Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Form, Function, and U.S. Defense Transformation

Form, Function, and U.S. Defense Transformation

As the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” A perfect example of this has been U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan. While stories (and photographs) heralded an era where special operations personnel could call in precision-guided munitions from horseback, this close work between ground and air forces seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Indications of this have recently surfaced in the comments of Army Major General Franklin L. Hagenbeck, the commander of the 10th Mountain Division and the on-the-scene commander for last springs Operation Anaconda offensive in Afghanistan. In an interview for the Army’s Field Artillery journal, the general hinted that operational effectiveness was limited because close air support (particularly from the Air Force) was hindered by over-reliance on precision-guided munitions, difficulty in hitting non-fixed targets, and strict targeting procedures.

Understandably, some in the Air Force countered that the Army’s last-minute attempt at coordination and unrealistic requirements for close air support assets effectively hamstrung the Air Force before the mission even began. Are these troubles merely the result of a lack of widespread expertise on the part of senior commanders who cannot plan and coordinate joint operations properly, or are there organizational and cultural reasons why certain elements of the military cannot work well together? This essay argues that longstanding traditions of American war-making are largely responsible and that changes in organizational structures are necessary to wage modern war. Furthermore, as the Defense Department pursues transformation such reorganization is imperative to build the foundation upon which all other transformation initiatives are based.

Segmented Warfare

Throughout most of its history the United States has practiced what can be termed “segmented warfare.” Each service had a distinct role and operated nearly independently: the Navy laid claim to blue water operations, the Marine Corps developed itself into an expeditionary force, and the Army focused on large-scale ground warfare. With the relatively late arrival of the Air Force, that service built its doctrine around the belief that bombers could collapse the enemy’s will as they collapsed his cities, and thus strategic airpower trumped the other services, relegating them to operations on the periphery. As recently as the Second World War, many, if not most, of the battles were either primarily land (the European campaign), primarily maritime (the Pacific campaign), or primarily air (the Battle of Britain or the str tegic bombing of Germany’s industrial centers). Historically, therefore, military campaigns conducted along the lines of the separate services are understandable.

Two changes, however, have affected the way U.S. forces fight. First, technology now allows the services to communicate and share information quickly, enabling them to work more closely together. This, combined with advances in munitions, has the potential to create a synergy among the services and yield greater combat power in smaller force packages than ever before. Secondly, as Max Boot recently pointed out in his book The Savage Wars of Peace, the bulk of our conflicts have proven to be relatively small (but operationally complex) wars— with or without strategic consequences— that by their nature require the United States to employ military power with exacting precision.

Even as changes in the strategic context began to drive the need for more precise applications of combat power, bureaucratic struggles over budgetary divisions, contradictory advice, and operational inefficiencies within the Department of Defense brought about calls for “jointness.” The passage of the Goldwater-Nichols legislation of 1986 (and subsequent legislation dealing with special operations forces) sought to change the way the Department did business. This legislation came about largely because inter-service rivalry had hindered military effectiveness in operations such as the Iranian hostage rescue attempt (1980) and the invasion of Grenada (1983).

At its core, the legislation empowered regional combatant commanders with command and control responsibility for their geographic area, strengthened the role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and made joint assignments a prerequisite for officers to be selected for general or flag rank. The logic was simple enough: a strengthened warfighting chain of command staffed by officers experienced in working with their counterparts from the other services would increase the operational effectiveness of the U.S. military writ large. Reality, however, often trumps logic.

The invasion of Panama (1989) and the Persian Gulf War (1990-91) were largely held up as exemplars of joint operations following the passage of Goldwater-Nichols legislation. In reality, these conflicts were conducted along service lines. The Marines operated in their sectors, the Army in other areas, and special operations forces in yet other areas. Similarly, aviation from all four services generally had its own areas of responsibility, with the Air Force usually preferring to “go downtown” to attack strategic targets in pursuit of air-war specific objectives. Organizational barriers continue to suboptimize the use of our forces, limiting our ability to inflict damage on our enemies to something less than the sum of the means available, even after sixteen years of the jointness Goldwater-Nichols was to promote.

Functional Warfare

If the United States handily won those conflicts, then why is true joint warfighting important? Principally, the answer is because the coordinated, complementary use of cross-service capabilities in the majority of circumstances allows for the most efficient use of force. No longer easily segregated into land, maritime, or air conflicts, the localized and intense “small wars” nature of U.S. military engagement of the past decade, combined with the smaller base of troops and equipment from which to draw capabilities, means that the services must work more closely together to produce a synergistic effort.

The challenge today is that a majority of officers can talk “joint” but still think “service.” What is joint doctrine in name actually reinforces the service-centric nature of our operations. At the most basic level, planning procedures and operational concepts fundamentally constrain regional combatant commanders to think in terms of land, maritime, or air conflicts. Indeed, combatant commanders assign subordinate commanders on this sort of “terra-based” distinction, as Joint Force Land, Maritime, and Air Component Commanders, even though emerging crises are not so easily compartmentalized. For instance, a Joint Force Land Component Commander is responsible for “the proper employment of … land forces; planning and coordinating land operations; or accomplishing such operational missions.” Are Army forces launched from a Navy ship in support of Air Force bombers dropping precision-strike munitions a land, maritime, or air operation?

That the answer is not so clear is no surprise and nor is it a surprise that such uncertainty can drive organizational confusion as well. The result can be organizational stovepipes where a ground commander may well have to send his request for air support up the ground forces chain of command several echelons to the “terra-based” component commander level. There, the request can move horizontally to the air component commander, and back down the air component command structure to the operational level air commander, who will actually plan and fly the mission.

With this in mind, it should be readily apparent why problems such as the close air support difficulties in Afghanistan occur. Because the components are split by the medium in which they operate, commanders in one component rarely interact with their counterparts in peace time, and since the military insists on waiting until a crisis emerges before it forms ad hoc joint organizations to fight the developing battle, tactical- and operational-level commanders rarely have the opportunity to develop the deep expertise in joint operations that modern contingencies require. In the case of Operation Anaconda, it is not clear that the conventional ground forces understood how the air forces plan and operate. The result: ineffective coordination between air and ground forces hampered the mission.

How can this problem be resolved? One way would be to put liaisons from each of the services into the planning cells of the other components. But that happens today, and we still see these sorts of coordination problems. Clearly, the development of standing joint task forces where land, maritime, and air component forces come together during peacetime to train and develop the habitual relationships required to successfully prosecute complex joint operations is another option— and one already under scrutiny by the Defense Department. That could develop more competent joint units, but would not necessarily remove the organizational barriers that hamper the combatant commanders.

The answer advanced here requires a transformational approach to smash the existing paradigm of terra-based commands to produce a breakthrough solution. Why does the Department retain ground, maritime, and air component commands when modern operations do not lend themselves to such a neat compartmentalization? Component commands defined along mission-oriented functional requirements are what is required.

Today, when joint doctrine refers to “functional component commands,” it is speaking of the medium in which the force operates. But with mission-oriented functional component commands, combatant commanders could draw from the unique strengths of the individual services to group complementary capabilities under a structure organized to support the operational architecture. For instance, one way to achieve this would be to establish a command structure organized along Strike, Security, Support, and Information Operations commands. In this example:

  • The Joint Force Strike component commander would have responsibility for those assets— ground, maritime, and air— required to conduct offensive operations against enemy forces;
  • The Joint Force Security component commander might be responsible for the protection of the forces and lines of communication, as well as host-nation security;
  • The Joint Force Support component commander would be responsible for providing for the logistical, maintenance, and transportation needs of the theatre; and
  • The Joint Force Information Operations component commander could be responsible for providing information systems such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) functions, civil-military operations, public relations, and psychological operations, while simultaneously targeting enemy information systems.

This is just an example, but the point is that in this way the services (and defense agencies) would provide assets to these commanders much as they do today, but each commander would have comprehensive responsibility for a functional— instead of environmental— slice of the battlefield.


Under the functional component command system proposed here, the on-the-scene commander would have a more holistic view of his operational area and a better appreciation of how to apply his finite resources to best accomplish the missions assigned because most battlespaces no longer need to be constrained by land, maritime, or air compartmentalization. Critics of this approach may claim that the very core competencies of the services and the expertise needed to plan and coordinate such capabilities would not be feasible under such a joint system. But this is in no way an attempt to dismiss the challenges of geography or minimize the unique strengths of our service institutions and their members. To the contrary, it is a way to apply all the right tools at the right time by approaching three-dimensional operations in a truly unified and comprehensive manner, while maximizing effectiveness by allowing the core competencies of our forces to act as combat multipliers buttressing one another.

Will such reorganization from segmented, terra-based commands to a mission-oriented functional approach eliminate all the challenges in the conduct of military operations? Of course not— Clausewitzian friction and fog will always have a place on the battlefield. But the reorganization described here could eliminate seams that currently inhibit the capabilities of our forces and it ought to be the subject of future experimentation within the Department of Defense.