A Commanding Problem: Historical Insights for Military Organizational Reform


In an outstanding speech at the University of Texas last Friday, Gen. “Tony” Thomas, commander of Special Operations Command, joined the ranks of those who have begun to raise questions about the suitability of the American system of geographical combatant commands for meeting the nation’s current and future security challenges. At the National Security Forum, co-hosted by the Clements Center for National Security and the Strauss Center for International Security and Law, Thomas observed:

[A] cursory glance at our U.S. security organizations will highlight a geographically restricted approach to the challenge — geographically, emphasis on geography, not threat, not function … The DoD, specifically, horse-blankets the globe in a six-region approach … Our adversaries are not hobbled by similar arbitrary boundaries … In fact, they defy that approach every day. We may need to consider a threat-oriented, functional approach to be as agile as the corresponding threat.

It was not the first time that Gen. Thomas raised the issue, but his articulation last week of the challenges presented by the current system was especially compelling. During an all-star panel discussion that followed, Thomas cited, in particular, the challenge of China’s growing presence in Latin America, particularly Panama, where they are “buying out the Panama Canal Zone.” Panama is in the area of responsibility of Southern Command, while China is in that of Indo-Pacific Command. Meanwhile, the kinds of problems posed by Beijing’s global influence campaigns belong, really, to no command, though whether a command or some other entity is the right approach merits a full debate.

As Thomas noted, Congress has indicated that the combatant command structure needs a re-look, as have other wise commentators in this forum and elsewhere. But getting the history right matters for considering changes to the system today. Amy Zegart wrote in her influential book, Flawed by Design, that “we cannot ever hope to develop a compelling theory of agency influence without first devising a theory of agency origins.” To that one should add that absent an understanding of those origins, we cannot ever hope to develop sensible reforms either.

Why? Because the system of the geographic commands has been in place so long that it is fully baked into the Defense Department’s DNA. Without the history, we miss the contingent nature of the system’s development, the compromises necessary to its creation, and the political and strategic context that prevailed when the commands came to be. Moreover, despite the volumes of superb scholarship on the 1947 National Security Act, with a few exceptions, the story of the commands remains to be fully told, with all of its implications for everything from service equities and personnel structure to American diplomacy to who and how we are going to fight. Without a full exploration of that history, we might assume that someone thought this all carefully through at some point and decided that this was the militarily optimal answer. Or that this was all settled in that great “Victory on the Potomac,” the Goldwater-Nichols Act.

Not so much. The geographic commands were entirely the product of a compromise between the War and the Navy Departments during the most acrimonious debates over defense unification in the 1940s. Geographic commands had been established during World War II, together with the British (though each theater differed somewhat), and the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed to retain them for the purposes of post-war occupation, but only after great debate and significant tussling over minute details like which commands would oversee the Marianas and Bonins.

The Navy, often viewed as the most refractory opponent of the generally popular idea of centralized defense in the 1940s, was displeased with the command arrangements in the Pacific at the end of the war. While the Army and Air Force favored functional commands during the unification debates (as all historians love to discover: not a new idea!), the Navy wanted unified command in the Pacific, which had proved elusive during the war since, as the official history puts it with marvelous understatement, “Service interests precluded the subordination of either of the two major commanders in that area (General of the Army Douglas MacArthur and Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz).” This is quite understandable when you consider that, during 1941 when a Japanese attack on the Philippines was becoming a clear possibility, instead of cooperating with Adm. Hart, the Navy’s Asiatic Fleet commander, MacArthur had reportedly once told him to “get yourself a real fleet, Tommy, then you will belong.”

President Harry S. Truman, who strongly favored a unified department and other measures that would centralize strategy, command, and decision-making, had become exasperated at the end of 1945 with the War and Navy Departments and their inability to reach agreement on a unification bill. The New York Times described the atmosphere between the two at the time as a “bare-knuckle fight to the finish.” But Truman knew strong-arming would not work and told them to go back to the drawing board. By mid-1946, the two departments had designated officers to work together to hammer out a compromise on all of the issues surrounding unification – Gen. Lauris Norstad and Adm. Forrest Sherman, a future Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Chief of Naval Operations, respectively.

The two met and talked almost daily in the ensuing months. The first issue they reached agreement on was the unified commands in the field. This has led some analysts to conclude that it was reached easily, but that was not the case. The concurrence had more to do with other factors, including that the debate had been going on since early in the war. But by 1946, the Navy wanted to emphasize its support of unity of command in operations to draw the distinction between that and unification in Washington. As Paul Y. Hammond puts it, “[t]he Navy had distinguished between field and departmental organization … in order to show that the latter was not necessary on the basis of wartime experience.” The Army (War Department) had compromised on the geographic approach, and even agreed to take the word “Pacific” out of any titles held by MacArthur (he subsequently became head of Far East Command). Both departments also knew that they needed to show some progress on agreement: in June of that year, the Pearl Harbor Congressional Committee had released its findings and called for “immediate action … to insure that unity of command is imposed at all military and naval outposts.”

A final critical takeaway is that the Outline Command Plan, signed by Truman in December 1946 — which would later be renamed the Unified Command Plan — was a temporary arrangement. The opening paragraph of the Outline Command Plan states that “as an interim measure for the immediate postwar period, with particular consideration to the requirements for occupation of former enemy areas, the following commands will be established[.]” Not exactly a stage-setting for the permanent “horse-blanket” around the world.

In the 72 years since, the Unified Command Plan has changed many times, and the Department has in fact doubled-down on the commands — geographic and functional. Various reforms, including Goldwater-Nichols, attempted to strengthen the influence of the combatant commanders. Here one must note that despite the general head-nod evoked by mention of Goldwater-Nichols, the first big attempt at strengthening the commands — at the expense of the individual services —was the 1958 Defense Reorganization Act, drafted and vigorously backed by President Dwight Eisenhower. Either way, the basic outlines of the geographic combatant command system are over seven decades old.

None of this is to suggest a specific answer to the question of American national security organization today. The geographic combatant commands may well still have a role to play, and we should not kid ourselves that functional commands are the answer to all problems either. General Thomas and the other advocates of rethinking the Unified Command Plan clearly understand that as well. The seams must go somewhere: figuring out where to draw the seams and then how to overcome the challenges they present is the real conundrum. But a deeper understanding of how we got where we are, pulling back and seeing the longer arc of history, is not only helpful, it is vital to charting a path ahead. Gen. Thomas deserves great credit for raising a controversial issue and trying to drive a very necessary conversation forward.

Celeste Ward Gventer is the Associate Director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas. A former deputy assistant secretary of defense, she is completing work on a dissertation that explores the history of the unified combatant commands, Eisenhower’s defense reforms, and the early Cold War.

Image: National Archives