Do U.S. military commands really need reorganizing?

In recent weeks, the basic question of how the Pentagon organizes itself for overseas operations has gained new attention. Thanks are due largely to Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has held a number of hearings on the subject and seems bent on pushing the issue in 2016. The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, has also expressed interest in reform.

Some modest changes are likely in order, perhaps most of all in the cyber domain. Dunford’s idea to streamline his own joint staff, housed in the Pentagon, also makes sense. But in an era when the government has been seemingly reorganizing itself to deal with every new problem, most notably with intelligence and homeland security, we need to avoid change for change’s sake.

Nuts and bolts

What is at issue is the so-called Unified Command Plan. With this system, the Pentagon divides overseas responsibilities into six geographic sectors (there are also three functional commands, each with global responsibilities—special operations, transportation, and strategic/space matters). Africa Command and European Command—both headquartered in Europe—each have responsibility for more than 50 countries. Pacific Command, based in Hawaii, covers half the globe by area and, with China and India and Indonesia, nearly that large a fraction by population (with some 36 nations). Central Command, based in the continental United States, has seen much of the combat action this century (though it has “only” 20 countries within its area of responsibility). Southern Command, also based in the lower 48 states, works with the 31 countries of Latin America south of Mexico. Northern Command deals with our own continent, largely in regard to homeland security matters.

[W]e need to avoid change for change’s sake.

Each command is run by a four-star general or admiral who has likely worked on various parts of the world during his career (at present, there is not a woman in the ranks of these commanders, though General Lori Robinson is a four-star officer with responsibility for all Air Force activities within Pacific Command). They report directly to the secretary of defense and the president, with the heads of the four military services not in the chain of command and the chairman of the joint chiefs essentially in just an advisory and liaison capacity. 

The four-star commanders in Korea and Afghanistan report through Pacific and Central commands, respectively. The head of European Command is also the Supreme Allied Commander of the 28-nation NATO alliance. Some of the commands had their origins in the late 1940s; most came into their current form in major reforms in either 1983, 1987, or 2002; Africa Command is the newest kid on the block, having been inaugurated in the last year of the George W. Bush administration.

Full plates

All this detail should immediately underscore two crucial points: Each geographic command is dramatically different from all of the others, and each commander as well as his top staff becomes as much a politician as a warfighter. These are the major reasons for being wary of reform proposals, especially those that would consolidate too much—for example, merging Africa Command with European Command or Central Command, and eliminating Southern Command or merging it with Northern Command. Consider for a moment what several of the commands spent much of their 2015 addressing:

  • General Philip Breedlove of European Command (and the U.S. Air Force himself, though like all the commands and commanders discussed here, his staff and his roles are joint-service in character) was focused largely on President Vladimir Putin, Russia, and Ukraine. He needed to track very intently the daily intelligence on what Russian, and Russian-assisted, forces were doing to stir up mischief, not only in Ukraine itself but around NATO’s perimeter as well. He and his staff also needed to develop recommendations for President Obama, Congress, and other NATO members on how to help Ukraine—and on how to deter Putin from any designs on NATO territory itself.
  • General Lloyd Austin of Central Command (and the U.S. Army) needed to watch a region going up in flames. He oversaw, by far, the most combat of any commander. Yet his job was as much about politics as military strategy—understanding Sunni-Shiite tensions in Iraq, tribal rivalries in Syria and Yemen, complex internal politics in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the nuclear deal and all that came with it in Iran, to say nothing of Afghanistan and Pakistan (Central Command extends to the India-Pakistan border, where Pacific Command then takes over).
  • General David Rodriguez of Africa Command (and the U.S. Army) has primarily worked with local partners in modest training efforts. With 53 countries under his jurisdiction (all of Africa except Egypt), he has arguably the most complicated command of all, and his jurisdiction rivals General Austin’s for the most ongoing hot wars. Yet unlike Austin, his area of responsibility is generally seen as a lower priority for American defense policy, and thus he must tackle most problems with very limited resources.
  • Similarly, General John Kelly of Southern Command (and the Marine Corps) works with modest military resources typically at his beck and call—though the president and secretary of defense could assign any commander more resources in a crisis or conflict. For example, he has been extremely attentive to the blossoming U.S.-Colombia relationship over his tenure, recognizing Bogotá’s potential to be a crucial partner for mutual hemispheric interests.
  • Admiral Harry Harris of Pacific Command (and the Navy) spent much of 2015 keeping an eagle’s eye on China, and ultimately carrying out freedom of navigation activities with American military vessels in the South China Sea where Beijing had been building artificial islands and attempting to extend its influence. Unlike Kelly or Rodriguez, Harris had ample U.S. military assets to employ, but unlike Austin, he was not focused so much on shooting as on positioning and posturing in ways that would ideally avoid war.

Alter at the margins

So where might the case for reform in fact be compelling, beyond Dunford’s and McCain’s worthy goals of streamlining? Cyber operations have reached such a high importance and complexity that arguably they should no longer be subsumed within strategic command. This question deserves scrutiny, as does the question of whether Northern Command is really needed, or whether it might best be merged with Strategic Command (given the latter’s focus on protecting the homeland as well).

Cyber operations have reached such a high importance and complexity that arguably they should no longer be subsumed within strategic command.

The geographic seams of some commands may require rethinking. For example, the fact that Central Command covers Pakistan and Pacific Command India could complicate efforts to use the good offices of the American military to foster confidence-building measures between these two South Asian giants. Perhaps both commands should have responsibility for both countries, with a special team of Americans reporting to each commander and facilitating joint initiatives. Or perhaps this is an issue where the chairman should have special responsibilities. A similar case could be made for Libya, though it seems inevitable that both Central Command and Africa Command will have to deal with the problems of al-Qaeda, ISIL, and related matters regardless of where and how lines are drawn. 

In short, McCain and Dunford have identified a worthy issue—but one where reform not revolution makes the most sense for government efficiency and American foreign policy interests.