They called it "the victory on the Potomac." And truly, the 1986 Department of Defense Reorganization Act transformed how the Pentagon worked. It elevated the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to greater status as "the" principal military adviser to the president, National Security Council and secretary of defense. It strengthened the authority of "combatant commanders" in the field.
And, most consequentially of all, it established standards for "joint" professional development -- the key to integrating the capabilities of the services. The move toward "jointness" was predicated on the idea that, when next the military went to war, it should function like an orchestra with each component contributing harmoniously within a coherent whole rather than each playing its own tune in a discordant cacophony.
It worked. Almost too well, argued the Washington Post's Dana Priest in her 2003 book, "The Mission." Jointness, she noted, allowed the military to work much more effectively than other government institutions. As a result, Washington was relying more and more on "generals, grunts, and Green Berets" to perform nonmilitary functions.
But it looks like Defense Secretary Robert Gates will "fix" all that effectiveness. He's dismantling the "joint" force. Now our military can become as inept as the rest of America's national security and foreign policy instruments.
Here's how Gates went about it. First, he obliterated the Joint Forces Command. Dumping it would save money, he said. Yes, but then again, the command was doing a lot of the work necessary to integrate service activities. And the initial decision to can the JFC didn't explain how that work would get done.
Next, Gates delivered the mandatory Quadrennial Defense Review. It is supposed to identify the military forces needed to meet our defense needs for the next 20 years. But after turning that report over to Congress, Gates turned around and ordered the services to cut budgets and justify what was left.
The Marine Corps promptly reported it would now focus on its "niche" mission of crisis response.
Meanwhile, the Navy and the Air Force have floated their new plan -- Air-Sea Battle. Instead of maintaining a global presence, the two services would focus on long-range strikes and "surging" ships to trouble spots when needed.
As for the Army, Gates' plan was even simpler -- a smaller army, blithely assuming the Army won't have to fight another ground war or ever occupy another country. The Army will just do windows.
Meanwhile, Gates' ballyhooed initiative to realize "savings" through efficiencies has turned out to be mostly just an exercise in across-the-board budget cuts within agencies. The result is less capability and less efficiency.
The net effect of all these "reforms" is to turn a marvelously effective joint force into a collection of boutique military forces.
Now, having led the charge to cut stealth aircraft, carriers, and amphibious capabilities, Gates admits our military would be severely strained to do anything in Libya. After all, it would require the stuff he cut.
The secretary argued he had to defund the Pentagon to help balance the federal budget. In effect, he's arguing that the U.S. can't afford to defend itself.
It's a curious position for a defense secretary. But curious, too, was a recent Gates lecture to the cadets at West Point: "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as Gen. MacArthur so delicately put it."
Gates is saving future secretaries and presidents the trouble of even contemplating such an action. Having downsized and disjointed the Pentagon, he's bequeathing them a military that won't be able to do very much at all.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Examiner