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Research Questions

  1. What cultural characteristics, primary goals, and competitive strategies and tactics are exhibited by the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and U.S. Special Operations Command?
  2. How might each of the services and U.S. Special Operations Command adapt and respond if it faced major policy shifts in the future, specifically in the Asia-Pacific?

This report analyzes the current character of competition between the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and examines how culture impacts the ways the services posture themselves to gain resources, authorities, access, and influence. The report identifies cultural characteristics, primary goals, and competitive strategies exhibited by the military services and USSOCOM. Further, it explores the current modalities of competition and tactics of competition employed by each service. The authors evaluate whether the cultures of the services have changed substantively over time and whether the services wield as much influence as they did before the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. Finally, the authors assess how each service might adapt and respond if it faced major policy shifts in the future, focusing specifically on contingencies in China and North Korea. The authors make three essential arguments: First, service personalities are alive and well. They endure, but they also evolve slowly to allow adaptation to the present environment. Second, post–Goldwater-Nichols, services remain the most powerful organizational actors in national defense. However, their relative edge over the Office of the Secretary of Defense, combatant commands, and the Joint Staff has decreased, leading to a more complex field of competition. Third, this complexity introduced by Goldwater-Nichols has created changes to the character of competition in the national security arena. The relevant actors have expanded to include elevated roles for the Marine Corps and USSOCOM, and the tactics and arenas of competition have changed.

Key Findings

The Army Competes for Missions by Positioning Itself as a Master of Leadership and Command, and for Resources by Arguing for Its Positions in Terms of Unacceptable Risk to the Nation

  • The Army seeks to drive acceptance of the centrality of conventional ground combat, preserve and grow end strength and force structure, and participate in all contingencies.

The Navy Competes for Roles and Missions Through Its Tightly Articulated Service Strategies and Institutional Resistance to Jointness

  • Its chief competitive goals are to maintain forward presence, sea control, power projection through force structure changes, and secure Department of Defense acceptance of purely naval missions.

The Air Force Competes Through Early Investment in and Promotion of Top Performers, as well as the Development of Senior-Level Resource Management Expertise

  • The Air Force focuses on technology, innovation, and strategic analysis, and aims to make air superiority central to U.S. strategy, reinforce an identity beyond enabling, and sustain dominance in space and cyber realms.

The Marine Corps Competes by Engaging Congress and the U.S. Public and Protecting Its Elite Brand

  • The Marine Corps competes by demonstrating relevance through forward presence, maintains operational autonomy, and preserves Marine culture and the forcible entry mission.

U.S. Special Operations Command Competes by Building on Its Operational Credibility, Strategically Shifting Between Combatant Command and Service-like Roles, and Maintaining Strong Congressional Support

  • USSOCOM's chief competitive goals are to maintain and grow autonomy, limit Special Operations Forces overuse, and retain primacy on a critical mission set that ensures its relevance.

This project was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense's Office of Net Assessment and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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