Pentagon Shakes Up Emergency Hierarchy

The Pentagon dropped the Service chiefs in the emergency line of succession in favor of the undersecretaries of Defense.

The three military service chiefs have been dropped in the Bush administration’s doomsday line of Pentagon succession, pushed beneath three civilian undersecretaries in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s inner circle. A little-noticed holiday week executive order from President Bush moved the Pentagon’s intelligence chief to the No. 3 spot in the succession hierarchy behind Mr. Rumsfeld. The second spot would be the deputy secretary of defense, but that position currently is vacant. The Army chief, which long held the No. 3 spot, was dropped to sixth. The changes, announced last week, are the second in six months and mirror the administration’s new emphasis on intelligence gathering versus combat in 21st-century warfighting.

Technically, the line of succession is assigned to specific positions, rather than the current individuals holding those jobs. But in its current incarnation, the doomsday plan moves to near the top three undersecretaries who are Rumsfeld loyalists and who previously worked for Vice President Dick Cheney when he was defense secretary. The changes were recommended, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, because the three undersecretaries have “a broad knowledge and perspective of overall Defense Department operations.” The service leaders are more focused on training, equipping and leading a particular military service, said Mr. Whitman.

Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, said the changes make it easier for the administration to assert political control. “It continues to devalue the services as institutions,” said Mr. Donnelly, saying it will centralize power, and shift it away from the services, where there is generally more military expertise and interest.

Under the new plan, Rumsfeld ally Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary for intelligence, moved up to the third spot, while former Ambassador Eric Edelman, the policy undersecretary, and Kenneth Krieg, the undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, hold the fourth and fifth positions.

Given that the Service chiefs (that is, the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force) are just as much Bush appointees as the undersecretaries, the “cronyism” rationale is silly. This is the culmination of a steady move, begun with the National Security Act of 1947, to de-emphasize the individual Services and strengthen unity of command.

Indeed, the Service secretaries are a relic of a bygone era whose jobs could be safely eliminated. (Both the Navy and Air Force Secretary positions have been vacant for months without anyone much noticing!) Since the Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 (better known as “Goldwater-Nichols”) the chain of command has gone from the president to the SECDEF to the four-star combatant commanders (formerly known as “CINCs”), bypassing the Chiefs entirely. It was really an oddity that, in an emergency, they would suddenly be thrust into command.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.