Reorganizing the Joint Force for a Trans-Regional Threat Environment

Entering 2017, the nature of the threat the U.S., and in particular the Department of Defense, faces will be more multi-polar due to the continued rise of China in the Asia-Pacific sphere; the revanchment of Russia in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia; an unpredictable North Korea in Northeast Asia; Iran seeking hegemonic status in the Middle East; and the continued threat of terrorist organizations like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. While the U.S. remains the single most powerful actor on the international stage, its influence and ability to react to the growing threat that transcends its own internal artificial boundaries and planning processes is not keeping pace with the evolution of the environment. As a result, the Defense Department needs to change its planning and decision making model by breaking from its regional geographic combatant command (GCC) centric system to compete more effectively globally against the emerging trans-regional, multi-domain, multi-functional threats.

Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) and Rep. William Flynt Nichols (D-AL-4), the co-sponsors of the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 (National Review)

Informally since the end of World War II, and formally after the passing of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Reform Act, the Defense Department used GCCs which codified their authorities and their relationship to the national command authority: the President and the Secretary of Defense. Each GCC was assigned a specific region of the world by the President in the Unified Command Plan (UCP) with specific responsibilities and the Secretary of Defense provided military objectives to achieve within the Guidance of the Employment of the Force. When the Cold War ended, the Defense Department had the luxury of sitting atop the apex of the security environment sans a threat important enough to warrant a review of the decision-making model. The persistence of this business model has resulted in the GCCs becoming so powerful and influential that Dana Priest in her book The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military describes our GCC commanders as modern-day military proconsuls.

Unless reforms are implemented, the United States will remain a global power that thinks and acts regionally, while our state challengers are regional powers that think and act globally.

Even the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and even Yemen, all confined to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, haven’t really tested the current model the way it did for General Marshall in World War II who attempted to balance the requirements of the European and Pacific Theater of Operations. The rise of the 4+1 (Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and violent extremists) threats and their ability to challenge the current business model from a trans-regional, multi-domain, and multi-functional approach means there is a need for reform. Unless reforms are implemented, the United States will remain a global power that thinks and acts regionally, while our state challengers are regional powers that think and act globally.  

General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) recognized this challenge and stated it during his remarks to the Center for a New American Security Next Defense Forum when he said:

“Our current planning, our organizational construct, and our command and control is not really optimized for that fight.  So when I –– when I look at how we’re going to fight, the character of the fight in the 21st century, and I look at how we have typically approached things, which is obviously through a regional approach… you do look at the nature of the fight today, even against violent extremism, and then look at the nature of what the fight might be against peer competitors in the future, I don’t think we’ll be able to be as responsive, I don’t think we’ll be able to generate the tempo, I don’t think we’ll be able to frame decisions and act in a timely manner as much as we should unless we make some fundamental changes, again, to our organizational construct –– the way we plan, the way we develop strategy, and then as importantly our command and control.”

Michelle A. Flournoy, portrait taken as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (Wikimedia Commons)

There have been many proposals to reform the Department of Defense. Among them has been former Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy, whose proposals include: augmenting the UCP to elevate U.S. Cyber Command into a full Functional Combatant Command (FCC); merging U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Southern Command along with U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command; and elevating U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) from a FCC to a service akin to the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. To improve decision-making, she suggests reducing the size of bloated headquarters by consolidating the Office of Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff, Service secretariats and Service staffs, a reduction of 4- and 3-star level headquarters, and streamlining personnel through the elimination of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. 

Mark Cancian (CSIS)

Mark Cancian in his article, “We Need a Map for Goldwater-Nichols Reform So We Don’t Get Lost, highlighted similar proposals to those of Flournoy but recognized the challenges reforms present when he said “while it is true that many weaknesses in defense management have been identified, there is no clear consensus about what to do.” He recommended that current reforms be limited to “quick wins” addressing managerial and planning changes and that once these changes are implemented, Congress should set in motion the process for future reforms to include a review of the function and role of the combatant commands. While his recommendations will improve management in the out years, in a rapidly contested environment, they fail to address how the Defense Department will operate globally, strategically and operationally, by breaking down the current artificial boundaries represented by the GCCs and their own parochial prerogatives to protect the assets and personnel assigned to them. 

What is needed is an organization that thinks and acts both globally and jointly.

Kelly McCoy went further in his article, “The World the Combatant Command was Designed for is Gone,” by articulating that “[combatant commands] are no longer relevant for the present and future security environment” and that “when conditions change and organizational structures fail to adequately reflect the reality of the environment, it is time for revolutionary change.” McCoy’s primary recommendation is to transition the GCCs into threat-based FCCs such U.S. European Command becoming the Counter Russia Combatant Command; U.S. Pacific Command being the Counter-China Combatant Command; and U.S. Central Command being the Counter-Iran Combatant Command. This threat-based FCC model currently exists in the form of SOCOM which has been designated the lead for countering violent extremists. However, SOCOM has only been given the authority to synchronize special operations across the GCCs, but they don’t have the authority to determine how the forces are prioritized and utilized. Unless the new FCCs can prioritize the employment of the joint forces assigned to them globally, it would not provide the revolutionary change needed from the current GCC construct. If anything, it would make it more confusing. 

General Joseph Dunford, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the recommendations made by Flournoy, Cancian, and McCoy, the Department of Defense planning and decision making model will continue to struggle against trans-regional threats unless reforms focused on integration are made. General Dunford highlighted this problem at his Next Defense Forum speech when he said “we use collaboration and cooperation in support of supporting relationships between combatant commanders.  But in terms of true integration –– in other words, decision-making authority that integrates a fight across a region, across a domain, or across a function –– it’s really the Secretary of Defense.” The closest the Defense Department gets to integration after the Secretary of Defense is assigning combatant commanders as the synchronizer and/or coordinating element, as with SOCOM. The desired goal with assigning SOCOM these authorities is to achieve unity of effort through consensus. The result is what Flournoy called the “tyranny of consensus” that leads to poor-quality civilian and military advice. An example of this problem is summarized in a saying in the Army Plans Division that “the Services think globally and parochially while the geographic combatant commands think regionally and jointly.” What is needed is an organization that thinks and acts both globally and jointly.

Ironically, the one recommendation several experts have made to address the lack of integration is the need for a civilian or military leader with the authority to rapidly assess, respond, and gain the initiative by moving information, assets, and forces across multiple geographic combatant command boundaries. Beyond the authority of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, there isn’t a mechanism for an honest arbitration to compel one command to shift assets and personnel in a rapid manner to respond to threats or gain the initiative. Examining the authorities and responsibilities of the Secretary of Defense highlights the challenge of rapid decision-making.

In order to allow the U.S. to remain the premier global power among new competitors, Congress must act to create an integrator for global operations.

When examining the Secretary of Defense’s authorities and responsibilities, you can break them down into three primary functions: (1) responsibility for the implementation and integration of budgets and acquisition programs of the services; (2) responsibility for the integration and execution of the joint force through the combatant commands; and (3) serve as the head of the largest component of the intelligence community.  These three broad responsibilities would consume any individual; however, the Secretary can delegate some day-to-day tasks to his Deputy Secretary of Defense and/or Under-Secretaries of Defense.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, fourth on right, and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, fifth on right, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meet with global and regional combatant commanders at the National Defense University on Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., May 8, 2014. (DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett)

For example, the Deputy Secretary of Defense is responsible for supporting the development of the budget and overseeing the various acquisition programs. The Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence is responsible for overseeing the vast intelligence apparatus of the Defense Department to include the National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial Agency, and other military intelligence organizations. The responsibility of developing strategy and policy is delegated to the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy. What the Secretary of Defense does not have is someone to manage and integrate global operations. If the Secretary of Defense were a head football coach, he would need an offensive coordinator: someone that can both manage several groups and focus on external threats. There are two primary alternatives in creating an offensive coordinator. 

The first option, as some have suggested, is elevating the CJCS into the military chain-of-command. Not only would the CJCS need to be elevated in position, that person would need to be promoted to a 5th star in order to have the prestige required to sit atop both the service chiefs and combatant commanders. Having the CJCS, an experienced military officer, serve as the global integrator would be a logical choice; however, such a move creates concerns about maintaining civilian control of the military. 

A second choice would be the creation of an Under-Secretary of Defense for Operations (this position could even hold the old title of “Secretary of War”) with the delegated power to shift assets and personnel across combatant command boundaries like a military J-3 (Operations) would. This would reinforce the principle of “unity of command” within the Defense Department and create the necessary agility needed to adapt to an ever-changing security landscape.

With the rise of global near-peer competitors and regional powers with transnational reach, the U.S. military must become more flexible and adaptable at crossing multiple boundaries simultaneously if it seeks to maintain its competitive advantage.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act removed the service chiefs from the chain-of-command to avoid service parochialism from influencing military operations. Likewise, a new reform act needs to reduce the power of the combatant commanders in order to gain greater efficiency and effectiveness for global operations. Since the idea of a global integrator, military or civilian, has been rejected by the defense establishment, such reform would require a legislative change. The defense establishment historically has opposed reforms such as the 1947 National Security Act and the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act when it became clear that there would be winners and losers in the reforms. However, in order to allow the U.S. to remain the premier global power among new competitors, Congress must act to create an integrator for global operations. 

The U.S. military is highly experienced in fighting terrorists and insurgents –– non-state actors –– in the Middle East and Central Asia. However, with the rise of global near-peer competitors and regional powers with transnational reach, the U.S. military must become more flexible and adaptable at crossing multiple boundaries simultaneously if it seeks to maintain its competitive advantage. The only way to achieve this is to transform our current command and control structures to allow us to be a global power that actually acts and thinks globally. 

Chad Pillai is a U.S. Army strategist and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed belong to the author alone and do not represent the US Army or the Department of Defense.

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