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The CINCs' Strategies: The Combatant Command Process

Authored by COL (RET) William W. Mendel, Dr. Graham H. Turbiville Jr.. | December 1997

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As the United States approaches the 21st century, fundamental transformations of regional and global security environments are placing new importance on the strategic concepts and responses developed by the Combatant Commanders-in-Chief (CI N Cs). In assessing the strategy development process of the Combatant Commanders in detail, this study addresses both traditional planning considerations and highlights new factors and circumstances that shape CINC perspectives and approaches. Drawing upon interviews with CINCs' planning staffs, briefings, and national and command-level documents, the study reviews the formative guidance influencing strategy development; conducts command-by command assessments of the process whereby each CI NC develops and articulates his strategic vision; and concludes with a series of key judgements suggested by the CINCs' strategy development process.

Dominating CINCs' assessments are two variables? strategic guidance from senior echelons and evaluations of the threat environment. National-level strategy and planning documents aid directly in the development process by providing basic conceptual guidance for producing assessments and strategies. Understanding the dangers to U.S. interests within a CINC's domain is a central factor influencing the CINC's appreciation of his strategic situation. In every region, security challenges are complex, diverse, often nontraditional, and frequently interconnected. These challenges range from the conduct of major regional contingencies, dealing with internal threats to friendly regimes, addressing a host of transnational dangers, supporting large-scale disaster relief and humanitarian assistance operations, and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. They have strong interagency and international dimensions that evolve in an environment characterized by change, uncertainty, and surprise.

National-level guidance and assessments of complex security challenges are points of departure for the central part of the study which considers how geographic CINCs?U.S. Atlantic Command (USACOM), U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), U.S. European Command (USEUCOM), and U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM)?together with selected functional CINCs?U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and U.S. Strategic Command (U SSTRATCOM )?devel op their respective strategies.

Principal among the questions considered in the course of this command-by-command review are the following:

  • Do all combatant commands have a current strategy?
  • Where do the CINCs look for strategic guidance?
  • What is the doctrinal guidance?
  • Why are the CI N Cs' strategy documents important?
  • What is the planning process?
  • Is there a common theme to the CINCs' strategies?
  • Have the CINCs' strategies accommodated to new threats and security concerns?
  • Do strategies effectively link ends, ways, and means?
  • Who participates in writing a strategy and who approves it?

At each combatant command headquarters, these and other questions were addressed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable joint planners, skilled in the art of military strategy. Yet, the review suggested that joint doctrine on this subject is incomplete, and that authoritative guidance encouraging a coherent system of combatant command strategies is needed. This view of the CINCs? processes identifies an approach that is incompletely defined and structured, reflecting the pretermission of the U.S. jointdoctrine community. It argues for the promulgation of joint procedures and doctrine to guide strategy development, and measures for at least some form of review and coordination of final products.

The study argues also for the inclusion of common tenets that are considered in the development of a CINC's strategy. Until direction concerning the process for writing these strategies is institutionalized, the issue will remain the source of debate and confusion. CINCs should be held to some standard for current and coherent strategies affecting their combatant commands.

This is critically important for five principal reasons. First, a strategy provides the CI NC's vision and guidance for a myriad of activities that protect U.S. interests within geographic or functional areas of responsibility. Commanders of subordinate theaters of operations or subregions can benefit from the unifying action of a theater strategy. Second, because of the way our nation has organized its joint forces to fight under the command authority of the geographic CI NCs, a strategy is needed to integrate the many U.S. and multilateral regional activities involved. CINCs, for example, must account for U.S. policy and interests, alliances, economic and political issues, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), new technologies, and information warfare, among other considerations.

Third, a strategy is useful in pulling together the U.S. interagency cooperation and support that a CI N C often will need for mission success. Knowing where the command is headed for the long haul, how peacetime activities are meant to support warfighting plans, and what government and nongovernment agencies can buttress the CINC's strategic concepts can assist combatant staffs and subordinate commands as they develop campaign plans. Fourth, CI NCs' strategies are critically necessary as a basis for cooperation among the combatant commands. The doctrinal imperatives of ?supporting to supported? relationships, which planning for the major regional contingencies demands, suggest this in particular, as does the requirement to address emerging transnational dangers and nontraditional threats that defy classical notions of territorial boundaries?or Areas of Responsibility (AOR).

Finally, a complete set of the CINCs' strategies? developed on the basis of common criteria?is important to the Joint Staff and service staffs. This would provide staffs with the means of accessing the current strategic concepts of combatant commanders and ensure that the staffs fully understood the range of CINC support requirements. If a complete strategy includes the ends, ways and means of strategic vision and intent, then the CINCs occupy the primary echelon of what can properly be called military strategy. This analysis, based on primary research through 1996, provides a view of how the CINCs go about writing a strategy and offers suggestions about the process.


Why do the Combatant Commanders need a strategy, and where do they find the guidance for such a document? Is there a prescribed process, and who approves these strategies?

This study asserts that a formal, written strategy is critically important for setting the primary themes of unified action within a Commander-in-Chief's (CI N C's) mission area. The study describes the methods used by the unified commands to develop strategy documents and places particular emphasis on the planning processes employed by combatant commands. Overall, this monograph provides an appraisal of the strategy development process that readers can use to make their own judgements about the status of U.S. planning for unified action of the armed forces some 10 years after Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act.1

To provide an adequate sample of strategic planning activities, the authors conducted research with the field grade officers who write the strategies in seven combatant commands. General or Flag officers also were interviewed, on occasion, to improve understanding of the strategy process. The authors' intent was to record the experiences of the strategic planners who were most directly involved in writing the CINCs' strategies?to the extent that these strategies existed. The central focus of the story was the process used to develop a CI NC's strategy, the key players who participated in the process, and what the product looked like.

Adjusting to a Changing World.

The CINCs' strategy documents promise to be even more important command and control instruments now that we have moved into a post-Cold War period of transformation in regional security environments. Regional wars and other dangers such as nuclear proliferation?exacerbated in the wake of the USSR's dissolution?are subject to closer analysis now, as are an array of newly perceived transnational and nontraditional dangers.

As defined by the National Command Authorities, the post-Soviet security environment has significantly affected military strategies for protecting U.S. interests around the world. The CINCs have moved quickly from the global warfighting scenario to orient their planning efforts regionally. Joint planners now have only three resourced and fully maintained numbered warplans; these are plans for two regional contingencies (Korea and Iraq), plus a supporting nuclear employment plan (SI OP).2

The National Military Strategy (NM S) double-tasks the CINCs: to ?thwart aggression? through their deterrence and warfighting capabilities, and concurrently to ?promote stability? in their domains through constructive interaction and regional cooperation.3 The scope of these two mission areas demands that a CI NC provide a theater framework for establishing strategic priorities and objectives, integrating multiple capabilities, and synchronizing peacetime engagement with warfighting preparedness activities. That framework is the CINC's strategy document. It provides the central themes within the CINCs' Areas of Responsibility (AOR?see Figure I-1) by which the unified command staff and components conduct engagement activities to encourage regional stability, or to pave the way for "fighting to win."

Fighting to Win.

The unified commands must be prepared to fight or support two theater wars at about the same time, and maintain an ability to deter and defeat attacks by weapons of mass destruction (WMD).4 The two "major regional contingency" (MRC) requirement was confirmed in 1993 during a sweeping budgetary analysis called the "Bottom-Up Review" and again addressed in the Quadrennial Defense Review of 1997.5 The rationale for maintaining a two war capability well into the future was provided by former Secretary of Defense Les Aspin:

First, we need to avoid a situation in which the United States in effect makes simultaneous wars more likely by leaving an opening for potential aggressors to attack their neighbors, should our engagement in a war in one region leave little or no force available to respond effectively to defend our interests in another.

Second, fielding forces sufficient to win two wars nearly simultaneously provides a hedge against the possibility that a future adversary . . . might one day confront us with a larger than-expected threat.6

In this regard, geographic CINCs will have to maintain a power projection capability to deploy forces within their respective theaters as well as augment or establish U.S. presence in a different theater. At the same time their strategic concepts must address unconventional and nontraditional perils, to include the transnational dangers (terrorism, insurgency, arms and drug trafficking, environmental damage, and so on). Unrestrained by borders and international protocols, these new dangers threaten the classic nation-state as surely?if more subtly?as regional wars and WMD.7

Supporting Engagement in Peacetime.

During President Clinton's first term, his National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement made it clear that the United States would not back away from dangers threatening regional stability, even as we deter and defend against conventional war:

Our nation can only address this era's dangers and opportunities if we remain actively engaged in global affairs.8

This theme continues in Clinton's second administration in his National Security Strategy for a New Century.There he asserts that ?We can only preserve our security and well being at home by being actively involved in the world. . . .? The President's Strategy thrice lists six ?strategic priorities? that directly affect the CINCs? strategic objectives and concepts: foster a democratic, peaceful Europe; forge a strong and stable Europe; continue U.S. world leadership as a force for peace; support an open world trading system; increase cooperation in confronting transnational security threats;strengthen the military and diplomacy.9

The CINC's Strategy?A Full Rucksack.

To champion this widely ranging list of strategic priorities the CINCs must carry a full rucksack. A formal listing of the CINCs' tasks are found in the classified Unified Command Plan, but generally they are responsible for these kinds of activities: preparing joint forces for nuclear and conventional combat; keeping their component commands engaged throughout the AOR to deter war and encourage regional stability; devising new ways to counter the proliferation of WMD in their AORs; and finding practical means to counter the transnational phenomena that place democratic countries at risk. In addition, the CINCs must be armed with a cogent rationale for demanding the military resources needed for theater operations. A coherent, coordinated CINC's strategy document is a critical command and control instrument. If this is so, then what should be expected of a CINC's strategy?

A first look suggests (a priori) that a CINC's strategy needs to be consolidated in some type of document available to the entire command. It needs to provide specific guidance and objectives for the entire AOR, and for activities in peacetime, crises, and war. It should be written to protect U.S. national interests in the CINC's domain, and provide for the expansion of U.S. influence. The strategy should outline strategic objectives and concepts for peacetime engagement, deterrence, regional conflicts, contingencies, security assistance, and support for civil authorities in countering transnational and other nontraditional threats.

By its strategic objectives, the strategy should provide a certain link with the President's National Security Strategy, the Secretary of Defense's regional U.S. security strategies, and the Chairman's National Military Strategy. And it should provide the rationale for resourcing the CINC's strategic objectives and concepts. There may be other things a CI NC's strategy needs to do, and research with the CI NCs' planners who write the strategies and related documents can provide this insight.

CI N C's Appreciation.

The CI NC's appreciation (or assessment) of the strategic situation is a critical step in the process of developing a strategy. The CINC and his key planners must conceptually assemble many parts and considerations into a cogent strategy. It takes a certain intellectual competence and courage to assimilate many diverse factors to form a vision for the required military conditions, sequence of actions, and application of force to achieve strategic objectives?and to do that for the mid-term years ahead.

A myriad of variables must be received and processed through the filter of the strategist's experience, education and training, and his biases. For instance, national policy guidance, personalities of leaders, command relationships, the geography of a region, military resources, the proliferation of WMD, host nation support, security assistance, and peacetime combined exercises can be such disparate subjects that their integration within a strategy becomes more art than science. No computer can compete with the human skill required to assimilate the sweep of factors to be considered.

Dominating the strategy assessment process are two variables common to geographic and functional unified commands?strategic guidance from senior echelons and the threat environment. An appreciation of these two variables?beginning with strategic guidance?is instructive for understanding the CINC's strategy development process.


1. U.S. Congress, Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, PL 99-433, October 1, 1986. Interestingly, Section 104 requires that the President ?transmit to Congress each year [on the day he submits the budget] . . . the National Security Strategy of the United States.? The language of the act requires the report to include U.S. interests, objectives, and strategic concepts (?short-term and long-term uses of . . . national power?). The Act placed no requirement on the CINCs to produce a similar strategy at their strategic level, but it significantly strengthened their hand via the command authority of ?combatant command.?

2. The plans are USCINCCENT OPLAN 1002, USCINCPAC OPLAN 5027, and USCINCSTRAT OPLAN 8044. The Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) is a nuclear target list supporting military operation plans. In the post-Soviet era, U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) responsibilities include support to regional strategies, contingency operations and counterprol iferation actions. The SI OP is no longer a stand-alone document prepared by the (former) Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff; rather, it has been transformed into a numbered OPLAN now prepared by the STRATCOM Plans and Policy Directorate, J-5, and is a target list integrated into the Joint Staff's Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (J SCP).

3. John M. Shalikashvili, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Military Strategy, Washington, DC: February 1995, p. 4.

4. Weapons of Mass Destruction (WM D) are nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

5. Les Aspin, former Secretary of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense, Report on the Bottom-Up Review, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, October 1993, pp. 27-31.

6. Ibid, p. 19.

7. For example, see Graham H. Turbiville, ?Operations Other Than War: Organized Crime Dimension,? Military Review, Vol. 74, No. 1, January 1994, pp. 35-47. Also find a series of articles concerning gray area phenomena and OOTW in the Cass Publications international journal, Low Intensity Conflict and Law Enforcement.

8. William J. Clinton, A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, February 1996, p. iv.

9. Clinton, A National Security Strategy for a New Century, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, May 1997, p. iii. Strategic priorities are listed at pp. i-ii, 2, and 29.