Combatant Commander-Based Design: The Modular Army in Context

The article “Division Commander-Based Design” calls “to make the division commander’s problem the focal point of Army future force design efforts and the baseline from which risks, trades and opportunity costs are measured.”[1] However, in criticizing what is termed the “brigade based design,” the article overplays the argument by failing to provide the strategic context that guided this redesign and by underplaying the full breadth of the modular Army design. Once these two things are taken into account, a strong argument can be made that the modular Army design got it right because it focused on the application of strategic landpower, i.e., the Combatant Commander’s problem. Rather than focusing on tactical echelons (whether brigade or division), the modular design focused on the relationships between the levels of war and subordinated the tactical and operational levels to the strategic level.[2] It is because of this analysis and how it applied to the post-Cold War context that the brigade was then adopted as the highest echelon with a fixed structure.[3]

Strategic Inflection Point

To tell the story of the design of the modular Army, one starts at the strategic inflection point of 1991, which saw both the great American victory in Kuwait and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While the Iraqi defeat in Kuwait validated the Cold War U.S. Army that was built to face a peer competitor in high-intensity conflict, the fall of the Soviet Union ushered in a brand new strategic context for which the Cold War Army would no longer be fully relevant. Left without a peer competitor, the Army began the process to look at how it would transform from a forward-deployed force focused on high-intensity conflict with the Soviet Union to an expeditionary force increasingly based in the continental United States (CONUS) that would have to fight across the range of military operations.[4]

The End of an Era. “While the Iraqi defeat in Kuwait validated the Cold War U.S. Army that was built to face a peer competitor in high intensity conflict, the fall of the Soviet Union ushered in a brand new strategic context for which the Cold War Army would no longer be fully relevant.”

The Seeds of Modularity

The idea of modularity was first introduced in August 1994 in TRADOC Pamphlet 525–5 Force XXI Operations: “All Army forces must be rapidly deployable, highly survivable, lethal, agile, mobile, modular in design, and equipped to respond to the full range of military operations.”[5] In January 1995, the draft TRADOC Pamphlet 525–68 Modularity focused modularity on echelons above division and on combat support units, introducing the concepts for what were to become multifunctional and functional support brigades.[6] By 2001, the seeds of the modular Army design were fully sown with the development of the conceptual framework of units of action (UA), which would replace brigades, and units of employment (UE), which would replace divisions, corps, and armies.[7] The UE concept was further refined in January 2003 to include two levels (what would become UEx and UEy, later renamed with the traditional titles of division and corps) and a streamlined theater command.[8]

Modular Design. Before General Schoomaker ordered the Army to convert to the modular Army, the Army had invested nearly a decade into conceptualizing modular design, which was a holistic approach to redesigning the Army across the levels of war.

Putting Modularity into Action

In the summer of 2003, the U.S. Army saw General Schoomaker sworn-in as the 35th Army Chief of Staff, and it also felt the effects of a growing insurgency in Iraq. Recognizing a need for sustained landpower in Iraq, the war was certainly a catalyst for adopting modularity. However, a decade of rotating sub-divisional units to the Balkans and the Sinai, which required breaking apart divisions to support subordinate echelons, indicated that the Cold War Army structure was a suboptimal solution to the new strategic context. Thus, within a month of assuming his duties, General Schoomaker instructed the Army to begin work to convert to a modular, brigade-based force that would better meet combatant command requirements, both in the current fight as well as for future fights.[9] FM 3–94 Theater Army, Corps, and Division Operations succinctly describes this problem:

The highly integrated organization of the Army’s divisions in the late 1990s made it difficult to deploy divisional units apart from their divisional base and keep the rest of the division ready for other missions. The Army needed to reorganize around smaller, more versatile formations able to deploy more promptly and sustain the fight indefinitely, while meeting global commitments outside the conflict region. The ensuing transformation reorganized the Army into brigade combat teams (BCTs), multifunctional and functional support brigades, and deployable, self-contained division and corps headquarters. The shift to a brigade-based Army with modular corps and division headquarters allowed the Army to tailor forces rapidly into expeditionary force packages that matched the combatant commander’s requirements (author’s emphasis).[10]

Fortunately, the Army had been exploring this conceptual redesign for nearly a decade — now it was time to put it into action. Task Force Modularity was stood up in early September 2003 to develop the concepts into actual unit documents, drafting personnel from across the Army as well as from the other services and Joint Forces Command to ensure that they would meet General Schoomaker’s “emphasis on making units more capable of operating jointly and the Army more responsive to the needs of regional combatant commanders.”[11] Over the course of the nearly seventeen months through February 2005, the task force design “altered every echelon of the force from battalion to army.”[12]

Combatant Commander’s Requirements. “The shift to a brigade-based Army with modular corps and division headquarters allowed the Army to tailor forces rapidly into expeditionary force packages that matched the combatant commander’s requirements.”

Strategic Landpower

Since the redesign of the brigade combat team (BCT) has overshadowed the other fruits of the modular Army redesign, it is important to understand how modularity affected echelons above brigade. In flattening the levels of command between brigade and combatant command, it developed more efficient and in most cases, more effective headquarters that could support combatant command requirements.

Theater Army — The theater army retained its mission as Army Service Component Command (ASCC) for the geographic combatant command to which it is assigned. However, the 375 soldier Operational Command Post (OCP)[13] that allowed the theater army to serve as a joint force land component headquarters or joint task force (JTF) headquarters for a large scale contingency was reduced to a 96 soldier Contingency Command Post (CCP), which also reduced its ability to serve as a joint force land component or JTF to only for a limited contingency operation.[14] However, the theater army retains the capability for its mission to set the theater and shape the security environment.[15]

Corps — Modular redesign made corps the Army’s primary operational-level headquarters. It stripped corps of their fixed formations, leaving a self-contained headquarters that could “provide the ARFOR (Army forces headquarters) within a joint force for campaigns and major operations,” “serve as the joint or multinational land component command headquarters (with augmentation) in campaigns and major operations,” “serve as a JTF headquarters (with augmentation) for crisis response and limited contingency operations,” and “serve as a tactical headquarters commanding 2 to 5 Army divisions together with supporting brigades and commands in campaigns and major operations.”[16] While it retained the capability to serve as a higher level tactical headquarters, its role has been increased to essentially what had once been the sole purview of the field Army. Many of the formations stripped from the previously fixed corps structure were aggregated into multifunctional support brigades intended primarily to be attached to divisions, making the division a more capable tactical formation.[17]

The Expanded Roles of Headquarters. Modular transformation expanded the traditional role of headquarters; in the case of modular corps, they can now assume the role that had been traditionally handled by a field Army, such as Third Army in Desert Storm or Eighth Army in Korea.

Division — The role of the division headquarters was also expanded, making it more “corps-like.” While still retaining the mission to “serve as a tactical headquarters in campaigns and major operations,” modularity increased the capability of the division by assigning organic capability directly to the staff sections that had required a divisional slice element and adding additional staff capability such as a G-3 Future Operations cell, a G-5 Plans cell, Airspace Command and Control (AC2), Cyber-Electromagnetic Activities (CEMA), Knowledge Management (KM), Operations Research and Systems Analysis (ORSA), Red Team, Space, and Liaison Officers (LNO).[18] This capability allowed it to also take on missions that had once been the purview of higher echelons, just as the redesigned corps had increased its scope. The newly designed self-contained division headquarters could also “serve as the joint or multination joint force land component headquarters under a JTF in crisis response and limited contingency operations,” “serve as a JTF headquarters (with augmentation) for limited contingency operations,” and “serve as the ARFOR within a JTF in crisis response and limited contingency operations.”[19] Additionally, the division is now primarily enabled through the use of multifunctional support brigades attached directly to the division rather than through corps enablers operating within its battlespace.[20]

Life after Iraq and Afghanistan

While the modular Army certainly supported the rotational demands of the large scale stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, the question is whether the modular Army will continue to be the right design for life after Operations Iraq Freedom, New Dawn, and Enduring Freedom. The early results validate the modular Army, as the Army currently has three division headquarters deployed in support of limited contingencies. The 1st Armored Division is currently serving in Jordan, the 1st Infantry Division is serving in Iraq (and Kuwait) as the joint force land component — Iraq, and the 101st Airborne Division in Africa serves as the Joint Force Command — United Assistance. Additionally, a fourth division headquarters, the 4th Infantry Division, is preparing to deploy to Europe to serve as part of Atlantic Resolve.

The Modular Division in Action. The 101st Airborne is currently serving as Joint Force Command — United Assistance. The headquarters deployed on short notice, without BCTs, to provide mission command for the Ebola response effort. Pictured here are CSM Hines, the JFC Command Sergeant Major, MG Volesky, the JFC Commander, Mr. Berger, a team leader for the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team, and RADM Giberson, the Commissioned Corps Ebola Response Commander, all talking with AMB Malac, the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia, just prior to the opening ceremony for the Monrovia Medical Unit on November 5, 2014, in Liberia (DVIDS Photo 1645724, SFC Nathan Hoskins).

These divisions are not serving in their traditional role as a tactical headquarters, but rather in roles created by the modular design. Absent another strategic inflection point that requires the Army to optimize its force structure design for large-scale, high-intensity conflict that then requires a return to fixed division and/or corps structure as the basic building blocks for expeditionary forces, then the current modular design remains the optimal way to meet the requirements of the combatant commander. This doesn’t preclude refining current designs on the margin to match marginal changes in the strategic environment, but rather than focusing at a particular echelon, the Army should continue maintain a holistic view of force structure design refinements (as well as force structure cuts to meet downsizing requirements) at the tactical or operational levels so that “risks and trades are[n’t] being shifted to higher echelons,” i.e., combatant commands, “without full appreciation of the consequences to those echelons or understanding of the associated opportunity costs.”[21]

Mike Shekleton is a U.S. Army officer. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets with Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, upon. Hagel will meet with the command’s leaders before continuing to Singapore to speak at the Shangri-La Dialogue and to Brussels for a NATO meeting with defense ministers. (Courtesy photo by DoD)


[1] Simpson, Bob, “Division Commander-Based Design,” The Bridge, entry posted December 5, 2014, (accessed December 8, 2014).

[2] This aligns directly with the Army Operating Concept’s approach to “consider[] the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war because conflict cannot be divided into discrete levels.” U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, The U.S. Army Operating Concept — Win in a Complex World (2020–2040), TRADOC Pamphlet 525–3–1, (October 31, 2014), 2.

[3] Any echelon higher than brigade would require additional assembly to tailor it to align with the unique requirements of the contingency.

Prior to modularity, both divisions and corps were fixed. Divisions had been fixed since 1917 and the American entry into World War I. See Wilson, John B, Manuever and Firepower: The Evolution of Divisions and Separate Brigades (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1998), 37–38. Corps had been fixed since the Reorganization Objective Army Divisions (1961–1965) (ROAD) force structure changes in the early 1960s. Prior to that, they were flexible, self-contained headquarters that required additional assembly to tailor it for specific mission requirements. Conversation with Dr. John Bonin, December 19, 2014.

[4] Donnelly, William M., Transforming an Army at War: Designing the Modular Force, 1991–2005 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2007), 3.

[5] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Force XXI Operations, TRADOC Pamphlet 525–5, (accessed December 9, 2014).

[6] Donnelly, 8.

[7] Donnelly, 12.

[8] Donnelly, 13.

[9] Donnelly, 19, 21.

[10] U.S. Department of the Army, Theater Army, Corps, and Division Operations, Field Manual 3–94 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Army, April 21, 2014), 1–1.

General Schoomaker’s metaphor for this problem was to liken the fixed divisional (and corps) structures as being a $100 bill that when used for smaller purchases, would result in loose “change that you can’t aggregate into anything meaningful.” The solution was to carry $20 bills (brigade combat teams) that would eliminate excess loose change, but if necessary could still be aggregated for larger bills. To get a more in-depth narration of the metaphor, see:

[11] Donnelly, 27.

[12] Donnelly, 28, 3.

[13] Theater Army Design 4.2.

[14] Theater Army, Corps, and Division Operations, 1–5.

[15] These are the first two core competencies defined in the AOC. The U.S. Army Operating Concept — Win in a Complex World (2020–2040), 22.

[16] Theater Army, Corps, and Division Operations, 1–7.

[17] Theater Army, Corps, and Division Operations, 1–3, 1–7.

[18] Dr. John Bonin, U.S. Army War College Professor of Concepts and Doctrine, conversation with author, December 9, 2014. Dr. Bonin was one of the primary designers of echelons above brigade and served on Task Force Modularity. This analysis compared the modular design of the division with the H- and J-series division design.

[19] Theater Army, Corps, and Division Operations, 1–7.

[20] Dr. John Bonin, conversation with author, December 9, 2014.

[21] The quote used is from the Simpson article. In a general sense, the logic and focus on risk and opportunity costs are both sound; however, they should be applied such that the tactical and operational levels of war are subordinated to the strategic level of war.