For many years, reformers attacked "wasteful" interservice rivalries in the U.S. military. Then, in 1986, they won a significant victory. The Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act strengthened the position of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and ushered in "jointness": the armed services were supposed to put aside juvenile interservice rivalries and work together to define military needs. Although the services opposed the legislation, they have since become "champions of jointness, their shield against being played off against one another by civilians," writes Sapolsky, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his view, however, more interservice rivalry would be a good thing.
Interservice competition offers civilian defense leaders several important advantages, he argues. For one, it helps them to get vital information. "What the Navy will not tell us about its vulnerabilities, the Air Force and Army might," he notes. Competition also gives civilian leaders more leverage in their effort to control defense policy. "Ranks of medal-bedecked generals and admirals agreeing on the same position are a formidable force to confront in any Washington policy battle," Sapolsky points out. Civilians do better with "informed and powerful military allies in defense strategy and budget discussions."
Interservice rivalries also spur innovation, he argues. "It was the Navy’s fear of losing the nuclear deterrent mission entirely to the Air Force in the 1950s that gave us the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile, which in turn reduced our need to deploy hundreds upon hundreds of vulnerable and costly strategic bombers and most of the liquid fueled missiles the Air Force was developing."
The Pentagon’s civilian leaders may not be keen to bring back the good old days, Sapolsky says. "Interservice friction produces a great deal of political heat because it usually involves appeals to Congress and the recruitment of partisans among military retirees, contractors, and friendly reporters." Instead of being viewed as the necessary prelude to informed judgment, the political conflict may leave the impression of bad management on the part of the civilian defense officials, especially when accusations begin to fly about "wasteful duplication."
Fortunately, Sapolsky says, there is another force that will foster more competition: fiscal austerity. "There is no better spur to candor, error correction, and creativity in defense planning," he says, "than a very tight budget and a few smart rivals competing for budget share."
"The Interservice Competition Solution" by Harvey M. Sapolsky, in Breakthroughs (Spring 1996), Defense and Arms Control Studies Program, Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 292 Main St. (E38-603), Cambridge, Mass. 02139.