Best Defense

Do we need service secretaries for our beleaguered combatant commanders?

Here are some thoughts inspired by General Austin’s recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 17:  Commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin II, holds a media briefing on Operation Inherent Resolve, the international military effort against ISIS on October 17, 2014 at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.  The general expressed concern that the Syrian city of Kobani could fall to ISIS militants.  (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 17: Commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin II, holds a media briefing on Operation Inherent Resolve, the international military effort against ISIS on October 17, 2014 at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The general expressed concern that the Syrian city of Kobani could fall to ISIS militants. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

Here are some thoughts inspired by General Austin’s recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee:

We have a half-overhauled system of command in the Defense Department. The service secretaries oversee the services, of course. But really, who cares? Under Goldwater-Nichols, the services don’t fight. Indeed, in recent decades, it has been made clear in several high-profile incidents that neither the service chiefs nor their civilian overseers are welcome in theaters of war.

It is the combatant commanders who fight. Where does civilian oversight come in there? The assistant secretary for XYZ affairs? Lucky to get time with the commander. SecDef? Too busy, especially in long wars. Rumsfeld struck me as almost inattentive to Iraq after late 2003, acting like it was someone else’s problem. And I am not sure that the under secretary of Defense for policy at the time ever visited Iraq.

So perhaps what we need to reassert civilian control are fewer service secretaries and more combatant command secretaries. We could combine the civilian and uniformed staffs of the services, and with it, eliminate undersecretaries. Then take some of those slots and put the assistant secretaries for Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific and South America the direct overseers of the combatant commanders, with authority to issue orders and to seek their removal if necessary.

These positions would be based in Washington, but would be in constant contact with their subordinate commands. They also would be in the AOR constantly, meeting foreign defense officials and politicians. This would take a load off the SecDef’s plate.

To make this work, you’d need first class people in these slots. Ryan Crocker would make a great pick for the Middle East job, and might be what just General Austin needed to sit alongside him at that hearing. Or take your top-performing CIA station chief in Africa and give him the assistant secretaryship for Africa.

My proposed fix would do two major things. First, it would improve civilian oversight of our military. Second, it probably would improve our policy. I am getting tired of watching brand-new combatant commanders wander into regions where it takes 10 years of hard work just to understand how little you know. We shouldn’t make our generals the patsies at the poker table. And if you’ve been playing poker for an hour and you don’t know who the patsy is, guess what? You’re the patsy.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley/Getty Images

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. @tomricks1

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