A Better Approach to Organizing Combatant Commands
In 1805, James Gillray published a satirical cartoon that showed Napoleon of France and the British prime minister, William Pitt, carving up a globe fashioned out of plum pudding. They were claiming their respective areas of ownership by slicing through oceans and land masses. Humorous as this may be, the depiction is little different from the way the U.S. Department of Defense currently organizes its combatant commands — carving up the world and creating many seams in the process. Is that dangerous? Yes, it is.
The department divides the world comprehensively — the entire globe is covered — and in a way that does not align with other U.S. government agencies. Our findings from recent wargames and scenario exercises confirm what organizational theory and real-world experience indicate: In peace and in war, the Defense Department’s current way of doing business simply won’t create the outcomes it desires. Peacetime competition demands an interdepartmental approach. And future conflicts, especially against near-peer countries, are increasingly likely to be global in today’s interconnected world, not confined within the borders of existing U.S. combatant commands. To succeed in the global competition of today and in the potential conflicts of tomorrow, the United States should find a better way to organize its defense, one that is not beholden to implicit but unnecessary assumptions about what a combatant command should be.
A new way of organizing the combatant commands should have three missions in mind. First, the U.S. government should align peacetime responsibilities across agencies. This would enable the rapid coordination of all relevant instruments of national power to achieve a desired effect, instead of an approach that develops siloed plans within each department and fails to leverage their complementary capabilities. Second, the Defense Department should have the ability to transition smoothly across the spectrum that runs from competition to conflict. This would ensure that the appropriate level of force can be rapidly applied to potential adversaries when and where needed, instead of relying on the building of slow-to-form layers of command once unambiguous indications of impending war arise. Third, the United States should be able to prosecute a global conflict against an adversary.
Other ways to organize the combatant commands have been suggested before. It’s not for lack of creativity that such change has not been undertaken. All organizational reform is hard, and massive change is massively hard. It requires consistency and commitment, something difficult to achieve when administrations and military leadership cycle quite frequently. It requires overcoming risk aversion in a very risk-averse defense bureaucracy. But it also requires determination and alignment among leadership. That should come from a clear-eyed appreciation of the risks and rewards of an alternate approach, which an analytic framework that includes wargaming can illuminate.
The Weaknesses With How the Combatant Commands Are Currently Organized
The missions and areas of responsibility of the combatant commands are laid out in a Unified Command Plan, a document reviewed and revised by the secretary of defense (and signed by the president) every two years. There are currently 11 combatant commands responsible for U.S. military operations. Seven cover specific regions, including space. Four are responsible for unique capabilities: Strategic Command, Special Operations Command, Transportation Command, and Cyber Command.
All organizations have seams, but where you draw them matters. Since seams require costly handoffs of information, tasking, and products that result in lost context and time, we regularly counsel military organizations to consider where they place seams so that they do not create disadvantages where they can least afford them. In a hyperconnected, information-saturated world where many threats are global, seams that are geographically defined will certainly create high risks.
There are plenty of examples where the misalignment between the Pentagon and other government agencies creates challenges. For example, in the Department of Defense, responsibility for Pakistan resides with Central Command, while issues related to India are part of Indo-Pacific Command. But a single bureau at the State Department — the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs — has responsibility for matters related to both India and Pakistan.
Sometimes, by contrast, a single Defense Department combatant command deals with issues that are handled by separate State Department bureaus. For instance, in considering the implications of skirmishes between China and India, the commander of Indo-Pacific Command would have to coordinate not only with the U.S. chiefs of mission in those two countries but also with the heads of two State Department regional bureaus. Meanwhile, monitoring fighters and conflict traversing the Chad-Libya border requires Africa Command to coordinate with the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and its Bureau of African Affairs.
Pentagon joint doctrine acknowledges the challenges when it states that, “Organizational differences between [the State Department] and [the Department of Defense] can complicate efforts to coordinate interagency activities whose execution or effects extend beyond one country.”
The problem snowballs when a policy challenge affects a large geographic area. Consider a hypothetical but plausible drought and mass migration event in Africa during peacetime. Such a disaster could require humanitarian assistance led by the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development. They would be supported with planning and logistics by U.S. Africa Command, which would also address the security implications in a region prone to terrorist activity. Should the drought prompt migration to the shores of Italy, as seen in the past, U.S. European Command could be mobilized to rescue stranded migrants. To locate adrift ships, U.S. Space Command’s overhead imaging capabilities would be used. As Sen. Jack Reed recently argued in a congressional hearing, the strategic challenges in Africa “do not lend themselves to geographic or bureaucratic boundaries.”
Actions by American adversaries could exacerbate the coordination challenges. In that same congressional hearing, Gen. Stephen Townsend, who heads U.S. Africa Command, explained that in Africa, “Russia seeks to exploit instability and fragility for their own gain.” Should the Russian government decide to take advantage of a mass migration crisis, U.S. European Command could add competition responsibilities to its humanitarian tasks.
Between State, Africa Command, European Command, and Space Command, there are at least six organizational seams. In a scenario such as this, the U.S. Agency for International Development and local country teams would be likely to receive requests for similar information from, at a minimum, U.S. Africa Command and U.S. European Command. Such requests could quickly overwhelm relevant U.S. embassies, whose staffs are smaller than Defense Department combatant commands. By contrast, good organizational design tries to minimize many-to-one touchpoints in order to reduce duplicate requests and improve situational awareness.
As American competitors and adversaries expand their global reach, they cross more and more seams of responsibility between U.S. combatant commands. For example, Iranian ships that recently traveled from their home ports to the Baltic Sea transited waters monitored by three separate combatant commands — Central Command, Africa Command, and European Command. China’s activities in Africa and South America mean that Indo-Pacific Command, Southern Command, and Africa Command need to coordinate regularly to gain a full picture of one competitor’s plans.
There are also parts of the world for which no single combatant command has obvious “ownership.” The Arctic is currently covered by parts of three different combatant commands, which creates challenges for advocacy as well as coordination. With no singular voice prioritizing strategies, engagements, and acquisitions unique to the Arctic, opportunities to promote vital U.S. interests can be missed. As explained over a decade ago by Amb. Edward Marks, “Strict geographic regionalism is not in fact how the world is organized.”
The stakes would be even higher if commands were coordinating across seams in the lead-up to potential conflict. In that event, the adverse impacts of losing time and context could be especially pronounced. Joint Staff guidance on the spectrum of conflict emphasizes that there may be no clear indications that adversaries are moving from peacetime to wartime. Modern warfare requires agility. Yet because combatant commands are responsible for entire regions — which can include areas in conflict, areas traversed by supply lines, and other allied, adversary, or neutral countries — those commands have historically fought wars via joint task forces. Such task forces, created at the point of need and kludged from forces in theater, create yet more seams of command and require lead time to form that may not exist in a future fight.
In the event of conflict, the time and information lost in coordination across seams could mean the difference between winning and losing. Waiting for empirical proof — attained during actual warfare — that the current Unified Command Plan is not fit-for-purpose is an invitation for military disaster.
Previous Efforts at Reform
The problems created by combatant command seams have not gone unnoticed by those in the Department of Defense and Congress. Changes to the Unified Command Plan have on occasion been debated among the services and combatant commands themselves.
Generally, efforts to change how combatant commands are organized either involve reassigning responsibilities among them or changing the number of them, neither of which will fix the problems we have outlined. For instance, Israel was reportedly reassigned from European Command to Central Command this year (the Unified Command Plan is not in the public domain, and the change has not been officially announced.) To give another example, cyber responsibilities were transferred from Space Command to Strategic Command in the early 2000s (before Cyber Command existed). In addition, Africa Command and Space Command were both created in the past 15 years, and there have been proposals to form an Arctic Command. Whenever a new combatant command is created, seams proliferate.
These incremental solutions all use the same, geographically based organizing principle for combatant commands. Marginal fixes will, at most, yield marginal gains, and they will still not configure combatant commands for the national security needs of today. Proposed solutions will be better if they are unconstrained by implicit assumptions about what a combatant command should be. While we will provide some examples shortly, any proposal for organizing combatant commands will be insufficient unless it is subjected to the analytic methodology we outline below. Alternative configurations should be devised through careful analysis and relative risks explored via wargaming.
Designing a Better Way to Organize Combatant Commands
To build a fit-for-purpose Unified Command Plan, leaders should explore combatant command organizing principles that support the needs of modern-day operations and threats. As practiced organizational designers, we suggest a three-step approach. First, define the “box” drawn by constraints and restraints: What should each organization do and not do? Second, identify possible organizing principles for combatant command configuration. Finally, employ theory and wargaming to explore the risks and benefits of alternative constructs, with special attention paid to the challenges created by the seams in the existing construct.
First, draw the box. Constraints are no-kidding requirements that underpin the existence of the organization, while restraints are generally limited to those actions or characteristics proscribed by law. To avoid over-defining the problem, organizational designers keep these as small as possible. Outlining the actual constraints and restraints for combatant command design represents a major opportunity for change because the types of reform effort described above are burdened by a number of implicit — and unnecessary — assumptions. These include assumptions that combatant commands are standing, semi-permanent organizations, that collectively they need to cover the entire globe, that they have responsibilities across the spectrum of conflict from peacetime through full-scale war, and that each combatant command should have a large staff and multiple service components. None of these are written into law, so we suggest deliberately excluding them from the constraints/restraints box at the start of the process.
In fact, considering the reverse of the implicit assumptions about combatant commands can help with the second step: defining alternative organizing principles. For instance, if combatant commands do not collectively have to span the entirety of the globe, could they be mission area-focused or adversary-focused, akin to uber-joint task forces? If they don’t have to include components from all of the services, could the United States have, for example, a maritime combatant command? Again, less is more. Because each alternative would need to be explored for risk and benefit, we suggest developing three or four alternative constructs as a good place to start.
A final step is to explore the risks and benefits of each alternative. The assessment should compare the new alternatives to each other, as well as to the current construct, and should address the costs of the transition. The evaluation would include analyzing risks and benefits directly resulting from reorganization, such as eliminating or creating gaps, seams, or overlaps in operational responsibility. There may be second-order effects as well: Combatant commands that are not permanent organizations may be less predisposed to overhead growth and might have a shorter tenure of existence, and combatant commands oriented around a mission might also be specified commands (requiring only a single service). Both of these options could generate a distinct benefit whereby commands reduce headquarters billets to shore up tactical and operational ones, and could even bring down ratios of general and flag officers to service endstrength. There could also be geopolitical implications if allies and partners perceive changes in U.S. commitment to particular regions due to a reorganization of combatant commands — however, the United States sends plenty of signals of commitment, or lack thereof, without organizational change.
Historical examples and theory are a first step in anticipating how alternative constructs might operate. But the best way to test out ideas and structures that do not yet exist is to wargame them. Wargames can be much more than map drills, despite common perception. Appropriately designed wargames can capture the operational, political (both internal and external), interagency, fiscal, and organizational risks associated with a new structure. At CNA, we pioneered the technique of wargaming for organizational analysis. These types of wargames can be used to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of different organizational designs and to anticipate gaps, seams, and overlaps, as well as to explore increases or reductions in requisite staff size. Wargames can be used, for example, to explore whether “uber-joint task forces” would result in a proliferation of myopic entities, whether a maritime combatant command would result in its having an overwhelming span of control, or whether aligning geographic combatant commands with State Department regional bureaus would really enable more effective collaboration.
The Path Ahead
The process of overhauling the organization of combatant commands will never be easy. As one military graduate thesis notes, a rewrite of this magnitude would “generate major parochial battles among the service components” and drive substantial bureaucratic upheaval. Indeed, Michael O’Hanlon argued in 2016 that the Pentagon should “avoid change for change’s sake” with respect to combatant command reorganization. However, others have demonstrated that any change can in fact help disrupt entrenched power structures, perhaps an effort whose time has come in an era of “modern day proconsuls.” Where incrementalism has been insufficient to meet the needs of today’s and future conflicts, even the costs of temporary upheaval are almost certain to be outweighed by the benefits. If they aren’t, the structured analytic process described above is designed to reveal that.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reviews the responsibilities, boundaries, and forces of each combatant command at least every two years and recommends changes to the secretary of defense and president. The next Unified Command Plan revision may already be underway, so now is the time to think about doing things differently, to begin to devise some truly innovative — if uncomfortably non-conformist — approaches to organizing combatant commands.
The next step in advancing a combatant command configuration that works for the peacetime competition of today and modern conflict of tomorrow would be for national security leaders to turn the unthinkable into new, feasible organizing principles. They should then test them and have the courage and fortitude to design a fit-for-purpose Unified Command Plan.
Margaux Hoar directs the Organizations, Roles, and Missions program at CNA. She has helped (re)design military organizations great and small, including leading analysis to establish the U.S. Space Force. She also directs CNA’s StaffLab™, which helps senior leaders test organizational ideas before implementing them in the real world.
Jeremy Sepinsky is CNA’s lead wargame designer. He has designed and facilitated dozens of wargames at Navy and Joint commands, as well as for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and the Joint Staff. His recent wargames covered broad topics such as logistics, personnel organization, command and control, cyberspace operations, national strategy, technology planning, special operations, and homeland defense.
Peter M. Swartz is a retired U.S. Navy captain and former director of CNA’s Strategy and Policy Analysis program. He has contributed to and analyzed U.S. national security strategy and unified command policies for more than three decades. In 2020 he was the recipient of the Naval Historical Foundation’s Commodore Dudley Knox medal for lifetime achievement in naval history and had a Festschrift published in his honor by a dozen of his colleagues in the United States and abroad on conceptualizing maritime and naval strategy.
The views expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of CNA, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.