The World the Combatant Command was Designed for is Gone


There is a time and place to muddle through. Muddling is best when the organizational structure, environment, and problems work together toward continual refinement. But when conditions change and organizational structures fail to adequately reflect the reality of the environment, it is time for revolutionary change. The alternative is to choose the mauling of Task Force Smith. With the Combatant Command structure, the Department of Defense has been muddling through for decades. And it is time to stop.

Serving as America’s bridge between policy, strategy, and operational art, the Combatant Command (COCOM) structure was designed for a world demarcated by two global adversaries facing proxy challenges. Geographic COCOMs were meant for face-to-face conflicts that could end with the destruction of civilization. Given a size, forward-postured force, a monopoly on information, and conflicts that appeared containable, the construct proved its weight in gold in the 1990s. However, information and technology diffused as globalization took hold, U.S. national power suffered a relative decline, and the strategic environment became transregional, multi-domain, and multi-functional. Simply put, geographic COCOMs are no longer relevant for the present and future security environment. Now is the time for the U.S. military and Congress to find innovative success in this new era and adopt a purely functional COCOM structure.

The history of COCOMs reads like a military planner’s soap opera. While it dates back to the end of World War II, the present organizational structure has its roots deep in the context of the latter half of the Cold War, when the U.S. military underwent a series of developments and transitions. Given the strangulation of the McNamara era with his arrogant whiz kids, and flair for quantitative analysis, the services sought individual solutions for domain-specific problems and interests easily divided between geography and function.

This resulted in a wide range of failures through the latter part of the 1970s, most notably the Desert One hostage rescue mission in Iran. While the Goldwater-Nichols Act sought to rectify limitations imposed by service-centric interests and projects, it also reinforced the argument for geographic combatant commanders. Who else would be better suited to lead a combined land, sea, and air operation than a geographic combatant commander? Beginning in 1990, with the Soviet Union gone, the U.S. military got its answer in spades when Saddam Hussein crossed over into Kuwait and set into motion Operation Desert Storm.

After the success of Operation Desert Storm, President George H.W. Bush and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell made firm their approach with the 1992 National Military Strategy, which made regional engagement a cornerstone and enabled geographic COCOMs to grow in scope, power, and influence. From 1992 to 2001, the strategy paid dividends, at least where political will and military might appropriately aligned. From quelling migrant flows and stabilizing Haiti to peacekeeping and no-fly zone operations in the former Yugoslavia to air campaigns keeping Saddam in check, all of which reinforced geographic COCOMs as the ultimate tool at the president’s disposal.

During the same period, globalization brought on the information age. Throughout the 1990s, there were signs of what was to come. Communication increased exponentially, enabling a broad diffusion of information. Connections developed into virtual, boundless networks, ultimately challenging the Westphalian system. Corporations globalized, complicating economic and political systems. The international environment transformed to something new and different.

Of course, everything changed on September 11, 2001. Except, it didn’t. Just as with Saddam in 1991, Central Command would lead a joint force to destroy America’s enemies and restore global order through a multinational coalition of willing partners. Yet the truth was that the combatant commander was good at destroying the enemy in the box, but not at what came next. Muddling through, it would take two separate four-star commands to confront the aftermath, operating as the post-Cold War era transitioned to something best defined as transregional, multi-functional, and multi-domain.

A transregional world is one in which interconnectedness and the ability of actions in one part of the globe achieve effects in a completely different and previously unrelated part of the world. This is not new, but the diffusion of sovereignty and power creates a complex environment in which geographic boundaries are far less meaningful. As demonstrated against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from Belgium to Libya to Syria to Bangladesh, planning according to geographic boundaries has led to tactical success, but strategic failure.

A multi-functional world means that national power can no longer be applied through single-purpose focused entities, especially in the context of military conflict. The days of single-purpose unit formations has long been replaced by modularity. While the United States Marine Corps Marine Air-Ground Task Force concept demonstrates the original blending of functions, the present environment calls for deeper and further integration of capabilities, systems, and concepts across the joint force to enhance deterrence, enable defensive and offensive actions, and achieve steady-state objectives.

The multi-domain world is arguably not new. Land and sea are timeless classics, with air, space, and cyber as additions over the last century. Today, however, the growth of anti-access and area denial capabilities, a changing U.S. overseas defense posture, and the emergence of space and cyberspace as contested domains combine to necessitate a new mental model for employing the joint force.

In considering the totality of this new era, it is clear why the chairman wants U.S. military structures to maintain pace. The overarching responsibility geographic COCOMs operate under calls on them to build defense capabilities and strengthen cooperative partnerships to respond, deter or defeat crises and threats to national interest. This responsibility is a direct descendant of the 1992 National Military Strategy. A direct descendant to an era in which history had ended, the military was 33 percent larger, and the internet had just entered the public domain.

Geographic COCOMs have their natural limitations: geographic commands invariably demonstrate a tendency to drive down to the operational and tactical levels, the militarization of diplomacy (a very real inhibitor to interagency success), and the creation of a redundant resource-draining, top-heavy, and over-structured system in the field. Yet, under this new era, the real challenge to geographic COCOMs are their ability to tame wicked problems.

Wicked problems are a combination of complex problems that inevitably create new and additional problems whenever solutions are applied. Wicked problems have six key components: (1) they are problems not understood until there is a solution, (2) there is no true end to the problem, (3) solutions are not right or wrong, (4) the problem is unique in nature, (5) one cannot learn about the problem without trying solutions, and (6) there is no clear solution. Taming wicked problems requires an iterative approach of gathering and analyzing data, formulating a solution, implementing the solution, and then assessing the outcomes.

Geographic COCOMs are more than capable of taming wicked problems, but the complexity of the transregional, multi-domain, multi-functional problem-set challenges the organizational boundaries of the geographic COCOM structure. The popular solution, in true muddling fashion, is the consolidation of geographic commands, to extend and simplify borders. Yet the cost savings and benefits are virtually non-existent. The U.S. military can no longer evolve and muddle through, but instead must apply revolutionary change. The solution is a purely functional combatant command design.

As demonstrated below, functional COCOMs aligned by problem and solution sets provide strategic investments and options to policymakers with an up-and-out perspective, vice tactical-down micromanagement of subordinate commands. Additionally, if properly designed, they can enable the prevailing U.S. interagency structure for foreign affairs, thus demilitarizing diplomacy, while also reducing the strain of redundant resource demands.

The idea of a functional combatant command structure is not new. In 2006, the Joint Staff offered this structure as a potential alternative in the post-9/11 environment. The primary limitation of this recommendation was its focus on present challenges and its minimal flexibility to counter future unknown conflicts. To rectify this, I recommend a series of functional combatant commands designed around adaptable core functions and the ability to tame wicked problems.

The first core function of every geographic COCOM is steady-state shaping operations. Under this core function, COCOMs seek to dissuade or deter adversaries and assure partners while setting conditions for contingencies through security cooperation activities; a deceptively wicked challenge. Ideally, two functional combatant commands could serve as the offense and defense to this core function. Offensively, a new Global Security Cooperation Command could provide an opportunity for global prioritization, synchronization, and integration of all security cooperation activities. Defensively, slightly re-missioning U.S. Strategic Command to U.S. Strategic Deterrence Command would allow for space and cyber sub-unified commands to maintain vigilance and support to the warfighter as needed.

The second core problem set, gray zone conflicts, is one in which competitors and adversaries operate below the threshold of generating an official U.S. military response. From Ukraine to the South China Sea, the U.S. government should acknowledge the comingled political and military systems at play and the need for military and interagency planning, execution, synchronization, and global coordination against problem sets that do not fit neatly into a traditional military response. While the military services have a capability building and resourcing role to play, re-missioning U.S. Special Operations Command to a Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict Command would provide an organization capable of innovative global synchronization invested in getting to the “left of bang.”

The third core problem set is the full application of military force in crisis action or war. It is Iraq 2003. When war kicks off, you need those who are willing, able, and determined to plan exceptionally well and then execute with extreme prejudice and violence. But this problem set also includes the Philippines tsunami in 2014, when the military must be poised for immediate response to humanitarian and precise actions to protect U.S. interests. Establishing a Crisis Action & War Command, responsible for contingency planning, crisis response, and fighting the big fight, would create a valuable decision mechanism for policymakers. Ideally, assigning a problem set to this command would serve as an exceptional policy tool in offsetting threats and deterrence. Outside the use of crisis action, the assignment of a problem to this command is a step short of war.

The fourth core problem set comes after things are broken. A Stability Operations Command, headed by the Department of State, would be an exceptionally useful tool to create a cornerstone of interagency cooperation. While divorcing stability operations from warfighting may be sacrosanct, it is exactly what must be done.

From a commander’s perspective detaching the seizing of the initiative and domination of the objective, from the planning of follow-on stability operations may seem reckless. However, planners within a command are often already divided into planning efforts separated by crisis and post-crisis. The record in doing so over the past 15 years proved disastrous. Stability operations is a long game, requiring shared perspectives between warriors and diplomats committed to a slow, deliberate, and frustrating process that ultimately determines whether or not the war is won. Separating this problem to a specific command enables the attention and organizational culture required to win over the long term.

The fifth core problem set is homeland defense and support to civil services. In this challenge, U.S. Northern Command has an irreplaceable central role to play. However, this mission, with appropriate support from the Department of Defense, should be under the control and responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security. Doing so would reinforce and develop a domestically focused interagency command bounded by current authorities.

The sixth and final core problem set is logistics. Here, Transportation Command already serves as an invaluable functional command that typifies this approach. As a global synchronizer, Transportation Command has been instrumental in its role as an enabler to the warfighter and ensuring strategic reach to wherever national interests arise.

The Achilles heel of this recommendation is the geographic context and opaqueness of command and control. Today’s conflicts are won by understanding the people and building partnerships with them. It is wholly unwise to abandon geographic connections. However, the U.S. military must acknowledge that the present approach may be a larger part of the problem then the solution. One potential solution would be to consolidate service component commands into operational, geographically focused joint task forces augmented with reserve-staffed geographic centers of excellence and the National Guard State Partnership Program. As challenges unfold, these elements would be utilized as means for the functional COCOMs.

The other limitation is the complication of command relationships. Security cooperation, stability operations, and conflict of any interest often take place within the same geographic landscape. Clear lines of command and control, especially by geographic boundaries, have been an absolute in military operations. However, the experience of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan already demonstrates that command and control is no longer as simple as lines on a map. While geographic command and control lines must be properly considered and designed, especially at tactical levels, they are becoming more functionally minded as the environment continues towards something that is more transregional, multi-domain, and multi-functional.

The current structure is grounded in a previous era ill-suited for this increasingly hostile and complex world. While a pure functional combatant command structure may not be the answer, the most powerful step is to recognize that future Unified Command Plans and Goldwater-Nichols Reform needs to be more than repackaging the same product. Action must be clear. How the U.S. military organizes and establishes organizational boundaries is essential to countering present and future challenges of a global security environment that is transregional, multi-functional, and multi-domain. In today’s environment, there is no greater necessity.


Kelly McCoy is a U.S. Army Strategist Officer. A blessed husband and proud father, when he has time he is either brewing beer or maintaining his blog Drink Beer; Kill War. The views expressed in this article belong to the author alone and do not represent the Department of Defense. 

Image: Jorge Royan, CC