Opinion / Forces

Bad Idea: Geographic Combatant Commands

Bad Ideas in National Security Series

At the end of World War II, President Truman noted that, “We must never fight another war the way that we fought the last two. I have the feeling that if the Army and Navy had fought our enemies as hard as they fought each other, the war would have ended much earlier.” Truman established seven geographically focused commands in December 1946 with the hope that they would prevent these shortcomings from occurring again. The National Security Act of 1947 formalized the Unified Combatant Command system in law, and subsequent laws in 1958 and 1986 amended and expanded the role of the geographic combatant commands (COCOMs). Today, seven geographic COCOMs are responsible for integrating forces across all domains for military operations within their respective Areas of Responsibility (AOR). In contrast, the four functional COCOMs are responsible for managing and integrating the use of shared resources, such as logistics support, across all AORs. This system of dividing the world up into mutually exclusive AORs worked well enough throughout the Cold War and the fleeting unipolar moment of the 1990s. But in today’s increasingly complex, connected, and multipolar strategic environment, the geographic COCOM structure is an outdated and counterproductive Bad Idea that is ripe for replacement for three main reasons.

First, the strategic challenges we face increasingly extend across the static boundaries the geographic COCOMs are based upon. It is naïve to think that a conflict with either China or Russia would stay confined to one AOR, and these global threats create coordination challenges among the COCOMs for determining 1) who is supporting whom with what, and 2) who is planning for what and with whom. Moreover, it is difficult to draw distinct lines around each COCOM’s AOR because many countries could or should be part of multiple AORs. For example, should Turkey be considered part of EUCOM or CENTCOM? What about Israel? Should the Arctic be part of European Command, Northern Command, or Indo-Pacific Command? The way military commands are organized can have a profound influence on how they prepare for conflict, what types of conflicts they are prepared for, and how well they perform in a crisis. The truth is that any geographic-based approach will have “seams” between commands that can trip us up—and a smart adversary can exploit these seams.

The second reason we need to replace the geographic COCOM structure is that it leads to excessive demand for routine “presence” operations and low priority missions that, as former Deputy Secretary Bob Work writes, are breaking the force. Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper recognized this early in his tenure and initiated a zero-based review of the COCOMs, specifically looking for low priority missions and requirements that could be reduced or eliminated. Members of Congress are also concerned about excessive demands from the COCOMs, as is evident in a letter from 14 members of the House Armed Services Committee to DoD leadership. Having geographic commands that cover every inch of the universe—even uninhabitable regions of Antarctica (which fall under Indo-Pacific Command) and the Moon (which falls under Space Command)—inherently leads to thousands of high-level military and civilian personnel constantly thinking about how the U.S. military can solve problems in regions that are not a strategic priority or where the U.S. military’s role should be minimal. For example, CENTCOM is no longer the strategic focus of the U.S. military, but it has a huge influence on the demand for forces and military readiness because of the status afforded it as a COCOM. The geographic commands create inertia for continuing to resource low priority missions that keep them relevant, and the military services use this artificially inflated demand signal to support force structure and budget decisions that are not in alignment with the strategy. It is the definition of a self-licking ice cream cone.

The third reason geographic COCOMs are a bad idea—in case that wasn’t enough to convince you—is that they contribute to the over-militarization of U.S. foreign policy. The COCOMs have larger staffs and deeper resources (personnel, equipment, etc.) they can draw from the military services than the State Department or other parts of the U.S. government. This allows them to develop deeper regional and country-specific expertise, but it can also effectively crowd out other diplomatic and economic efforts to engage countries. As a result, the face of the U.S. government some nations primarily see is a military one rather than a diplomatic one.

To be clear, my criticism of the current COCOM structure does not include the functional commands: Transportation Command, Strategic Command, Cyber Command, and Special Operations Command. They serve an important coordinating function for inherently global activities and for resources that are shared across the military services. The structure of the functional commands is largely sound and continues to be relevant. I would redesignate Space Command as a functional command (like it used to be) and consider creating a new command and control functional command—we just need to figure out a better name than COMCONCOM.

I am by no means the first to call for reform of the geographic COCOM structure, and many good alternatives are possible. For such a sweeping change to be effective, it must be a cooperative effort between the administration and Congress. Three key factors that should guide the development of an alternative construct are: 1) alignment with how other U.S. government departments and agencies are organized and minimization of redundant functions in the COCOMs; 2) structural incentives that keep the military focused on the highest strategic priorities; and 3) clear lines of authority and responsibility for military planning and operations. For example, one idea would be to create operational COCOMs responsible for planning and prosecuting contingencies, and these operational commands could be organized around enduring strategic threats rather than geographical boundaries. At present, this would include separate COCOMs focused on countering China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea and a fifth COCOM focused on countering global terrorism (which involves more than just SOCOM). Temporary operational commands could be established as required for other missions when crises arise, such as natural disasters and pandemics, but these would not remain in place on a steady-state basis to avoid detracting from enduring strategic priorities. While it is true that there are “seams” in this approach as well, such as contingencies that don’t involve China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, or global terrorism, but the difference in this approach is that these seams are, by design, in areas of lower strategic priority. We may not be well-prepared for a war in Venezuela, but that is arguably an intentional feature of this approach, not a defect. It puts the State Department, intelligence community, and other parts of the U.S. government in a better position to lead interactions and develop contingency plans in areas where the U.S. military should have a secondary or tertiary role.

The military is a labyrinth of competing interests, and this is largely by design. Many of these competitions serve as positive incentives to stimulate new ideas and capabilities or to provide redundancy and depth that reduce the risks of strategic failure. But the inherent competition for resources among the geographic commands is not serving the nation well. It needlessly complicates planning and wartime operations, distracts from higher priority missions, and overly militarizes U.S. foreign policy. By many accounts, the force is at a breaking point due in no small measure to the high operational tempo the geographic COCOMs are demanding. I don’t pretend to have the only answer or the best answer, and no organizational structure will be without flaws. But we can do better, and there is no time to waste in trying.

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)