Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Re-Mapping U.S. Defense Policy

Re-Mapping U.S. Defense Policy

Even though embroiled in a global war against terrorism, the United States continues to view and conceptualize the world along Cold War lines. This is particularly the case in the realm of military organization. Today, the Department of Defense is organized into four regional combatant commands (the Southern, European, Central, and Pacific Commands). This pattern of organization is a carry-over from the days of the Cold War for a global struggle against a vanished empire rather than for the threats that we now face— and will continue to face in the new millennium. While we hear daily dispatches from Washington and the Pentagon about the need to “transform” our forces to meet the changing security concerns of the 21st century, we rarely hear of a corresponding transformation in the way we think about the world. True, the Quadrennial Defense Review of 2001 did reorient the focus from Europe to the Pacific Rim, but a new look at the political and cultural geography of the world suggests that the old regional command structures need a thorough overhaul and realignment in order to promote American national interests and to promote peace and stability. A continuation of business as usual using the same command structures will only increase American security vulnerabilities, and will hamper our ability to shape the international environment.

The Cartography of Conflict

If nothing else, the 1990s showed that “globalization” was not just about promoting peace, plurality, and prosperity. While technological advances and the spread of telecommunications have made the world more interdependent through greatly increased information, business, and personal contacts, these same trends have also helped spawn conflict. Whether it be guerrillas in Chiapas fundraising through a website or by a mullah spreading fiery rhetoric through the sending of sound files via email, technology has become an enabler for disparate groups to spread their messages and to call like-minded individuals to action. Likewise, patterns of migration— for political, economic, or cultural reasons— have also created political tensions for their new host communities. Far from mitigating the effects of geography, these trends enhance its importance. After all, the events discussed above must take place in time and physical space.

The past decade saw the emergence of two forms of globalization. “Good” globalization brought material rewards and relatively transparent and free politics to the nations of Western Europe, North America, and parts of Asia. “Bad” globalization for its part has largely affected the remainder of the globe. 9/11 dispelled the notion that geography could keep these worlds from colliding. This larger geopolitical reality has largely been ignored.

A geostrategic analysis of today’s international political landscape suggests that six zones have emerged since the demise of the Soviet Union. At the center of this analysis lies what may be termed the Arc of Turmoil. This Arc, which roughly corresponds with what the famous British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder termed the inner or marginal crescent, spans from North Africa in the west to insular (Indonesia and the Philippines) and peninsular (Malaysia and Singapore) Southeast Asia in the east, and from the Caucasus and Central Asia in the north to the Horn of Africa in the south. An immense geographical space, it measures approximately 10,000 statute miles from east to west and 4,000 statute miles from north to south. This region encompasses eleven time zones, vast expanses of littoral and interior space, and a topography ranging from arid deserts to snowy mountains to steamy jungles. Furthermore, over half of the world’s populace lives in or near this spatial entity.

Violence remains the tool of choice for conflict resolution in this area. Today, the al Aksa intifada pitting the Israelis versus the Palestinians, the dangerous tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, a Maoist insurgency in Nepal, and Islamist insurgencies in Yemen, Chechnya, the Republic of Georgia, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, and the southern Philippines all perfectly illustrate this point. Even before the current round of conflict in the region things were not going well. For the year 2000, for instance, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported that there were six active international armed conflicts, twenty-five active internal armed conflicts, and nearly sixty active terrorist campaigns. Of these, over two-thirds occurred within the Arc. Population bases increasing in size and decreasing in average age, expanding urbanization, constrained natural resources, and uncertain economic forecasts for the years to come all point to the high probability of continued conflict.

Ringing the Arc are three areas we can term Zones of Concern. These Zones encompass Latin America (in particular the Andean Ridge), sub-Saharan Africa, and the East Asian- Pacific littoral (particularly the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait). Violence and the demographic concerns discussed above also affect these regions and are joined by drug trafficking (Latin America and Southeast Asia), pandemics (sub-Saharan Africa), and weapons of mass destruction (the People’s Republic of China and North Korea) as major areas of concern.

The final two regions are the Arc Periphery (Europe and the Russian Federation) and North America, respectively. The media and migration have principally brought elements of bad globalization to these areas. This will continue in the future and most likely create still further tensions.

Realigning the Regional Commands

The U.S. military organizations designed to deal with these regions needs to be rethought. There are currently four, and soon to be five, regional combatant commands. Each of these focuses on a particular geographic region:

  • European Command (EUCOM) is responsible for a majority of the nations in Europe (to include the Asian portion of the Russian Federation), the Levant (Israel, Lebanon, and Syria), and Africa (minus Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Kenya).
  • Central Command (CENTCOM) is responsible for the portions of Africa not included in EUCOM, the Arabian Peninsula, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the “Stans”— Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
  • Pacific Command’s (PACOM) area of responsibility encompasses the remainder of Asia and the Pacific Ocean.
  • Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) looks after all of the nations south of Mexico and also the Caribbean Basin.
  • Northern Command (NORTHCOM) will be the newest unified command. Its area of responsibility will be Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

But the current regional command structure does not mirror the geostrategic realities emerging in the Arc of Turmoil. For instance, Special Operations Forces currently conducting operations against elements of the al Qaeda network in the Republic of Georgia, Afghanistan, and the Philippines report through EUCOM, CENTCOM, and PACOM, respectively. This makes coordination difficult by adding several layers of bureaucracy— not to mention layers of compartmentalization— between operational units that would benefit from a better exchange of information, etc.

Furthermore, the way the Secretary of Defense assigns missions and responsibilities to the combatant commanders in the unified command plan creates unnatural fault lines between various nations. For instance, the current plan places Israel, Syria, and Lebanon under EUCOM, while Pakistan lies in CENTCOM and India falls under PACOM. This division of areas of responsibility strains credulity. These unnatural divisions will create future coordination problems for U.S. and coalition forces, and create particular vulnerabilities on these fault lines.

To relieve these tensions, the unified command plan should be reworked to accommodate the Arc of Turmoil, and its Zones of Concern. One way to do that is to split military responsibilities into six regional commands.

  • NORTHCOM: Responsible for North America.
  • SOUTHCOM: Responsible for Latin America and the Caribbean Basin.
  • EUCOM: Responsible for continental Europe and all of the Russian Federation minus the Far East Military District. EUCOM would be responsible for command and control of the various peacekeeping operations in the Balkans as well as providing the other unified commands with military units that are forward deployed in Europe.
  • Africa Command (AFCOM): Responsible for all U.S. military activities in sub-Saharan Africa, minus the Horn Region. (Commander Richard Catoire, U.S. Navy, made a similar suggestion in the winter 2000-01 issue of Parameters.)
  • CENTCOM: Responsible for the Arc of Turmoil pan-region.
  • PACOM: Responsible for the East Asian-Pacific littoral region as discussed above.

This realignment would rationalize command and control structures along more practical geopolitical and geo- cultural lines and permit the most effective use of limited military forces.

In addition, serious consideration should be given to creating standing joint task force headquarters in each of the regional command areas. Such headquarters would build joint command and control structures that are culturally predisposed to the area of operations reporting directly to the regional combatant commander, instead of throwing together ad hoc organizations in the midst of a crisis. This is essential because U.S. forces must be attuned to the history and cultures of their areas of responsibility to reduce the likelihood that their conduct could have negative effects on operations. These headquarters should also be structured so that they can plug in units of various sizes from each of the services. Finally, this command arrangement would allow these headquarters structures to plan for likely threats in specific regions while allowing operational units to focus on warfighting capabilities that can be used by any of the combatant commanders.


The interplay of culture and geography suggests that the current unified command plan of the Department of Defense is rapidly becoming an outdated relic of a bygone era. Fluid enemies such as the al Qaeda network will continue to exploit seams in this old system of command and control as long as it focuses on neat map lines to delineate areas of responsibility rather than on geo-cultural themes such as the dispersal patterns of religion, language, and ethnicity. The interconnected nature of many of the current security threats suggest that geography matters and will continue to matter well into the future. The United States must sober up to this reality and make adjustments such as those discussed above in order to shape the international climate rather than to react to the actions of others.

You may forward this email as you like provided that you send it in its entirety, attribute it to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and include our web address ( If you post it on a mailing list, please contact FPRI with the name, location, purpose, and number of recipients of the mailing list.

If you receive this as a forward and would like to be placed directly on our mailing lists, send email to Include your name, address, and affiliation. For further information, contact Eli Gilman at (215) 732-3774 ext. 255.