08 January 2019

In her article, “A Commanding Problem: Historical Insight for Military Organizational Reform,” Strauss Distinguished Scholar Celeste Gventer highlights the importance of General Thomas’ speech at the Texas National Security Forum. General Thomas “questioned the suitability of the American system of geographical combatant commands for meeting the nation’s current and future security challenges.”

As an example of a current challenge, General Thomas addresses China’s growing presence in Latin America. China is under the responsibility of the Indo-Pacific Command while Panama is under the responsibility of the Southern Command. This is a problem because “the kinds of problems posed by Beijing’s global influence campaigns belong, really, to no command, though whether a command or some other entity is the right approach merits a full debate.”

Congress has said that the combatant command structure needs a relook, and Gventer and General Thomas agree that in order to do that properly you need to look at the history, “the system of geographic commands has been in place so long that it is fully baked into the Defense Department’s DNA."

Gventer then proceeds to explain how the current geographical combatant command structure came to be. Throughout World War II, both the British and the US had established a geographical structure. However, the Army and Air Force favored functional command while the Navy wanted a unified command in the Pacific. The War and Navy Departments fought intensely over how the unified command structure would function. Eventually, President Truman signed the Outline Command Plan (later called the Unified Command Plan) in 1946. This was a temporary arrangement and it has been changed many times, but the basic geographical outlines are seven decades old. Gventer argues that it is important to redraw the seams and that understanding this history is vital for that. She credits General Thomas for raising this important and difficult issue.