The geniuses who created the post-World War Two U.S. military command system knew that there were two essential truths about leading a large and complex military. The first was that there must be unity of command. The second was the need for clear lines of authority. Based on this wisdom, the National Security Act of 1947 created most of the leadership structure for today’s Pentagon, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). In 1986 the Goldwater-Nichols Act furthered the goals of unity of command and clear lines of communication by designating the Chairman of the JCS as the President’s chief military advisor and also provided greater command authority to “unified” and “specified” field commanders.
Events over the past few years, specifically 9/11 and the Global War on Terror, have necessitated changing the role of the National Guard from that of a strategic reserve to an operational force. In addition, the Guard has significant and growing responsibilities for homeland security. Reflecting its new-found importance, a growing chorus of voices has called for making the Chief of the National Guard Bureau (NGB) a full member of the JCS. Advocates of the idea of elevating the NGB Chief argue that it would enhance military decision making and allow the Guard to more effectively advocate for itself within the JCS’s inner sanctum.
The notion that the National Guard has no influence in joint decision making is a canard. In 1998, the Secretary of Defense established two high-level posts on the Joint Staff to provide advice on issues affecting National Guard and Reserve forces. One serves as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs for National Guard matters, the other for Reserve matters.
Making the Director of the Guard Bureau a full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a bad idea. This would essentially establish the Guard as its own service. Doing so would create more bureaucracies and conflict with the services’ efforts to field a “total force” of both active-duty and reserve components. Only the Chiefs of the Services can address issues arising from the need to maintain a total force of active and reserve units. Given the Guard’s unique position as an arm of the states, under the authority of their governors, the potential for friction between the President as Commander-in-Chief and the governors would be very real.
There is a sensible and effective alternative to elevating the NGB Chief to full membership on the JCS. The NGB Chief’s relationship with the chairman and secretary of defense should be formalized, with the Chief being the principal advisor to both the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman on Guard matters. This is the solution advocated in the newly-released report of the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves. The Commission’s report also proposes a number of sensible steps to improve planning and coordination between the NGB and Office of the Secretary of Defense, the JCS and the Combatant Commands, particularly NORTHCOM. These steps would avoid addition confusion to national military command and control functions.
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