U.S. Army Europe and Africa Headquarters: Reforming for Future Success
Based on its current force posture, the U.S. Army would likely struggle to fight a war with Russia in Europe. If the Army had to simultaneously respond to a crisis in Africa, it could very well lose in both theaters. Fortunately, the service is taking steps to address this deficiency. After three decades of fighting irregular and low-intensity conflicts, the Army is refocusing its efforts to win a great-power war in Europe by fielding new units, conducting large-scale exercises, and revising its command structure. But will these changes be enough?
As part of its recent transformation, the Army has made substantial adjustments to its headquarters in Europe. In October, V Corps reactivated at Fort Knox, Kentucky. It will maintain a small forward contingent in Poland. Soon after, U.S. Army Europe and U.S. Army Africa merged into a single, four-star command called U.S. Army Europe and Africa. It will be the theater army for both U.S. European and U.S. Africa Commands. However, the Army has not described what its final headquarters structure will look like or how these adjustments improve its ability to support American interests in these regions.
The Army requires changes to its theater-level headquarters to enable it to win in unpredictable conditions. The new U.S. Army Europe and Africa headquarters needs an enhanced main command post to perform theater-wide responsibilities, an operational command post to control multi-corps operations with NATO, and a contingency command post for small-scale operations primarily in Africa. Adding an operational command post to the existing structure, as called for in this design proposal, allows the Army to oversee major combat operations in Europe or Africa without losing any of its current capabilities. Ultimately, this revamped structure would improve the ability of U.S. Army Europe and Africa to take on missions without added personnel costs.
Problems with Army Headquarters
Theater armies are essential for managing activities and operations within their respective combatant commander’s area of responsibility. They provide administrative control of Army forces to include organizing, supplying, equipping, training, and mobilizing forces. The Army’s multi-domain operations concept views theater armies as key to preventing conflict, prevailing in large-scale combat, and consolidating gains for enduring stability. No other Army echelon can effectively perform these functions. However, theater armies have some limitations. They are not currently designed, organized, or equipped to function as a combined forces land component command in major combat operations or exercise operational control over corps and larger formations. Historically, the Army employed field armies for these purposes.
Field armies operate as a subordinate headquarters under a theater army. They control multiple corps, division, and brigades to achieve objectives on land. Field armies control combat operations in a specified area of operations, allowing the theater army to perform its theater-wide responsibilities and oversight of subordinate units. For instance, the U.S. Army employed one theater army in the European theater of operations in World War II to oversee three army groups, nine field armies, 23 corps, and 87 divisions. However, the Army removed field armies from its doctrine in 1974.
More recently, the Army has employed operational command posts to perform a traditional field army role. U.S. Army Central used operational command posts during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan until the Army removed this capability in 2014, when it instituted a new headquarters design. Theater armies also use contingency command posts for small-scale operations. A theater army with a main, operational, and contingency command post can fill almost any role.
The U.S. Army has a long history of reducing and misusing its higher operational headquarters. Historically, this has been because of a military bias toward tactical echelons and a managerial desire to reduce perceived “overhead.” The Army often cuts its various higher headquarters during peacetime and then rapidly reconstitutes many of them when it enters a conflict. This seesaw pattern has inhibited the Army from achieving operational or strategic success early in multiple wars, most notably in Korea and Iraq. The Army’s cuts, mergers, and misuses of its theater army headquarters lead to a long-term loss of essential theater capabilities.
After World War II, the Army quickly deactivated its army group, field army, and corps headquarters. In June 1950, the Army had no higher headquarters in Europe and only one field army, the Eighth, in Korea. It only had one corps headquarters available for combat when the Korean War began, but the Army rapidly activated four more. It deployed three to Korea and two to Germany and activated the Seventh Army to deal with the realities of competition and conflict in the early Cold War.
Near the end of the Vietnam War, the Army disestablished U.S. Army Pacific and U.S. Army South. It then gave the recently created U.S. Army Forces Command the responsibility of providing Army support to both U.S. Pacific and U.S. Southern Commands. Forces Command quickly demonstrated its inability to provide Army support for two theaters. Some of the issues during Operation Urgent Fury — the U.S. invasion of Grenada to protect American citizens after a Soviet and Cuban-backed government takeover of the island — stemmed from the lack of a dedicated and responsive theater army for U.S. Atlantic Command. Subsequently, the Army reestablished U.S. Army South in 1986 and U.S. Army Pacific in 1990, ultimately elevating its Pacific headquarters back to a four-star command in 2013.
Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom demonstrated the Army’s pattern of altering its headquarters for wartime employment. At the beginning of 1990, Third Army, as U.S. Army Central, had fewer than 250 staff members in its headquarters. Its commander, Lt. Gen. John Yeosock, also served as the U.S. Army Forces Command deputy commander. Third Army added over 1,000 headquarters personnel to meet operational requirements before the start of combat operations. It acted as the theater army, supporting all Army and theater forces. It also performed a historic field army role, sustaining and controlling its two assigned corps. It was only able to perform these functions because of massive personnel increases.
When the 9/11 attacks happened, Third Army had about half of its 900 assigned members. Over the next 18 months, it again expanded to over 1,200 personnel. For Operation Iraqi Freedom, Third Army, under the command of Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, simultaneously served as the theater army and as the Coalition Joint Land Component Command. It controlled two corps-sized formations, one of them from the U.S. Marine Corps. A corps serves as the highest tactical echelon in large-scale combat operations. It consists of two to five divisions and between 20,000 and 45,000 personnel.
After swiftly defeating Saddam Hussein’s forces, McKiernan became commander of Coalition Joint Task Force-Iraq. In this role, he was responsible for conducting stabilization and reconstruction operations. In June 2003, he handed control over to newly promoted Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and his V Corps as Combined Joint Task Force-7. V Corps’ staff grew by over 700 personnel to supervise post-conflict Iraq. Under this headquarters, problems arose at Abu Ghraib and Iraq descended into civil war. To help remedy the situation, the Army added a rotating corps and created Multi-National Force-Iraq as a four-star general position with an enlarged staff in 2004. After its military success in the initial invasion, the U.S. Army would struggle to achieve its operational and strategic goals in Iraq even up to the present day.
Over the last few years, the Department of Defense and Army have adopted policies that have decreased the size of army, corps, and division headquarters. Under orders from the deputy secretary of defense, the Army began reducing up to 25 percent of headquarters personnel in 2014 as part of broader Department of Defense budget cuts. The Army now seems poised to cut its European and African headquarters even further.
Impact of the U.S. Army Europe and Africa Merger
Former Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said that the merger of U.S. Army Europe and Africa headquarters is “largely administrative” and the Army would make adjustments accordingly if it finds redundancies. In bureaucratic jargon, “redundancies” equal personnel reductions. This staff reduction is in line with previous cuts in U.S. Africa Command. However, it’s possible that the administration of President Joe Biden will return to a higher level of engagement in Africa. These headquarters are already understaffed and focus on over 100 countries across two continents. Additional reductions will stretch the staff thin and prevent it from effectively performing its assigned roles.
On its own, merging the headquarters will not be enough to improve the ability of U.S. Army Europe and Africa to manage multiple corps during large-scale combat operations in Europe. Without additional adjustments, the Army’s current headquarters rearrangement will not markedly help the headquarters perform its overall theater and administrative responsibilities. U.S. Army Europe and Africa’s chances of success will remain limited given its increased responsibility. As was the case in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, the staff would need to grow considerably at the onset of a conflict to accomplish its wartime roles.
While the recent activation of V Corps provides tactical control of American combat units in Europe — a capability the Army has lacked for several years — it does little to fill U.S. Army Europe and Africa’s capability gaps. V Corps is based in Kentucky and will maintain a forward headquarters capability in Poland. Its primary mission will be planning and oversight of rotational units in Europe for United States European Command exercises. Even at its full staff capacity of about 635 members, the headquarters cannot effectively command other American or NATO corps in large-scale combat. V Corps would require significant changes in grades and specialties if called upon to act as a field army or operational command post in the event of war with Russia.
Instead of reactivating V Corps, the Army could have stood up a field army. At about 550 personnel, a field army would have given the Army a headquarters to command and control multiple corps, a vital wartime capability for NATO. A field army includes more medical, logistic, and signal staff than a corps. It has senior liaison officers who are meant to integrate with foreign militaries and ease coordination with NATO units. However, an American field army in place of a corps would still leave a gap in the Army’s headquarters echelons in Europe. The solution that provides the greatest capability — activating a corps and field army – would require almost double the personnel. At the same time, such a large increase would inhibit the Army from allocating forces to combat China in the Pacific theater.
The Army already has a limited role in Africa, but its new structure could reduce its ability to manage security cooperation or crisis response missions. Shortly after U.S. Africa Command commenced operations in 2007, the Southern European Task Force expanded and became U.S. Army Africa. The Southern European Task Force will now reassume its former role, with a primary mission to form the nucleus of a joint task force for operations in Africa even though U.S. Africa Command does not routinely require joint task forces for combat purposes. Instead, U.S. Africa Command needs a headquarters that focuses on building partner capacity, security cooperation, and responding to crises, much like the former U.S. Army Africa headquarters did. By retaining a headquarters focused on these tasks, the Army helps thwart Russian and Chinese efforts to undermine U.S. interests on the continent and works with partners to counter violent extremists. Recent U.S. defense attaché office cuts and closures in several African countries, reportedly to save money and reduce the number of general and flag officers, will decrease the Army’s ability to support a whole-of-government approach that furthers American objectives. Without adequate security or military engagement, the State Department and other government agencies will have difficulty conducting their missions across much of Africa, too. Reducing vital headquarters capabilities any further will open the door for rivals of the United States to make substantial gains in Africa.
Recommended Changes to U.S. Army Europe and Africa
The merger of U.S. Army Europe and U.S. Army Africa headquarters presents an opportunity for the service to construct an improved theater army headquarters with main, operational, and contingency command posts. Before finalizing its plans, the Army should conduct a detailed task analysis to identify gaps or overlaps that the merger may create.
First, the Army should focus on creating an efficient and effective U.S. Army Europe and Africa main command post to enhance its ability to compete short of armed conflict and establish necessary theater-wide conditions prior to combat operations in its newly expanded role. The merger will render many military staff positions superfluous. The Army can save costs by cutting duplicate headquarters personnel. It should also evaluate the utility of U.S. Army Africa’s former civilian positions before hiring more civilians for the new headquarters. Some existing U.S. Army Europe sections will not require added staff to perform the duties inherited from U.S. Army Africa, providing significant personnel cost savings.
A few sections will require additional staff members. For example, the Army will need more planners in the current and future operations sections and African foreign area officers in the security cooperation cell. These staff functions will require about 100 added personnel to ensure that staff sections remain separate and focused on only one theater instead of merging into a less effective planning team covering both Europe and Africa. Additionally, the Army should anticipate any redundancies that might be created by future theater-level units, such as the Theater Fires Command and the Multi-Domain Task Force, and eliminate those positions now. A proficient and appropriately staffed main command post is essential to the Army’s success in competition.
Second, U.S. Army Europe and Africa can add an operational command post to control multiple American and NATO corps in combat. V Corps cannot fill this role. It is only designed to control multiple divisions, not other corps. The Army could add some 200 military spaces to its theater command structure to form the nucleus of an operational command post. To conserve fixed manpower costs, it can further augment the operational command post with personnel from the 7th Army Training Command. This command already maintains training readiness authority for the Army’s European-based brigades. In peacetime, the operational command post with the 7th Army Training Command can also manage U.S. Army training rotations and exercises in Europe as part of ongoing deterrence against Russia. During combat, existing personnel from the Joint Multinational Readiness Center and NATO Allied Land Command could strengthen the operational command post and provide the theater army commander with additional staff to manage several corps. Ultimately, an operational command post focused on Europe in addition to V Corps could enhance the theater army’s ability to control large-scale combat operations.
Third, the Army can form a modified contingency command post within the Southern European Task Force, dedicated to U.S. Africa Command and backed up by additional Africa experts in the main. This will enable it to oversee security cooperation and crisis response missions in Africa. The new Southern European Task Force, like the pre-2007 version, would essentially be a “stand-alone” contingency command post capable of controlling small-scale contingencies. As described in Gen. Stephen Townsend’s 2020 Posture Statement, U.S. Africa Command cannot resolve Africa’s challenges using U.S. military power alone. This “stand-alone” contingency command post, with support from the main headquarters, would provide for military engagement that enables U.S. diplomats and aid workers access to unstable regions. It also would mitigate possible problems resulting from the headquarters merger and recent repositioning of U.S. troops in Africa. The forward V Corps headquarters could also fill a contingency command post role in Europe. Having two contingency command post-capable headquarters would give the theater army commander the ability to manage two simultaneous small-scale missions.
Our recommendations would save the Army almost 400 uniformed personnel positions. The number is based on the Army’s “5.4” headquarters design, in which the theater army headquarters consists of a main and a contingency command post but has no operational command post to control multi-corps operations. Each theater army’s objective table of organization required about 700 military personnel for the main and contingency command posts and headquarters battalion, or about 1,400 total personnel between the former U.S. Army Africa and U.S. Army Europe headquarters. Unlike the “5.4” design, our recommendations include a revamped operational command post and tailor the main and contingency command posts to the unique theater missions. The main will require about 640 personnel, 200 for the operational command post, and some 160 for a modified contingency command post for the Southern European Task Force. These changes would give the merged U.S. Army Europe and Africa headquarters more capacity and flexibility to achieve its missions.
The Army should assess this proposed design through extensive exercises with its NATO partners and subordinate units. By stressing its systems and pushing its capabilities to the limits, the Army can identify any additional, necessary adjustments that it should make to the U.S. Army Europe and Africa headquarters. This information will help senior leaders decide what headquarters capabilities are vital and where they can assume risk when making further adjustments.
Giving the Army’s European and African headquarters increased capabilities might seem counterproductive given the Biden administration’s focus on China. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently told Congress that China is the “pacing threat” for the U.S. military. However, there is no tension between our proposed changes to Army headquarters in Europe and Africa and a larger, strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific. Our recommendations would allow the U.S. Army to oppose Russian threats, as President Biden seems resolved to do, and enable excess personnel to shift to the Pacific theater. It also provides a headquarters model that U.S. Army Pacific could follow as it restructures to combat China.
U.S. Army headquarters ultimately do more than fight and win wars. They also enable the United States to compete with adversaries and cooperate with partners. As the Defense Department merges the headquarters of U.S. Army Europe and U.S. Army Africa, it should take care to do so in a way that’s both efficient and effective. Every major American war has required expanded headquarters at the onset of a conflict to manage the challenges of combat requirements. As noted, modern warfare requires proficient theater headquarters, not just in combat but before combat starts and after it ends. The efficient structuring of its European and African headquarters will play a decisive role in the Army’s ability to deter and potentially fight a great-power war.
John Bonin is a consultant and former Professor of Concepts and Doctrine for the U.S. Army War College. He is a retired Army colonel with a Ph.D. from Temple and was the lead author of Joint Publication 3-31, Joint Land Operations for over 15 years.
Maj. Justin Magula is an Army strategist serving in the Strategic Landpower and Futures Group at the U.S. Army War College. He has combat experience at the theater level and contributes to joint and Army doctrine development. You can follow him on Twitter at @JustinMagula.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.