The Next Task Force Smith: The Danger of Arbitrary Headquarters Reductions


Task Force Smith was the first U.S. combat force sent into Korea in June 1950. Instead of intimidating the North Korean foe, they were easily overrun. They proved ill-equipped and ill-prepared as a result of many bad decisions concerning force readiness made during the previous five years. Since that time, that unfortunate unit has become the Army’s metaphor for lost readiness.

That same Army of 1950 also lacked sufficient capacity in its higher headquarters to provide direction and synchronize combat efforts and worldwide commitments. When North Korea attacked, the U.S. Army maintained only one corps headquarters, prompting Gen. Douglas MacArthur to request two more corps headquarters a month later. V Corps was brought up to strength, re-designated as I Corps, and sent to the Pusan perimeter, followed shortly by a new IX Corps formed by cadre from 5th Army. In addition, for the invasion of Inchon, MacArthur formed and activated X Corps from his own Far East Command staff. Ultimately, by the summer of 1951, the Army had grown from one to eight corps headquarters with four in the Far East and two in Germany.

The harsh reality is that modern warfare requires big headquarters. Are today’s Army leaders and the Congress setting us up to re-learn this lesson the hard way?

In the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2016, Congress mandates a 25-percent savings in the funding of “major Department of Defense headquarters activities.” Few people remember that on September 10, 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared his intention to cut 15 percent from all military headquarters staffs. He explained that the reductions would eliminate layers of bureaucracy that slowed down operations, enhance levels of support and organizational learning, and also save personnel costs. A few days later, facing the exigencies of a new war against terrorism, he quietly rescinded those cuts. Soon Congress began debating how best to raise caps on the size of the Joint Staff.

Shortly thereafter, the impacts of previous headquarters reductions were already being felt in the early campaigns of Operation Enduring Freedom. In late 2001, the Central Command staff was authorized 1,254 personnel and manned with 1,199. It was quickly augmented with 1,246 more personnel from all over the military to meet its demanding requirements. Some of those augmentees came from Third Army/ARCENT headquarters, which already had an insufficient peacetime structure with only some 500 of the 900 staff required for wartime contingencies. That headquarters then reached down into Forces Command to get augmentation from the very tactical units that would soon be fighting in Afghanistan. Reserve call-ups of very uneven quality also filled holes. By February 2002, Third Army/ARCENT had over 1,200 personnel. These grab-bag reinforcements left staffs with little experience or cohesion, costing blood and treasure in early operations and eventually prodding a frustrated ARCENT participant at an August 2002 After-Action Review to declare, “We are playing the Super Bowl with a pickup team.” Similar problems appeared in Iraq in 2003. When the 280 personnel assigned to V Corps staff took over responsibilities for Joint Task Force 7 that would manage post-conflict Iraq, they were hopelessly inadequate for the myriad tasks they faced, and the staff was eventually authorized over 1,000 personnel.

When Army Chief of Staff General Gordon Sullivan faced the significant force drawdown after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, he coined the phrase “No More Task Force Smiths” to make clear his vision that the Army would not repeat the mistakes of its post-World War II experience with force reductions.

In his initial message to the Army, new Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark Milley also declared readiness to be his number-one priority. Yet, like Rumsfeld, Milley is committed to a 25-percent cut in Army headquarters staffs, volunteering even more than the 20 percent recently mandated across the joint force by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, even including operational headquarters that are not targeted by congressional guidance. Such arbitrary reductions risk creating the same lack of staff readiness made so apparent at the outbreak of hostilities in Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

To be sure, Milley is far from the first service chief to target headquarters for cuts and savings. This has been fairly common since the end of World War II. But such reductions are usually ephemeral, and when they are not they must be quickly reversed when crises arise. One of the most ambitious headquarters staff-cutters was Gen. Creighton Abrams, who became Army chief in 1972. His predecessor, Gen. William Westmoreland, had initiated a study of how to reorganize the unwieldy Continental Army Command that eventually also targeted the Army school system and Combat Developments Command. While Abrams was able to shutter Continental Army Command, FORSCOM and TRADOC emerged in its place. The deck chairs got rearranged, but very few positions were eliminated.

As we learned from interviews conducted with Abrams’ key subordinates after his death and stored at the Army Heritage and Education Center, Abrams went after other headquarters with the intention of decentralizing and streamlining Army command and control structures. He reorganized Army Material Command, set up Health Services Command and a new Military Personnel Center and targeted seven overseas commands. His proposal to eliminate U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC) and eventually the original Pacific Command stemmed from his unhappy experience in Vietnam working with those headquarters, but ran into great resistance from the Joint Staff. He eventually did disband USARPAC and U.S. Army South (USARSOUTH), though both headquarters had to be reconstituted. The requirements and missions performed by the Army Service Component Commands did not and will not go away.

Abrams encountered similar problems trying to reduce his own staff at the Department of the Army. He believed the Army Staff was overlarge and filled with those who might be opposed to other aspects of his reorganization. One subordinate speculated that Abrams would have cut the staff in half immediately and then in half again later on if he could have. For instance, the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (DCSOPS) was staffed by between 500 and 600 people, but Abrams wanted that figure reduced to 395. As one of his key subordinates recounted later, “The squeals that came out of DCSOPS were fantastic.” That staff section was soon brought down to a strength closer to 350 without losing any apparent capability, but that level proved difficult to maintain as restructuring continued, and within a couple years DCSOPS was back to over 650 personnel.

The Army has also had challenges with creating new headquarters. When U.S. Central Command was created in 1983, the Army reestablished Third Army as Central Command’s Army component. It was initially envisioned as only a small planning staff: On the eve of the Persian Gulf War, it had only 222 active duty personnel out of a doctrinal requirement of 894. In addition, Third Army’s commanding general, Lt. Gen. John Yeosock, was double-hatted as the FORSCOM deputy commander. By February 1991, ARCENT had grown to over 1,000 personnel and was supervising over 300,000 soldiers. More recently, the Army has had a similar challenge converting U.S. Army Southern European Task Force to U.S. Army Africa.

In his superb book Command in War, Martin Van Creveld shows that headquarters structures have merely responded to the expansion and complications of modern war. The communications and logistics established to deal with the growing complexity and specialization of war in the information age have added another source of specialization and complexity. Command structures that were inadequate to deal with irregular warfare in Vietnam have been challenged even more by modern wars among the people in Afghanistan and Iraq. And attempted cures always seem to worsen the disease. There never seem to be enough intelligence analysts or planners, and the deficiencies in planning and preparing for operations after major combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq are well documented. After all, headquarters are the brains of a military organization.

Still, there are some efficiencies to be gained within headquarters. Redundancies can be addressed, though usually only with the loss of desired resiliency. There appears to be some over-grading, such as with special operations billets in geographic combatant commands. But declaring an exorbitant mandatory percentage of cuts ensures that capabilities eliminated will have to be reconstituted under fire with untrained personnel and uncoordinated teams, even though staffs must be just as well trained and cohesive as the field units they serve. The alternative, replacing military staff with civilians or contractors, leaves much to be desired in both performance and cost. In general, the military’s attempts to reduce its “tooth-to-tail” ratio have simply created a wider array of tail feathers or resulted in a smaller work force inadequately covering the same workload.

Every American war has required expansion of headquarters to meet new exigencies. In the current round of service cutbacks, we must ensure that we are not exacerbating the problem by eliminating capabilities we already know we will need in the future. Headquarters reductions deserve the same careful consideration as proposals to eliminate combat forces. No secretary of defense would arbitrarily assign services to cut 20 percent of combat units. Staff positions should be treated the same way.


Conrad Crane is Chief of Historical Services for the Army Heritage and Education Center at the Army War College. A retired Army officer with a Ph.D. from Stanford, he is best known as the lead author for the 2006 Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. His book about creating and applying that doctrine, Cassandra in Oz, will be published in the spring by Naval Institute Press.


John Bonin is Professor, Concepts and Doctrine for the Army War College. He is a retired Army colonel with a Ph.D. from Temple. He is the lead author of Joint Publication 3-31, Command and Control of Joint Land Operations, as well as author of Unified and Joint Land Operations: Doctrine for Landpowerpublished for The Land Warfare Papers, August 2014.