sam Nunn to help pass the 1986 act on military leadership reform.

Under the act, commanders of individual service branches would serve as advisers to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rather than direct commanders in the field. The chain of command was streamlined to lead from the president to the secretary of defense to the combat commanders. General Schwarzkopf, as commander of the coalition forces in the Gulf War, had undisputed authority over joint training and military resources. No other commanders were able to interfere or act without his approval.

While the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was a figurehead position when the committee was created in 1942, the new act empowered the chairman to make appointments and advise the president and defense secretary. A position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff soon became mandatory for all generals with political ambitions. The congressional reforms brought about a revolution in the U.S. armed forces that Defense Secretary Les Aspin said generated the biggest changes in the military since its founding in 1775.

Many are urging a similarly extensive overhaul of our military system after the Cheonan sinking. The problem is how. A set of proposals put forward by the government and military will likely be limited in both content and feasibility. Even if we leave the job to the National Assembly, it will likely result in ragged reforms after the ruling party and opposition members are done disputing everything. The trajectory of the defense realignment proposal sought during the Roh Tae-woo administration and the 2020 goal set during the Roh Moo-hyun administration to reform defense are living proof. To avoid making the same mistakes, we could have legislators, civil defense experts and research institutes lead the reorganization program and then coordinate the details with the government, as exemplified by the Goldwater-Nichols Act.

We will soon pass the 100-day mark since the Cheonan disaster. It is time the members of the National Assembly stop the blame game and begin debating policies. Would it be wishful thinking to hope for our own version of bipartisan military reform?

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editor of the foreign and security affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Oh Young-hwan
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