Tell It to the Pentagon: 'Form Follows Function'

DAVID EVANS

February 24, 1993|By DAVID EVANS

Washington. -- The U.S. Air Force and the Army cannot agree on how to abbreviate ''lieutenant colonel,'' which says a lot about how far the armed services are prepared to go toward working together, despite Gen. Colin Powell's recent blandishments that ''we have been very successful in breaking old patterns of service parochialism.''

The little things have a way of revealing the big problems. In the Army, a lieutenant colonel will abbreviate his rank with the letters LTC, but if he's in the Air Force, the approved form is LtCol.

Such is the weight of tradition. It applies at an even more basic level: The organization of the United States' conventional fighting forces along geographic instead of functional lines. The United States' strategic nuclear forces -- the bombers, the land-based missiles and the Navy's ballistic-missile submarines -- have finally been organized under a single commander, but this simple, functional organization does not apply to Army divisions, tactical fighter wings or naval surface and attack submarine forces.

They remain distributed in penny-packets to geographic commanders, sort of the way Rome's legions were farmed out to proconsuls. Bear with me on the listing, but there is a commander-in-chief, or CINC, of the Atlantic Command, another for the Pacific Command, a third for Europe (whose area includes most of Africa), another CINC to cover Central and South America, and the so-called Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, which makes this CINC the guardian of the United States' energy supplies.

These arrangements basically have been in place since World War II, when the globe was divided between Adm. Ernest King in the Atlantic and Adm. William Halsey in the Pacific.

On a map, the arrangement looks even more archaic. The Atlantic and Pacific commands are separated by straight

north-south lines across the water, as at the 17 degree east meridian in the South Atlantic, in a manner that recalls the declaration in 1493 of Pope Alexander VI that Spain was entitled to all lands in the New World west of a north-south line drawn about 300 miles west of the Azores, and Portugal was free to claim any new discoveries east of this line.

If the arrangements of 1493 remain the model for 1993, the allocation of U.S. forces to far-flung regional commands ignores the revolution in communications that has occurred since World War II. Those fat regional headquarters simply get in the way; they slow down the flow of electrons back to Washington. Indeed, when speed and coordination are vital, these headquarters are circumvented anyway, as was the case routinely during the Vietnam War.

These geographic commands reflect a more subtle mindset. How one organizes reflects how one thinks, and the overwhelming message is that turf is important. It translates into operations geared to seize ground objectives, as in the expression ''key terrain,'' instead of the more fundamental purpose of destroying the enemy's forces. Case in point: The 1991 Persian Gulf War ended with U.S. ground divisions halted at phase lines, or limits of advance. They had not gone all out, to the last gallon of fuel, to destroy Iraq's Republican Guards divisions.

In a larger sense, another technological revolution blurs the distinction between geography and function. The United States is deploying non-nuclear forces that have strategic capabilities. Cruise missiles, for example. Or Air Force fighter-bombers that can deploy halfway around the world with aerial refueling.

The revolution in conventional-weapons technology and communications suggests an organization based on function, not geography.

Indeed, General Powell has enunciated a functional three-tier strategy. First tier: Maintain the nuclear deterrent. Second tier: Maintain ready-to-go conventional forces. Anywhere. Anytime. Third tier: Maintain the ability to reconstitute, or build from scratch, additional conventional forces. This last function involves considerations like industrial base capacity and the health of the Selective Service system, which combatant-force commanders rarely have time to think about.

Why not put a single commander in charge of each task? Scrap the geographic commands entirely. General Powell himself has said, ''We must divest ourselves of Cold War thinking.''

Of course, with a military organized by function, not region, the need for separate military services would be the next item on the table. After all, the one mission that justified an independent Air Force, strategic nuclear bombardment, has now been subsumed into the new joint strategic command.

No separate services, just different branches in one unified military for naval, air and ground operations. Let true jointness reign, and insist especially that everybody abbreviate lieutenant colonel the same way.

David Evans is military-affairs writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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