U.S. defense and diplomacy needs a major redesign to get serious about strategic competition with China and Russia.
A strong United States military is necessary, but insufficient to meet the truly global response to China and Russia that is needed today. And simply reorganizing within the military is not the solution.
To stay ahead in the 21st century, the United States needs to think well outside of the Pentagon and create new interagency and integrated regional commands that are guided from the top by a China-Russia Task Force in the National Security Council at the White House.
China and Russia operate within the gaps and seams of U.S. policy and in roughly the last decade have challenged America’s military and non-military power, accomplishing their goals mostly short of armed conflict. While some herald this as the reemergence of great power competition, it is more appropriate to acknowledge that America is simply rejoining the game it chose to ignore for the last three decades. But after nearly three years of the Pentagon’s current National Defense Strategy, which purported to shift U.S. focus from counterterrorism to China and Russia, the United States must question whether its structures and processes can meet this challenge. Institutionalizing the Joint Chiefs chairman’s relatively new powers to move troops around as the ‘global force integrator’ within the Defense Department is not the answer.
There is a growing appetite to end the geographical alignment of the combatant commands and reorient to a functional one. Here’s what that means. Below the secretary of defense, at the top of the military’s chain of command are the 11 officers who run 11 combatant commands, or COCOMs. Six of them are in charge of geographic commands, controlling U.S. troops in various regions of the globe like Europe, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific. The other five control “functional” commands in charge of things like America’s nuclear weapons, cybersecurity, and the disposition of special operations forces. Proponents of functional alignment claim the geographic combatant commands are irrelevant for today’s “transregional, multi-domain, and multi-functional” strategic environment and need changing. Indeed, since the first Unified Command Plan in 1946, subsequent plans have evolved and created new commands, such as U.S. Central Command from the Middle East to South Asia, and U.S. Special Operations Command to address increasingly complex security challenges.
Strategic competition requires much more. Evolution requires a mechanism to fully integrate not just the military but all U.S. government departments and agencies to compete with China and Russia, and win in war when necessary. It’s not a new idea, but one being resurfaced currently by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. China and Russia erode U.S. security and prosperity through growing political, economic, and military competitions. They capitalize on information and economic advantages using legal manipulation, propaganda, and energy coercion. They do it supported by military modernization and occasional use of military force to weaken U.S. alliances and partnerships and undermine the U.S.-led global order. So while Americans may tire of the cliché “whole of government approach,” the Chinese and Russians are engaged in a whole of nation approach that some analysts are calling “comprehensive coercion.”
Adm. Michael Mullen, who served alongside Gates as President Barack Obama’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also highlighted this problem a decade ago, saying: “U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military, too dependent upon the generals and admirals who lead our major overseas commands.” While ambassadors and legislators have echoed this concern, Congress’ 2016 designation of the Joint Chiefs chairman as “global force integrator” only further increases the military-civilian imbalance of power.
The next combatant command evolution must restore U.S. diplomacy with military power. Functional alignment of the COCOMs is not enough. It would have the forces aligning to activities such as security cooperation, strategic deterrence, and stability operations — all niche requirements and stovepipes.
Instead, we propose a network of integrated regional commands coordinated and facilitated from the president’s NSC. Our idea differs from previous ideas such as the “lead agent” concept, and others seeking to reform the entire interagency process, incorporate the combatant commands into the State Department’s six regionally-focused bureaus, or “import” the chief of mission authority into the regional assistant secretaries. But we build on an earlier report from the Atlantic Council Combatant Command Task Force.
In practice, this reorganization would, first, create an NSC China–Russia Task Force that would endure changes in administrations — more on that in a second — and function as the directive authority for all China- and Russia-focused competition campaign activities, including removing coordinating authority for China and Russia from the U.S. Indo-Pacific and U.S. European Commands. Second, create a common interagency map of regional boundaries, and realign all existing regional governmental bureaus to the new boundaries. The Defense Department’s geographic combatant command boundaries do not match the State Department and other agency and intelligence community regional alignments. Third, create regional ambassadors-at-large with directive authority to lead the integrated regional commands. These ambassadors would report to the NSC through the secretary of state. The military’s four-star geographic combatant commanders would serve alongside counterparts from other government departments such as Treasury, Justice, and Commerce. Country ambassadors would report to their respective ambassador-at-large.
We recognize that with key stakeholders in the Defense Department, State Department, and Congress, such a reorganization would represent a significant power shift within the U.S. government, with implications for budgets, authorities, and organizational identities. The defense community will push back on any significant reduction in the autonomy developed over years of “overseas contingency operations” (aka: war). However, this effort will not require a massive cultural shift, only a renewed emphasis on traditional civilian control and national policy.
For the State Department, diplomacy returns to the forefront of U.S. statecraft, but it must increase the Foreign Service capacity given its recent hollowing, create a professional development system commensurate with DOD, and shift culture toward a new regional structure. In short, this requires reforming what Gates called the “stultifying bureaucracy that frustrates its best people and greatly impedes its agility.” Existing ambassadors-at-large, such as the counterterrorism coordinator, would serve as precedents for new leadership responsibilities above embassy-level.
From Congress, interagency integration requires new statutory authority similar to the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. Congress must work with the president to establish integrated regional commands in the Unified Command Plan, or develop replacement guidance. Congress must also mandate an interagency incentive structure via career progression and professional education systems, and ensure funding to enable the new balance of power. Of paramount importance however, Congress must amend 50 U.S. Code § to establish the China–Russia Task Force within the National Security Council.
Centralizing responsibility for global integration in the Defense Department is insufficient to enable the United States to succeed in today’s great power competition, and only contributes to the further militarization of U.S. foreign policy. Creating a directive authority at the NSC and interagency integration at the regional level will ensure the United States can effectively regain and maintain the position of advantage required to advance the security and prosperity of U.S. citizens, and those of its allies and partners.
Maj. Steve Ferenzi is an Army strategist and Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC)’s G-5 Strategic Planning Division. He has served with the 3rd and 5th Special Forces Groups (Airborne) and the 82nd Airborne Division, and holds a master of international affairs degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Keith Weber is a plans officer in the USASOC G-5 Regional Planning Division. He is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and served as a fire control (weapons systems) officer on the AC-130U Spooky Gunship. He holds a master of international relations degree from Troy University.
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.