More on command and control: It is difficult because it is inherently political — especially so in limited war
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Capt. Rosemary Mariner, USN (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist
Tom posed the question of why are we so bad at command and control? Because they are intrinsically political, I doubt it is possible to have a "good" combined command structure in limited coalition wars. Civilian command and NATO demands during the Korean War (under the auspices of the United Nations with U.S. President Truman designated the executive agent) drove MacArthur nuts. One reason Vietnam C2 looked suspect was that MACV had to at least keep up appearances that the South Vietnamese government was in charge of something. Undeclared limited wars, especially as part of ad-hoc coalitions or even formal alliances, are inherently difficult to command or control.
Nor is this just a limited war problem. The WW I command structure was a deliberate attempt to keep the American Expeditionary Force from being used as replacement cannon fodder (amalgamation) for the Allies. After Congress declared it, Wilson took the country to war as an "associate power" so America could perform an independent military role in defeating the central powers, thus enabling it to play a major part in shaping the post-war world. Pershing understood his marching orders. From a pure military viewpoint, this made little sense. Conflicts with WW II divided command structure in the Pacific (in no small part to appease MacArthur) drove many of the post-war unification debates and ultimately the National Security Act of 1947. The whole "jointness" thing was never simply about the services working together. It is about statutory centralized command and control, ergo the unified command structure.
Given the huge challenges of coalition warfare operating under U.N. resolutions, command and control in the Gulf War was a big success story. Operation Desert Storm, the first major post-Vietnam and post-Goldwater Nichols Act military operation, allowed CINCCENT the advantage of a clear war aim to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait. (According to Schwarzkopf’s 1992 autobiography, going to Baghdad "to finish the job" was never considered. Coalition and allied support was only to liberate Kuwait. Had we taken all of Iraq, we would have been "like the dinosaur in the tar pit," still there, by ourselves, years later.) The Joint and Combined Command structure had problems, but it worked.
Perspective wise, if "military efficiency" were the yardstick, then we would have the German/Prussian General Staff. As a republic, military efficiency has never been the primary driver, much to the chagrin of Emory Upton and folks unfamiliar with the reasons behind America’s long standing distrust of professional armies evident in Article I of the U.S. constitution. This document gives the president and Congress control of all things military, including command structures. The generals advise, not decide. Like others, I get frustrated when C2 issues are framed as strictly military problems while ignoring the fact that the armed forces are wisely under civilian command. And I’m not an apologist for generals; under civilian control of the military, vertical accountability extends to our civilian masters.
Rosemary Mariner is a scholar-in-residence at the University of Tennessee’s Center for the Study of War and Society. Prior to retirement, she served as the CJCS Professor of Military Studies at the National War College.