The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
More Books by James Dunnigan
Dirty Little Secrets
The Purple Headquarters Eater
by James Dunnigan
July 22, 2003
The U.S. armed forces are evolving a new way to command troops in combat. It’s been an evolutionary process, beginning after World War II, when American generals and staffs were assigned responsibility for military emergencies in different parts of the world. When there was a crises, the “CINC” (Commander in Chief) of that region would be in charge of whatever American forces were sent to the area to take care of the problem. Through the 1980s and 90s, procedures, laws and military organizations were changed to make it easer for the CINCs to deal with all those different forces. A CINC has always been expected to expertly deploy navy, army, air force and marine forces. For decades, this meant having the commanders from each of those services decide how they would operate. But this often caused disputes over who should do what when. The CINC often found himself in the middle of service rivalries that were causing him more grief than the enemy. But since the 1980s, the Department of Defense has been pushing real hard for everyone to think “Purple” (what was good for everyone) than just concentrate on what was best for their particular service. Each service tends to believe that they are the essential ingredient for military success, and that the other services are just playing a supporting role. It’s taken a generation, but there are now more “Purple” generals than those in various shades of green and blue (the colors of the uniforms in the different services.)
The signs of the passion for Purple are everywhere. During the 1990s, the air force reorganized its combat units into “Air Expeditionary Units,” AEFs). Each is a miniature air force, with combat and support aircraft and the troops to maintain them. Several are trained and ready to quickly move to an overseas hot spot on short notice. When a CINC needs air power, the air force asks him how many AEFs he needs.
The navy had always been organized into task forces, but it also had a long tradition of going it alone. After all, the navy has warships, warplanes and it’s own army (the marines.) For the last half century, most crises have not involved the risk of a large war, and were small enough so that the navy thought it could do it all. That has changed, as CINCs became less tolerant of the navy’s independent ways. Several admirals were chewed out during the 1991 Gulf War, and the navy started to take Purple seriously. But the Gulf War demonstrated another reason for the navy to get Purple. That war required a lot of aerial refueling for navy warplanes, and this required air force tankers. Congress has shown no enthusiasm for buying a fleet of aerial tankers for the navy, so the navy has to be nice to the CINC, who can order the air force to refuel the carrier aircraft.
The army has always been the most purple of the services, because, more than any other service, the army is the one you can’t do without . The army came first, before ships and aircraft. But now the army is undergoing an evolutionary change brought about by changes in technology. UAVs, more spy satellites and videocams at the front have shown that there are too many levels of headquarters between the brigades (which do the fighting) and the CINC (who is running the show.) Put four divisions into an area and the army will bring along an army headquarters, two corps headquarters and four division headquarters to supervise the activities of 15 or so combat brigades. During the Iraq campaign, the CINC found it counterproductive to go through an army, corps and division headquarters to tell a brigade commander he wanted something specific done, right now. And often the CINC just bypassed all those headquarters. So now the army is thinking seriously about getting rid of one or more headquarters. If they don’t, CINCs will continue to ignore the redundant headquarters, creating more embarrassing situations and, ultimately, Congressional unwillingness to pay for headquarters that just get in the way.
The army could see this coming with what the marines have been doing for the last few decades. The marines have gradually reorganized themselves into battalion and brigade sized “expeditionary forces.” There was no way to avoid this, since there were a limited number of amphibious ships and the marines had to be prepared to go ashore with everything they needed for up to 30 days. The Marine Divisions still exist, mostly on paper. When needed, the marines gather together enough battalions and brigades to form a division and that’s that. The army is larger, with 18 active and reserve divisions (compared to three marine divisions.) The most likely candidate for removal is the corps headquarters. Many nations have done this in the last century, and better communications and surveillance capabilities make the corps headquarters less essential. Meanwhile, the CINCs will be stepping up the pressure to get these extra layers of headquarters out of the way.