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The Dinosaurs Called Geographic Combatant Commands May 12, 2010

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Former Ambassador to Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, Edward Marks was a foreign service officer from 1959-1995 and retired with the rank of Minister-Counselor.

by Amb. (ret.) Edward Marks

Over the many years of the Cold War the United States military created a complex set of organizations called Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs). They arose out of WWII and grew in size, complexity, and resources over the years to meet the Soviet challenge.  Although this historical period is now over, we are left with the GCCs whose unfitness for the contemporary world reminds us of how enormously big, expensive, and clumsy these bureaucratic creatures are. It is time to get rid of them.

The GCCs essentially have two tasks:  war planning and fighting, and military engagement programs.  Both tasks remain, and will always remain, fundamental responsibilities of the Department of Defense and the military services – but not necessarily by the instrumentality of the GCCs. In fact, there is much evidence that they do not do them very well.

For instance, we are constantly being told that one of our major security challenges is international terrorism, and yet the lead for planning (and often conducting) military counterterrorism campaigns falls on the shoulder of Special Operations Command a global, functional command – not regional.  The other major security challenge is monitoring and securing WMD, a task that falls to another global, functional command – Strategic Command.  In other words, the GCCs are not designated as the lead military organization for managing our two primary military challenges.

As for the other large bundle of duties which occupy much of the time, staff, and resources of the GCCs – security assistance and such – anyone with any experience with military engagement knows that it is by and large pursued with little strategic vision.  Rather, it is largely utilized as “walking around money” for Combatant Commanders, their staffs, and military representatives in embassies.   This is a valuable activity, but we do not need the large GCC staffs to manage it.

In addition, both the war planning/fighting and military engagement tasks conducted by the GCCs are perverted by their regional perspective.  The GCCs in fact argue that their regional perspective is their primary virtue, that no one else in the U.S. government so successfully pursues this important aspect of current developments. However, in this attitude, the military has it wrong.   Strict geographic regionalism is not in fact how the world is organized.

Two major trends are moving us today – globalization on one end and localism on the other.  Of course somewhere along this continuum there are regional developments and trends, but where does one draw the lines, where does one identify the seams that must influence US policy?  Is North Africa a European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, or African concern?  All of the above course – making AFRICOM merely another player on an already too busy playing field.  In fact, to the degree that AFRICOM focuses on North Africa as an African question, it will inevitably be mistaken in its analysis and programs.

But if the GCCs are too big and obsolete, what could replace them? The answer is fairly simple, at least in organization theory, although implementation might be messy.

The solution is to separate the two task portfolios.  The war planning/fighting mission would go to two Standing Joint Force Headquarters – perhaps one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, or perhaps both in Florida where they could use the existing facilities built for Southern Command and Central Command.  These are an already existing DoD organizational concept and reality. Each would be equipped with the staff and associated resources to pursue current war planning/fighting responsibilities, including the staffing, training, and deployment of Joint Task Forces staffs for designated operations.

The military engagement mission would be assigned to a single support organization, located somewhere in the U.S. but preferably in reasonably close contact with the Department of State, USAID, the intelligence community and other pertinent parts of the U.S. government. It would receive general policy guidance from the Joint Staff while operating directly in support of beefed-up military representation in American Embassies. This arrangement would recognize the essentially bilateral character of military engagement programs while providing for greater integration with coherent, overall foreign policy.

There should be some staff savings by this approach, certainly at senior officer levels, and certainly some savings in the operating costs of the current half dozen GCC headquarters.   More important, however, would be the gain of greater integration of the military establishment into the broader “whole-of-government” of the United States.

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