Services seek to improve joint operations

Services seek to improve joint operations

NORFOLK, Va.-This year the Pentagon conducted military exercises here to determine how the Information Revolution will affect the ability of the four armed services to fight together, or "jointly." The results were disquieting.

Members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, fed up with their often-incompatible communications systems, in essence led an information revolt. According to a Pentagon analysis of the exercise, the result was a "de facto migration away from command-and-control systems to ad hoc use of readily available, user-friendly commercial technologies." In plain English, the troops used e-mail.

The fact that the services still can't communicate adequately during joint operations, despite years of lectures by congressional committees to make it happen, was one reason Defense Secretary William S. Cohen in October put a single military command in charge of what the Pentagon now calls "Joint Experimentation." Cohen gave the job to the U.S. Atlantic Command in Norfolk, assigning it 1,100 additional people and putting it in charge of five military analysis and computer centers stretching from Suffolk, Va., to San Antonio, Texas. Cohen's move follows a 1993 reorganization of the Atlantic Command that gave it responsibility for joint training, as well as command over 80 percent of military forces stationed in the United States. The Atlantic Command has now become one of the fastest-growing, least understood and most influential bureaucracies in the Pentagon's far-flung empire.

"I think it's fair to say we've been handed the 'joint' baton," said Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., head of the Atlantic Command, in an interview at his headquarters here.

The transformation of the Atlantic Command into the chief advocate of cooperative war-fighting, Gehman explained, began with the 1993 Roles & Missions Report, a congressionally ordered study of how to decrease duplication and increase cooperation among the armed services. That study recommended that the Pentagon choose a single war-fighting commander in chief to be the advocate for jointness. With the tools Cohen has given him, Gehman is that man.

Indeed, the Atlantic Command has evolved into the official torchbearer of Congress's landmark 1986 Goldwater-Nichols reforms, which promoted a more streamlined chain of command and a focus on smooth joint operations between the four services. Following the relative debacle of the 1983 invasion of Grenada-where the U.S. armed services were hamstrung by dangerously incompatible equipment, war-fighting doctrines, and operational procedures-Goldwater-Nichols vested far more power in the Joint Chiefs and Joint Staff in the Pentagon and in the unified commanders in chief ("CINCS" in Pentagon jargon), who now oversee units from all four services brought together under collective regional commands. The aim was to give more power to the Pacific, Atlantic, Central, European, and Southern commands, whose leaders would have a joint perspective and could get the services operating cooperatively, rather than at cross-purposes.

Ever since passage of Goldwater-Nichols, the services have been improving their ability to operate together. Joint Staff positions that were once considered career dead-ends are now the stepping-stones to promotion and thus attract the services' best officers. Most major recent Pentagon operations-from Desert Storm to Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and Bosnia-were conducted by joint task force commanders using a headquarters staff made up of troops from all four services.

Yet, as the Norfolk exercise revealed, some obstacles remain. "We still have big-time problems with incompatible command-and-control systems," Gehman said, "and the way I've decided to tackle that is to focus on the future rather than trying to figure out how to connect all our present systems together. Other people are already working on that. My argument is that if we're going to develop a new piece of equipment, or a new doctrine or operational concept, design it `joint' right from the start. That way in the future we won't have to spend many years and billions of dollars retrofitting everything to make it inter-operable on the battlefield."

The Atlantic Command is treading on sensitive turf when it tries to influence the development of weapons and war-fighting doctrines. Under Goldwater-Nichols, the individual services remain responsible for "training and equipping" their own forces. They guard those roles jealously.

Aware of how sensitive the issue is, but convinced that joint operations are the wave of the future, Sens. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., both senior members of the Armed Services Committee, pushed the Pentagon this year to fully fund and promote joint military experiments. The Atlantic Command was given the lead, as well as the responsibility for the five analysis centers.

"What that did," Gehman said, "was give me enough people, volume, and mass to go out and experiment independently-to hold seminars, war games, and exercises-so that when I go to Washington, D.C., I have the evidence and insights that allow me to compete on equal terms with the individual services. I also have a fairly aggressive and forward-leaning per4sonal philosophy on the need for jointness, so there will be tensions. And those tensions are likely to grow, because I plan to bring up topics that people probably hoped were resting quietly in a graveyard somewhere."