Orphans at the Ready: Toward the Unification of Joint Enablers

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It started out as a quiet morning in the combatant command’s future operations division. The division chief, a colonel, and her civilian deputy were busy preparing products for the commander’s daily update briefing.

Suddenly the drone of conversation was broken after a sergeant on the other side of the watch floor un-muted one of the video monitors above them. The monitor broke away from the news desk to a shot of the Rose Garden, with the president approaching a podium.

“We’re doing what?!?” asked the colonel after the president finished his statement.

They knew the National Security Council and the secretary of defense had been in consultations regarding a policy decision for their area of responsibility for several weeks. What they didn’t know — couldn’t know — was that events on the ground would drastically shake up their original plan to set up a temporary headquarters organization, overwhelmingly run by logisticians, to manage an orderly withdrawal.

A major burst into the room.

“Ma’am, three members of the advance team have been confirmed captured.”

She spun around to face him.

“The logistical planners are already inbound, correct?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Call their command back. We’re also going to need their intel planners and expeditionary public affairs people. The op area is going to be crawling with reporters as soon as we hit the ground and there’s no way our own public affairs shop can field it from here and there. Also, call the command with the information ops specialists. Then call that command that specializes in personnel recovery. We need network analysts and targeteers as well.”

“Where are we going to find all of these people?” asked a young lieutenant after the major rattled off the new requirements a few minutes later. “Who even does personnel recovery? Is that Special Operations Command? And where are we going to find the information operations people?”

“Buckle in,” said the major. “You and I are going to be making a lot of phone calls.”


U.S. Joint Forces Command was created in 1999 under the Unified Command Plan to identify and resolve joint warfighting deficiencies, coordinate joint training and concept development, and provide doctrinal guidance to the service branches. Although it was disestablished 12 years later, the specialized surge support it provided around the world was still needed.

Several of Joint Forces Command’s smaller units that provided such support to other commands were scattered to other parts of the department, where they continue to provide critical support in areas such as secure tactical communications and targeting, crisis planning, personnel recovery, and joint task force development well beyond the in-house capabilities of their clients inside and even outside the Department of Defense.

These “orphaned” commands provide resources that commanders typically don’t possess in routine situations, bolstering their ability to plan and execute joint operations. They contribute subject-matter experts as well as specialized logistical support for campaigns and contingencies that can accelerate responses and enhance their overall capability.

The efficacy of globally integrated plans is predicated upon timeliness. Response timelines have shortened over the past few years due to a number of factors, yet the dispersal of these key “orphans” after Joint Forces Command’s disestablishment a decade ago has hampered their ability to deliver specialized services to commanders and other customers. These commands have the ability to support commanders in meeting the timelines that will be needed to counter modern threats — but not if time is lost in the bureaucracy of requesting support.

Joint Enabling Commands: The Orphans of Joint Forces Command

Nine specialized commands once provided services to combatant commanders around the world. Seven of them survived the disestablishment and continue to provide key services to commanders today. All provide various services vital in preparing for and responding to conflict and crises, but four in particular stand out. Their functions complement one another, yet as orphans they remain estranged, spread out across the department.

Commanders and other leaders in the United States government lack a uniform way to take advantage of the services these commands have to offer. We argue that these “orphans” should reunify under a single organization, raising their collective profile as well as making them more responsive to combatant commanders and other Department of Defense and interagency partners. There are a number of ways this could be brought to pass. What matters isn’t which particular solution is chosen, so much as that they are brought together under a single organizational roof, which would create a one-stop shop for surge support.

The four commands we focus on are:

Joint Warfare Analysis Center (Dahlgren, Virginia): This component of the U.S. Strategic Command provides combatant commands, the Joint Staff, and other customers with analysis and targeting options to identify crucial networks, nodes and other points of influence within an adversary’s infrastructure systems. They conduct modeling and analysis, contingency planning, and support during crisis operations.

Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (Fort Belvoir, Virginia): This Defense Department office has primary responsibility for personnel recovery matters and is housed under the joint force development directorate of the Joint Staff. They train American and allied military personnel in how to prepare for and contend with situations in which they might become prisoners of war or detainees in operations other than war in an effort to prevent them from becoming sources of enemy intelligence, propaganda, or other kinds of exploitation. They also help to support, recover, and reintegrate such personnel.

Joint Information Operations Warfare Center (San Antonio, Texas): Currently organized under the operations directorate of the Joint Staff, this center uses information tools such as deception to exploit adversary vulnerabilities while helping to enhance the operational security of its customers.

Joint Enabling Capabilities Command (Norfolk, Virginia): This subordinate command of U.S. Transportation Command provides deployable communications as well as planning and public affairs support to the U.S. military, tailored to meet the emerging requirements of combatant commands and other interagency customers.

Joint Enabling Capabilities Command: The Biggest Orphan

Ideally, all organizations covered under the Unified Command Plan, which establishes the missions and responsibilities of combatant commands and their commanders, would have enough resources allocated for every potential problem or crisis outside the steady state of normal operations. Despite the best laid campaign plans, challenges can arise that can outstrip a commander’s ability to manage them. For these situations, they must form temporary headquarters organizations adaptable enough to contend with anything from natural disasters to attacks against U.S. and allied interests. These organizations, known as Joint Task Forces, require a rapid infusion of skilled people and specialized materiel.

Before 2008, each geographic combatant commander maintained their own cadre of personnel, called a Standing Joint Force Headquarters, dedicated to this purpose. Afterward, the mission of standing up joint task force command and control functions was assumed by a single entity, the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command. From its origins as a directorate of Joint Forces Command to its status today as a subordinate joint command of Transportation Command, Joint Enabling Capabilities Command supports the combatant commands, defense agencies, other U.S. government agencies, allies, and the Joint Staff.

A key component of joint force effectiveness is to increase the speed with which joint task forces reach initial operating capability. The planners, communicators, and public affairs professionals of Joint Enabling Capabilities Command have been effective at decreasing the time needed to create a fully functional joint task force, but they are only a fraction of the full suite of enablers that commanders, coordinating authorities, the Joint Staff, or other agency partners may call upon in a crisis. The other “orphans” have been similarly successful within their limited scopes, but there is no formal synchronization and coordination mechanism that integrates these enablers in addressing a single crisis or joint requirement.

Giving Commanders a One-Stop Shop

It’s difficult to reach out for help if you don’t know that there is an organization that can assist you. Sometimes whether one of the “orphans” is employed comes down to whether a joint commander is familiar with what they do, and with how to request their support. (Let’s face it: it is hardly intuitive that the organization dedicated to helping them stand up a crisis headquarters is organizationally housed under the Transportation Command, while the organization dedicated to recovering personnel and their remains works for the Joint Staff.) Reuniting these commands under a single command structure would streamline the mechanisms for providing support to commanders while potentially reducing personnel costs through the elimination of administrative redundancies. More importantly, it would make it easier for joint commanders to find and access their services. The “orphans” could all be together, on the same page, and be at the ready when called upon, providing a joint force commander with a much more capable, mission-tailored solution to critical and urgent capability gaps.

To be clear, we do not propose enlarging the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command by making the other “orphans” its subordinate elements. Rather, we advocate unifying all of them in order to streamline the process that commanders must now follow in order to close capability gaps in a rapidly changing global environment. The “orphans” should not be preserved for their own sake, either. The benefit of consolidating these commands comes from optimizing the speed with which they enable their customers to meet new challenges.

Based on our survey of joint doctrine and our experiences with personnel allocation and management, we propose establishing a functional subordinate unified command to house and sustain these “orphans.” As a sub-unified command, this new command would have full operational control over its components, directing mission support to combatant commands, chairman’s directed activities, and interagency partners much faster and more comprehensively than is possible today. Establishing a sub-unified command encompassing many of the Defense Department’s key enablers would also strengthen integrated planning across the board and serve as a boon to the joint planning and execution community in planning for crisis response.

Not all the commands currently providing these types of services would emerge from unification in their current form, yet these commands would be much more visible and the services they would provide would be more accessible to customers. The commands would fit within one another much like nesting tables, mutually providing support but ready to serve individually when the need arises.


From the establishment of the unified global command in the wake of World War II to the system of combatant commands as it exists today, organizational structures have been shaped by changing missions and priorities. Although Joint Forces Command ceased guiding this process a decade ago, its surviving “orphans” — specialized commands that comprised its “enablers” — continue to provide critical services when components of various branches should band together to achieve a common goal. Bringing them under a common command structure would improve their efficiency and responsiveness to their customers. It would also vastly improve coordination between the planners, communicators, analysts, and myriad specialists working for these commands currently scattered across the Department of Defense.

Some enjoy the challenge of finding just the right person to perform a needed service. Most don’t, particularly during an emergency. That’s why 911 came into being as a universal emergency number over 50 years ago. The Joint Enabling Capabilities Command, Joint Information Operations Warfare Center, Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, and Joint Warfare Analysis Center were created to help commanders to meet some of the most challenging problems they will face while responding to crises. But, like hospitals, fire services, and police departments, these specialized units respond more quickly when a single telephone number can reach them all. Consolidating these commands under a single organizational structure would help commanders to focus on meeting future challenges, rather than wasting precious time searching for those who can help them meet those challenges.



Maj. Gen. Sean Jenkins is commander of the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command. Before reporting to his current assignment in 2019, he served as the senior defense official and chief, Office of Security Cooperation – Iraq at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

John Michael is chief of the Plans and Policy Division at the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command, the command focal point for all futures initiatives including strategic planning, force programming, and policy development.

M.C. Farrington is the writer and editor for the Command Group of the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command and is the former historian of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by 1st Lt. Joshua Thompson)