Obituary: David C. Jones / Former chairman of Joint Chiefs

July 9, 1921 - Aug. 10, 2013

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Retired Gen. David C. Jones, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Carter and Reagan administrations helped set in motion a sweeping reorganization of the nation's military command, died Aug. 10 in Potomac Falls, Va. He was 92.

The cause was Parkinson's disease, his daughter, Kathy Franklin, said in confirming the death. Mr. Jones had lived in a military retirement community in Potomac Falls.

Mr. Jones served longer than any predecessor on the Joint Chiefs, first as the Air Force chief of staff (1974-78) and then as chairman (1978-82). It was under his watch during the Carter administration that a mission to rescue 53 American hostages in Iran ended in disaster.

Mr. Jones was a bomber pilot in the Korean War, but he represented a new generation of officers whose rise in the military hierarchy owed more to their administrative and strategic planning skills than to their combat exploits.

In "Four Stars," his history of the Joint Chiefs published in 1989, Mark Perry wrote that Gen. Jones had earned a reputation as "a good service manager" who "welcomed change" when he was selected as Air Force chief of staff by President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Early in 1982, near the end of his second two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Jones proposed far-reaching changes aimed at enhancing the chairman's influence while curbing interservice rivalry. Though his proposals drew opposition, the military reorganization he envisioned became a reality through an act of Congress in 1986.

Behind the legislation were concerns over divided military command authority arising from the 1983 invasion of Grenada and the failed hostage-rescue mission.

The Iran debacle, in April 1980, was an especially humiliating blow to American prestige. Of the eight American helicopters sent on the mission, three broke down early in its first stages during a sandstorm. After the mission had been called off, one of the remaining helicopters collided on the ground with a transport plane and both craft burned. Eight servicemen died in the fire.

Ronald Reagan made the failure an issue in his successful 1980 presidential campaign to deny Jimmy Carter a second term. The hostages were not released until the day of Reagan's inauguration, 444 days after they were taken captive.

Conservative Republicans in Congress further criticized Gen. Jones for supporting Mr. Carter's cancellation of the Air Force B-1 bomber project, for backing the administration's Panama Canal treaties and for endorsing its negotiations aimed at a strategic arms agreement with the Soviet Union.

Gen. Jones said he had felt a constitutional obligation to voice support for his civilian superiors in public no matter what advice he might have given privately. He was kept on by Reagan until his retirement in July 1982, when he completed his second term as chairman.

By then Gen. Jones had begun his effort to reorganize the interservice command structure. In the past, the five members -- a chairman, who could come from any of the services, and the top commanders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines -- had tried to achieve unanimity in making recommendations to the president. But the united-front approach was criticized as a recipe for compromise among services competing for missions at the expense of well-conceived plans.

After much wrangling, Congress passed the so-called Goldwater-Nichols act in 1986. Sponsored by Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a Republican, and Rep. Bill Nichols of Alabama, a Democrat, the legislation designated the Joint Chiefs' chairman as the principal military adviser to the president and the secretary of defense, a change from the old policy in which all five members made recommendations.

The act strengthened the chairman's role in drafting military strategy and devising the Pentagon's budgets and created a new position, vice chairman, and it gave important new powers to commanders who would lead mixed forces -- land, sea and air -- into battle.

David Charles Jones was born on July 9, 1921, in Aberdeen, S.D. As a youngster, he moved with his family to Minot, N.D., where he rode his bicycle to a nearby airport to watch planes land and take off. He attended the University of North Dakota and Minot State College before joining the Army Air Forces in April 1942.

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