Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Annals of C2 (VI): Here’s why coalition command structures are so ungainly

By Nora Bensahel Best Defense bureau of C3 (command, control and confusion) Awhile back, Tom asked why the United States is so bad at designing effective wartime command structures. Subsequent contributors and commentators identified several different reasons, including careerism, bureaucratic turf wars, and an imbalance in civil-military relations. Yet most of these comments have overlooked ...

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By Nora Bensahel

Best Defense bureau of C3 (command, control and confusion)

Awhile back, Tom asked why the United States is so bad at designing effective wartime command structures. Subsequent contributors and commentators identified several different reasons, including careerism, bureaucratic turf wars, and an imbalance in civil-military relations. Yet most of these comments have overlooked one critical factor: The United States almost always fights its wars in coalition with other countries, and coalition command structures never work well.

By Nora Bensahel

Best Defense bureau of C3 (command, control and confusion)

Awhile back, Tom asked why the United States is so bad at designing effective wartime command structures. Subsequent contributors and commentators identified several different reasons, including careerism, bureaucratic turf wars, and an imbalance in civil-military relations. Yet most of these comments have overlooked one critical factor: The United States almost always fights its wars in coalition with other countries, and coalition command structures never work well.

Political cohesion is the center of gravity in any coalition operation.  Even when all coalition members agree on the desired endstate of the operation, they often disagree about how to achieve those objectives — and particularly about command and control structures. They must compromise to find some sort of agreement that they all find acceptable. Unsurprisingly, the political imperatives of consensus and agreement often conflict with the military imperatives of winning a war as quickly and cheaply as possible. And when they conflict, political cohesion usually wins.

Examples abound of wartime command and control structures that were considered ineffective from a purely military perspective. In 1999, for example, many observers decried NATO operations in Kosovo as a "war by committee," since any member state could veto any target on the air strike list. (The Dutch took a lot of flak for vetoing a strike on a palace where a Rembrandt painting hung, but the United States vetoed targets more frequently because of its stringent standards about potential civilian casualties.) 

The command structure in Kosovo may have not have been particularly efficient, but it did not prevent the war from reaching a successful outcome. In Afghanistan, however, the need to maintain coalition cohesion has led NATO to accept force contingents from many countries that place national caveats — or restrictions — on how those forces may be used, which has significantly limited the military options available to the NATO commander.  National caveats have already been blamed for many of the military shortcomings of the operation, and they will be blamed even more if the ultimate outcome of the operation is judged to be a failure.

Even coalition command structures that seem to work well often do so despite being inefficient and politically driven. Capt. Rosemary Mariner (U.S. Navy, ret.), for example, argues that "command and control in the [1991] Gulf War was a big success story." Yet to assuage Saudi political concerns, the operation involved two entirely separate chains of command — one under the command of U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf, which included most Western forces, and the other under the command of Saudi General Khalid bin Sultan, which included all Arab forces. Neither general had the authority to issue orders to the other, which clearly violates the principle of unity of command, though they coordinated informally very well.

Furthermore, some crucial operational decisions were made for political rather than military reasons. At the beginning of the air war, General Schwarzkopf diverted more than one-third of the coalition’s 2000 daily air sorties to hunt for Iraqi Scud missiles that were being fired on Israel, which put the air war significantly behind schedule. Even though he repeatedly told the press that the Scuds were militarily insignificant and posed no threat to the coalition, this was the price that had to be paid to keep the Israelis from retaliating directly. At the end of the war, U.S. Marines waited outside Kuwait City for more than 24 hours — one-quarter of the entire length of the ground campaign — for Arab forces to catch up so they could symbolically liberate the Kuwaiti capital.

Why didn’t these military inefficiencies pose more of a problem? Simply put, the Gulf War coalition possessed a lot of slack that could absorb these inefficiencies. The Iraqi military turned out to be much weaker than originally anticipated, and could not mount a coherent military response to the coalition offensive. Furthermore, the coalition had more than six months to execute its operational plans almost exactly as they were written. Saddam Hussein’s shortcomings mean that these coalition arrangements were never tested under any operational stress at all. Similar command arrangements could easily become problematic in more challenging military situations.

Clausewitz’s famous dictum applies as much to military coalitions as it does to individual states.

Coalition warfare is still the continuation of politics by other means — but politics in the international system requires bargaining and compromise among sovereign states. And that results in wartime command structures that do not operate efficiently or, in some cases, effectively.

Nora Bensahel is the deputy director of Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Her Ph.D. dissertation was titled "The Coalition Paradox: The Politics of Military Cooperation."

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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