Getting the model right

The debate on command reorganisation in the military would gain from studying examples worldwide

Updated - May 15, 2017 12:16 am IST

Published - May 14, 2017 09:44 pm IST

Editable vector foreground of silhouettes of walking soldiers on patrol with figures as separate elements

Editable vector foreground of silhouettes of walking soldiers on patrol with figures as separate elements

If the three single service chiefs all agree on the need to have a Chairman or Chief of Defence, the debate in India over further high command reorganisation (integrated command versus joint command) reported last week poses tough questions for military theorists. The issue of a Joint Doctrine for the Indian Armed Forces in April touches on this issue. In essence, high-level command must be tailored to the requirements of senior political leaders as well as commanders, but there are some guiding principles and worthy examples that should be examined in order to set a firm foundation for any debate.

It is important to acknowledge what the aim of civilian and military command structures are. In Europe, command has become more about controlling forces and orchestrating military effects but this is based on experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya rather than more taxing war fighting scenarios. Thus, instead of simply replicating a particular model, it is worth examining the purist theory of high command as exercised by others.

The American way

Perhaps the most detailed examination of command models was the study that led to the Goldwater-Nichols Act in the U.S., which established the Combatant Commanders (COCOMs) in 1986, dividing the world into theatres with a leader to command each one. Each commander remains in post for several years, becoming an expert of his region, building relationships and understanding his adversary in exacting detail. The commander is the hub of decision-making for that theatre, prepared to fight his own campaign with the forces provided to him. Each theatre commander bids for forces from a central staff.

The central staff — whether a minister of state, a chairman of the chiefs, or a combined panel of senior leaders — is responsible for the prioritisation of missions between theatres, the allocation of troops to task according to national priorities, and to provide advice to political leaders. Single service commanders for the Army, Navy and Air Force continue to exist, but now focused on generating platforms, units and people to the central pool of resources. The Navy, Air Force, marines and Army still oversee training and preparedness of their forces before certifying them as fit for task. They are also responsible for sustainment and support for those forces en route to and recovering from theatre commands (more applicable for land forces), as well as supplying key maintenance for units once in theatre.

This clear division of responsibility has been widely regarded as a progressive model that mitigates the critique of inter-service rivalry. Indeed, it was that rivalry that stimulated the Packard Review and the emergence of the Goldwater-Nichols model. However the reality of the theatre type command structure is not without disadvantages. First, theatre commanders are not constrained to a force structure when they conduct an estimate of their requirements; their combined requests always exceed the force structure they rely on. Whether it is the number of AWACs, artillery, engineers or mine-hunters, there is never enough to go around. This causes friction between leaders but in true military style commanders tend to complain privately but fight on nonetheless. This does not lessen the risk each faces.

Second, the seams and boundaries between commanders are always an area of weakness and competition between commanders. Adversaries have been known to exploit these in the past. Careful agreement about coordination between commanders is critical to avoid leaving a vacuum of control in such areas. Finally, the military-enabling functions do not always follow geographic boundaries. A single AWACs aircraft might be servicing two theatre commanders at once, but will need to have the authority to prioritise their sensors rather than become the object of a dispute during a mission.

Equally, adversaries and their activities do not abide by COCOM boundaries. Cyber-actors, terrorists and criminal groups do not constrain themselves to geographic theatres and have become frequent examples where U.S. commanders have difficulties in pursuing them in a coherent fashion.

The alternative to a COCOM structure is the service command model in which service chiefs remain responsible for their own warfare domain. This leaves the single service staffs to conduct missions and undertake military activity as availability of platforms and people allows for. The clear delineation between warfare domains allows single service commanders to prioritise assets in the most-effective manner across competing demands (and hopefully in the national interest).

Support between commands is requested between the chiefs, and is sometimes delivered. This source of friction — for example, where there are insufficient air defence aircraft to meet the needs of each service — can become a long-term issue and has previously resulted in service commanders buying their own equipment.

For example, fleet air arms emerged since national Air Forces would not prioritise resources for maritime missions. The inefficiencies of such a system are generally thought to outweigh the advantages.

Historically, this type of command suited the U.K. until about 1980. It allowed the Royal Navy to prioritise and deploy ships so that they just appeared around the corner from flashpoints in a most prodigious way. If one believes in the smart commanders who don’t need formal orders, this system can work well. But it also relies on plentiful assets. It isn’t efficient (but then neither is warfare), and in the drive for optimised forces this flexibility was removed long ago. As a result, this methodology of high command has been superseded in many states.

The reality is close to the theoretical model in some ways, and far apart in others. But in either case, the key is that the theatre-command structure (or any alternative) is only as good as the centralised decision-making structure that allocates and apportions effort between competing commanders.

A time for review

It would be wrong to examine only the U.S. and British models, both of which have flaws and idiosyncrasies. There are other ones worthy of examination before such a critical decision is made for India. The Israeli national command structure is interesting, employing both area commanders and a home command to deal with civil emergencies, over a much smaller geographic area. Sri Lanka’s experience of joint command, developed in the heat of long-term confrontation with the LTTE, is also worthy of delving into. Neither should we forget that both the U.S. and NATO are undertaking reviews into their command structures at the moment. Goldwater-Nichols might not survive very long.

So what? In summary there is no right answer but if there are scarce military resources, centralised prioritisation is the key with subordinate commands having ownership of the right assets to accomplish their mission. Reviews and debates of command models should be a regular feature of mature militaries, but regrettably they are not. The inter-service concerns are valid and the process of change is bloody, bruising and painful both for individual commanders and their services. Yet, militaries do not exist to serve themselves, but to beat adversaries. Sometimes that consideration is obscured during the heat of the debate.

Peter Roberts is Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, London

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