From the top…

We’ve previously looked at the organization of certain units. And we recently talked about the difficulty in communication caused by the jargon the services use. For this foray into management, we’re going to look at the organization of the military from the top down.

At the top of the Chain of Command is the President. His role as the Commander-in-Chief (CinC) is set by the Constitution. Beneath the President is the Secretary of Defense, as head of the Department of Defense. From there it starts to get complicated.

The Secretary of Defense (SecDef) is supported by the Secretaries of the Army, Air Force, and Navy (which also covers the Marines). He is also supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Chairman thereof. And while the SecDef is in the chain of command, he’s only able to execute approved policies, that is, those things the President has directed. For instance, if the President said, “Invade Iraq,” the SecDef could do that, but he couldn’t invade Iraq by way of Iran.

The Secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy, and The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Chiefs (JCS) themselves are not in the operational chain of command. They can’t pick up the phone and give orders for ships to sail, or divisions to move or squadrons to fly. That isn’t their job. Their job is to provide ready and trained forces to the combatant commanders (we’ll get to them in a moment). A big part of what they do is run the procurement programs that buy all the ships, tanks, planes, boots, flashlights, copy machines and stuff that it takes to run the services.

At the level under the Joint Chiefs is where we pick up the chain of command again. No service in today’s military fights alone. The battlespace is just too complex. Instead, the military has divided the world into geographic areas of responsibility, known as the Regional Commands, and specific areas of expertise, known as the Functional Commands.

The Regional Commands are:

  • Africa Command (AFRICOM), which, pretty obviously, covers Africa
  • European Command (EUCOM), covering Europe and parts of Western Asia
  • Pacific Command (PACOM), which covers the Pacific and parts of the Indian Ocean
  • Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which covers the US and the rest of North America
  • Central Command (CENTCOM), covering the Middle East, to include Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), covering South America

Each of the regional commanders is responsible for all US military operation in their areas, regardless of which service the forces are from. Some of the regional commanders “own” units assigned there. For instance, there are large numbers of units permantly assigned to PACOM and EUCOM. But CENTCOM and SOUTHCOM are just headquarters and are given control of units sent to their regions as needed.

NORTHCOM is a little different. While NORTHCOM is responsible for the defense of the homeland, US forces stationed at home don’t normally fall under it. They generally belong to their component service. NORTHCOM has responsibility for the air defense of the US (and Canada, with the cooperation of the Canadians) and for providing support to civilian agencies for disaster relief and response to attacks on the homeland.

Certain folks on the left of the political spectrum are up in arms about an active duty Army brigade being assigned to NORTHCOM for the first time. Lighten up, Frances.  The brigade is not planning the detention camps that are sure to come, just as soon as Bushilter calls off the election and rounds up all the oposition. In fact, I’d be surprised if the troopers in the brigade are doing much in the way of specific training for the job. The real work is being done by the staff on the brigade, identifiying the people and organizations they need to be able to contact and work with in case of a disaster, locating staging areas for likely events, and coordinating with the NORTHCOM staff to make sure they know what is expected of them. If the troops are called out to assist civilian agencies, Posse Commitatus is still in effect, which prevents the services from taking a direct role in law enforcement.

The Functional Commands are:

  • Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which provides command and control to nuclear forces
  • Joint Forces Command (JFCOM),who provides the training and organization of forces stationed in the US
  • Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which acts almost like a 5th armed service as it trains and organizes all the Special Operations Forces for all the services
  • Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), which coordinates all the air and sea shipping needs for logistics for all the services (the Navy’s underway replenishment is a separate issue).

Each of the Functional Commands has worldwide responsibility (except JFCOM, who instead provides trained and ready forces to the Regional Commanders). The commanders of both the Regional and Functional Commands are typically 4-star generals or admirals. Some, like PACOM are historically held by one service (has PACOM ever had a commander that wasn’t Navy?) while others rotate between the services fairly regularly. Each is nominated by the President to serve for two years, and typically renominated for a second two year term. All nominations need  to be approved by the Senate.

So how does this work in the real world? Let’s use Desert Storm as an example. Back then, many of the commands had slightly different names and missions, but it is close enough for our example.

When the US made the decision to defend Saudi Arabia, the CENTCOM commander, Gen. Schwarzkopf went with his staff and saw the situation and what needed to be done. CENTCOM doesn’t own any forces. He told the JCS and SECDEF what he needed to accomplish his mission and they in turn tapped the predecessor to JFCOM to  provide forces to him. TRANSCOM shipped the equipment by sea, and flew the troops in (mostly by commercial charter from the airlines).

CENTCOM in Saudi Arabia was a joint command, meaning it had forces from all the services. Even though Schwarzkopf was an Army general, he was in charge of forces from the Navy, Marines and Air Force as well as Army troops. To assist him, each service supplied a Joint Forces Component Commander or JFCC. For instance, the Army JFCC, LTG John Yeosock, was the guy under Schwarzkopf who ran all the Army units. He was also the Central Command Army commander or ARCENT, which also had the title of 3rd Army. That’s a lot of hats for one guy to wear, but they were basically all the same job. Each of the other services contributed a component commander and Scharzkopf’s staff worked to make sure all the services were pulling in the same direction.

After the decision was made to kick Saddam out of Kuwait by force, Schwarzkopf realized he needed a stronger force to do that. EUCOM was directed by the SECDEF to provide him with the additional forces. SOCOM also provided forces that he would need to perform reconnisance and other special missions.

After Desert Storm was over, CENTCOM released the forces back to their parent commands, where they began the cycle of training again to be ready the next time a Regional Commander needed them.

8 thoughts on “From the top…”

  1. “has PACOM ever had a commander that wasn’t Navy?”

    No, and you can thank John McCain for that one…torpedoed USAF Gen. Greg Martin’s nomination to be the commander of PACOM (and thereby ended his career) as part of the fallout from the Boeing tanker lease scandal. Martin was tarred in a guilt by association manner, since he had worked with the lady at the heart of all of it, Darlene Druyun. McCain was a real a-hole about the whole thing, ruining a good officer’s career.

    Point worth noting about the component commanders: while it’s pretty clear who owns what with regard to the ground and sea forces component commander (SOCOM pissing matches aside), things can get a little hazy with the air component commander (made all the worse by the USAF’s reputation as a power hungry service). For starters, while in theory all the fixed wing air is supposed to work solely for the air component commander at the CAOC (combined air operations center), Marine fixed wing air is owned part and parcel by the MAGTAF. They’ll give out their fixed wing resources to the CAOC as long as the Marine ground units don’t need them first. This really sticks in the USAF’s craw as it runs counter to our doctrine of centralized control, decentralized execution. Then you have rotary wing…I’m sure Outlaw can talk more about that, but suffice to say the air component commander doesn’t even come close to controlling most of that.

  2. Mike, I’ll leave the politics of nominations out of the discussion. As for the allocation of MAGTF assets to CAOC, I didn’t want to muddy the waters. Once people have a grasp of the basics, then I can teach them. Or they can read your excellent comment. I can think of a cuppla times when doctrine went by the wayside. In 67 or 68, the Marines lost their control of fixed wing, and instead, the CAOC bailed back a percentage of Marine Air to the Marines for their own purposes. It didn’t work well, but that didn’t matter to 7th AF. The fight over Marine air in Desert Storm was another example, coupled with the AF/Navy fight about airpower control and the fleets control over its own assets for fleet defense, etc.

  3. Thank you! I had no idea that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not in the chain of command. Is STRATCOM the descendant of SAC, or something entirely new?

  4. Maggie, Stratcom is sorta both. When the Air Force merged Tactical Air Command and Strategic Air Command into Air Combat Command, right about the same time the law creating STRATCOM was passed.

    STRATCOM commands the Air Force bombers (when they are tasked to provide a nuclear role-otherwise they still fall under Air Combat Command), the Air Force ICBM units, and the Navy’s Ohio Class Trident Missile subs. STRATCOM rotates between Navy Admirals and Air Force Generals. Interestingly, GEN Chilton, the current STRATCOM commander is a fighter pilot, not a bomber guy. But he’s also an astronaut.

  5. Military has a secret code book to keep track of all this, right?


    So. The civilian Department of Defense has SefDef, with individual Secs below that, SecNavy, etc. What is their responsibility? As opposed to the military side Chief of Staff for each service? Is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs roughly analogous to the SecDef?

    If the Joint Chiefs and SecDef are not in the chain of command, to whom does the Commander in Chief, in real life actually give the ‘go’ order?

    As a side note, where does the Coast Guard and the uniformed National Health Service fit here? Not to mention the Merchant Marine?

  6. Slight clarification on your explanation of STRATCOM…it doesn’t actually “command” or “own” any of the assets you described. The Navy boomers fall under their fleet command, USAF strategic bombers fall under ACC, regardless of whether they are standing alert/training for the nuclear mission or executing the conventional mission, and USAF ICBMs fall under AF Space Command. What STRATCOM does is provide the planning capability and structure to engage in global thermonuclear war. The write the plans and keep the structure up and running in case it is needed, but the only time STRATCOM would actually command and control any of these assets would be if the balloon had gone up and we were executing the SIOP…in which case we would all be having a VERY bad day.

    Of course, now I’m going to muddy the waters further and say that while my description of ownership of USAF assets is correct currently, in the very near future it will change as the USAF is planning on standing up a new MAJCOM that would be responsible for its strategic nuclear mission. This is due in no small part to its recent f**k-ups involving nukes. The new “AF Strategic Command” would take back ownership of the USAF ICBMs and of the USAF strategic bomber fleet when it is executing the strategic mission. Who owns what in the strategic bomber world and how this new command is going to interface with STRATCOM as far as planning goes is still very hazy.

  7. I should add that this “AF Strategic Command” is still breaking news, as it was just announced last week as the USAF four-stars’ annual Corona conference was wrapping up.

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