Home and Forward Commands Should Replace the Geographic Combatant Commands

GCCs – vorndick

Russian warplanes buzz American forces in the Baltic and Bering Seas, while Russia’s combined forces fight on the front lines alongside the Assad regime in Syria and its special operations forces infiltrate Libya. Simultaneously, China is launching One Belt One Road, expanding “terriclaims” in the South China Sea, and planning military posts in Pakistan and Djibouti. Meanwhile, North Korea, Iran, and violent extremist organizations like the self-proclaimed Islamic State continue to antagonize and threaten American interests. None of these activities are easily confined to one specific country or region.

Yet non-traditional threats, such as climate change, human trafficking, piracy, illicit drugs, and infectious diseases, continue to challenge military planners and policymakers. Globalization now allows localized crises and conflicts to immediately spill beyond their porous regional boundaries and flow directly into the global commons. Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has acknowledged that any future conflict would have “transregional” and “multifunctional” implications and require “global integration.”

The vanguards of American military power — the six geographic combatant commands (GCCs) — are ill-equipped to respond to globalized players whose interests and ambitions transcend the commands’ areas of responsibility and expertise. For example, Russia physically borders four of the GCCs. China only touches two, but its interests sprawl across the globe. Iranian proxies in Yemen and piracy emanating from the failed state of Somalia on opposite sides of the Gulf of Aden stoke conflict that straddle the line between two — U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). The GCCs’ deficiencies are more glaring given the rise of anti-access/area denial systems and the increased likelihood that a GCC will conduct military operations in a denied, disrupted, or degraded environment. The Department of Defense should stand down the GCCs and, in their place, stand up a home command and at least two permanent, rapidly deployable forward commands.

History and Critiques of the GCCs

The present-day combatant command construct is based on the Truman administration’s Unified Command Plan enacted at the end of World War II. The plan started with just two regionally focused Europe and Pacific theater commands, the precursors of U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM). At the time, the Unified Command Plan was a sufficient response to handle the regional commanders’ focus on rebuilding both Europe and Asia while containing communism’s advance. Today, the structure has grown to nine commands consisting of six geographically-focused commands to include EUCOM, and three functionally-focused commands, such as U.S. Transportation Command. Distinguished from functional commands, GCCs have essentially two tasks for their demarcated regions of responsibility: war planning and fighting, and military engagement programs. The newest GCC, AFRICOM, was stood up in 2007, while the functional U.S. Joint Forces Command was stood down after 12 years in 2011. Each command is led by a four-star admiral or general and staffed with thousands of military, interagency, civilian, partner, allied, and contractor personnel.

The GCC construct has had plenty of detractors. The commands have survived a fair amount of criticism and typical Beltway epithets being hurled at them: stove-piped, fiercely guarded “rice bowls,” political-military viceroys, clumsy bureaucratic organizations, lobbies for U.S. regional involvement, sources of threat inflation, and within the orbit of the Pentagon. Criticisms in the 20th century primarily focused on the expansion and enlargement of the GCCs’ territories at the expense of service-centric areas of responsibility and the consolidation of the GCCs’ roles and responsibilities. Since 2001, critiques have focused on correcting the failures by the GCCs and joint task forces to properly utilize the interagency and whole-of-government approach to nation-building, counterinsurgency, and post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The various proposals for reforming the GCCs can be divided into three parts on a spectrum: on one end, fully integrating or increasing the GCCs’ role in the interagency; in the middle, downsizing, realigning, or shifting their responsibilities among the Department of Defense and other agencies; and on the other end, the complete disbanding of the GCCs in favor of an alternate construct.

Favoring a more integrated approach, in 2009 writers in Joint Forces Quarterly proposed that the Department of Defense should meld the GCCs into regionally-focused Joint Interagency Commands based on interagency directive and military command authority. In addition, these commands would be able to stand up smaller Joint Interagency Task Forces, similar to the current Joint Task Force model, for localized crises. AFRICOM already shares some similarities with this proposal with its infusion of inter-agency personnel and missions.

Falling in the middle category, James Carafano in 2004 favored a reorganization of the existing Unified Command Plan into a new U.S. Engagement Plan. This plan would cut down and realign the GCCs into three combatant commands, establish three regionally-focused military-interagency groups and revamp the functional commands. In 2010, Edward Marks from the Stimson Center proposed a standing joint force headquarters in place of the GCCs to handle the war planning and fighting mission, while the military engagement mission would be reassigned or broken up among various organizations in the interagency (State Department and USAID) or Department of Defense (Joint Staff). Marks’ proposed headquarters would be a lighter version of the current GCC construct, report directly to the secretary of defense, and be empowered to deploy smaller task forces for specific missions.

Meanwhile, at the other end, analysts at the CATO Institute recommended in 2013 that all the GCCs be dissolved completely and their core missions — war planning and fighting — be shifted to the Joint Staff. CATO’s recommendation was echoed in April by another analysis contending that a more responsive and robust approach by the Joint Staff may be all that is required to handle the multi-faceted nature of today’s threats. Alternatively, Lauren Fish from the Center for a New American Security advocated for a mission-oriented combatant command structure in November.

Whereas these proposals all fall on one part of the spectrum or another, the home and forward command construct takes a hybridized approach that integrates all three. This new construct appreciates the speed, agility, and whole-of-government response required in the new transregional threat environment. Additionally, it builds off the civility provided by the strength and expertise of the joint interagency command model and couples it with the militancy envisioned in Marks’ proposal, thereby creating a truly global combatant command. In a hyper-globalized world, more is required than an archaic, regionally-siloed GCC construct rooted in the Truman era.

The Home and Forward Command Proposal

This proposal prescribes that U.S. Northern Command, which includes Mexico, Canada, the continental United States, Alaska, and portions of the Caribbean, be rebranded as Home Command. Headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as Northern Command is now, Home Command would retain all of its functions, responsibilities, and staff, such as command of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The other five GCCs would be stood down or reduced to two-star or three-star commands along with a downsizing in staff and realignment of functions so as to focus strictly on military engagement programs and intelligence operations. Essentially, these new, reduced versions of the GCCs would act as sentinels for home and forward commands. They could even be integrated into the State Department’s existing six regionally-focused bureaus.

The two forward commands would focus solely on global and transregional war planning and fighting. They would be standing, permanent four-star led joint task forces with a dedicated headquarters staff, ready to act at a moment’s notice when called upon by the secretary of defense or the president. When not deployed or executing missions, the forward commands would conduct training both stateside and abroad with allies, partners, and the interagency. The forward commands rely on an open and flexible security architecture to face the various global threats, unlike the ad hoc and semi-permanent joint task forces stood up for operations in Iraq or Afghanistan or the extant subordinate unified (or sub-unified) commands, such as U.S. Forces Korea and U.S. Forces Japan, which both fall under PACOM. It is worth pointing out that sub-unified commands conduct operations on a continuing basis by direction of the secretary of defense in geographic areas or in functional roles (such as U.S. Cyber Command under U.S. Strategic Command). Either way, under the home and forward command model, U.S. Forces Korea and Japan commands would likely remain intact and move under the Eurasian Command (to be discussed later). Under this arrangement, parts or all of the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs could be aligned with a forward command in exigent circumstances. This would be similar to the way the U.S. Coast Guard folds into the U.S. Navy in times of conflict or war.

With regard to the chain of command, the home and forward commands would report directly to the secretary of defense as the GCCs presently do. Home and forward commands would be empowered with the requisite authorities to task not only the functional commands and interagency, but also to assemble smaller Joint Task Forces as necessary. Working in tandem with the Joint Staff, forward commands would maintain a headquarters staff and team, gleaned from the reduced GCC staffs, that can be augmented by subject matter experts from the interagency and military personnel, as well as mission-dependent partner and allied personnel. Forward commands would be headquartered within American territory. However, because of their responsive and expeditionary nature, they would be able to operate in a variety of spaces, whether that is embarked with a naval group or garrisoned at disparate military locations around the globe.

Finally, recognizing that Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and various violent extremist organizations maintain firm roots on the Eurasian landmass, one of the forward commands should — for the time being — focus exclusively on the supercontinent. This forward command, Eurasian Command, would absorb much of the territory under the PACOM, EUCOM, and CENTCOM areas of responsibility. Just as Eurasian Command would incorporate U.S. Forces Korea and Japan, it also would assume the roles and responsibilities under EUCOM’s mandate to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, such as the position of the supreme allied commander-Europe — traditionally an American commander. However, Eurasian Command is not simply an enlarged EUCOM or PACOM. Rather, it would act as a transitional command to bridge the security environment between the past GCC construct and Eurasian Command’s devolution into one of the forward commands at some point in the future.

Eurasian Command is certainly a heterodox suggestion, and detractors will point out that the enormous size of the landmass and smorgasbord of threats would spread the forward command’s abilities too thin. On the contrary, a Eurasian-focused and centralized command and control structure, along with a more concentrated and delineated mission portfolio, would be better positioned to efficiently and effectively grasp transregional threats. Forward commands would be empowered because of the ability to stand up smaller task forces as required. In summary, Eurasian command, as with the other forward commands, is meant to provide a modular, scalar, and dynamic force. Collapsing the GCCs into home and forward commands would be a tremendous shift in the security environment that has existed since the end of World War II, especially in the Pacific and European theaters.

Moving Forward

The GCCs were born in the ashes of World War II, ramped up to meet the threat of the Cold War, and sustained American security interests into the post-Cold War era. But those eras are past. The regional security environment has moved past the GCCs. Local and global, not regional, are the new geopolitical security catchphrases. Globalization has unleashed a torrent of challenges for military planners, but also opportunities. Now, as the Trump administration begins work on its National Security Strategy, America has a ripe opportunity to reform the archaic Unified Command Plan. Unlike the other combatant command reforms advanced, the Home and Forward Command construct offers the prospect of a more agile, responsive, and rapid deployment of America’s military might — one that is globally integrated.


Wilson VornDick (@VornDick) is a Commander in the Navy Reserve and recently served at U.S. European Command and the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. These are his personal views and are not associated with a U.S. government or U.S. Navy policy.

Image: U.S. Central Command