Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ decision to close down Joint Forces Command is certainly not a done deal — yet. The secretary, who is an old hand at these kinds of things, knows that decisions to close facilities, particularly those that bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars to local communities, are never regarded as final until the flag comes down. But although the opposition is gathering — the Virginia congressional delegation, otherwise all stout devotees of federal fiscal restraint, is outraged, and there is the matter of a four-star billet and all those other general officer slots, not to mention the loss of “joint” billets the services need to meet congressional requirements — the smart money should be on Gates, probably the most consequential defense secretary in history.
The idea of a four-star command to manage joint readiness and training has been around for years. Though Joint Forces Command is a lineal descendant of the old U.S. Atlantic Command, its spiritual forbear was the U.S. Strike Command, formed in 1961 by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to better fuse the joint capabilities (“jointness” in modern argot) of the services. Needless to say, in those days of parochialism, the services hated it. The Navy and Marine Corps refused point-blank to play, the Army and Air Force waited until McNamara left to neuter its charter, and it became the relatively toothless U.S. Readiness Command, responsible for joint readiness and training during the period when “joint” was a dirty word. REDCOM went away in 1987, but the need for a joint headquarters to manage readiness and training remained. (The 1995 report by the Commission on Roles and Missions, in an echo of McNamara’s language, called for a four-star headquarters to manage “joint training and integration of forces based in the Continental United States.”) So Joint Forces Command was stood up.
But JFCOM just hasn’t earned its keep. One reason is historical: Jointness is now such an accomplished fact among the services — particularly after 10 years of war — that it no longer needs a four-star champion. Another is that JFCOM’s joint concept and experimentation program has been a flop. Semi-official concepts like “rapid, decisive operations” and “effects-based operations” have contributed to doctrinal confusion over the past decade and haven’t made many friends for the command. The millions spent on the headquarters — and on the high-tech contractors corridor outside its compound in Norfolk, Va. — can be better spent elsewhere.
But there are still three essential functions performed by the command that should be maintained, whether by farming them out or by a shrunken and less rank-heavy headquarters.
The first is the continuing need to monitor joint readiness and integration of new and existing service systems. Whether it takes a separate four-star headquarters or whether the function can more efficiently be done by some existing joint agency overseen by the Joint Staff, interoperable fighting systems don’t magically occur because everybody has signed up to jointness. The services do have pet programs that, unless overseen, develop down service stovepipes just as naturally as water runs downhill. It’s debatable how successful JFCOM has been in this regard, but the need is there just as it has been since McNamara’s day.
Second, we need a place to work with our allies on concept development. The ability of our allies and friends to operate with U.S. forces, and to develop defense systems that are compatible with ours, is important now and will become even more important in coming years, particularly since development and production of many fighting systems takes so long and commits governments to long-lead-time policies. Having a single point of contact for U.S. concept development — a role JFCOM fills now — is particularly important with regard to our NATO allies, with whom we will continue to enjoy a long partnership. Like the joint integration mission, this function can be farmed out to other headquarters, but the multinational implications of this particular task need four-star attention. Candidates might include U.S. Northern Command or U.S. Strategic Command, but the best choice is probably the deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with a strong supervisory line to whatever command or agency gets tapped for the multinational interoperability mission.
Finally, the arguably most important function now discharged by JFCOM is the development and promulgation of effective joint doctrine, the real foundation of effective multiservice operations. Like jointness itself, joint doctrine has evolved over decades from redheaded-stepchild status to the glue that makes interservice operations effective. Part of the evolution has been through the means of production. Doctrinal development itself has gone through evolutionary change, from musty manuals on the shelf to essential daily practice. Years ago, in the musty-manual days, production of “joint” doctrine was farmed out to the services, and as a result, joint doctrine looked a lot like service doctrine with a purple cover slapped on. As joint operations became more complex and got more attention, the Joint Staff took up writing some doctrine, which — in the opinion of some — became a senior-man-in-the-room exercise. Today, the services have generally signed on to the central role of joint and service doctrine as the foundation for training, force structure and other functions, and joint doctrine’s importance is understood and accepted; it has become too vital to the services to be downgraded or shoved aside.
For this reason alone, some vestige of Joint Forces Command might be maintained. Another option, though, is to assign the joint-doctrine mission to a reinforced headquarters already in the neighborhood: the Joint Forces Staff College, in Norfolk, Va., (on the same compound, in fact, as JFCOM headquarters). JFSC already teaches students from all services at the theater and joint task force levels of operation — precisely where joint doctrine is most essential. On the well-tried service practice that “he who writes doctrine should also teach it,” an augmented teaching staff at JFSC, already teaching joint doctrine, would seem to be an ideal candidate for the extra mission. In addition to the logic of JFSC itself, keeping the doctrinal focus in the Tidewater region would have two other benefits. First, the area is a hot spot for military thinking: the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, the Air Force’s Air Combat Command and the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet are all within 20 miles; Marine Corps Concept and Development Command is just up the interstate at Quantico. Adding joint-doctrine development to JFSC’s charter will keep this consequential joint mission in the neighborhood. Second, keeping some of JFCOM’s manpower in Tidewater will help overcome local objections to standing JFCOM down entirely. The additional mission will mean several hundred more faculty at JFSC and the bustle of conferences, war games and travel that accompanies the development of joint doctrine.