COCOMS BEHAVING POORLY—SOME NAVAL EXAMPLES
John T. Kuehn
The online national security magazine War on the Rocks published the following quotation over a month ago while running a series on the maritime policies of the United States.
“Persistent and insatiable combatant commander demands have worn out America’s indispensable naval force, consuming resources that could have been used to redesign the fleet and replenish readiness for great-power competition.” From the article “NAVIGATING THE SHOALS OF RENEWED AMERICAN NAVAL POWER: IMPERATIVES FOR THE NEXT SECRETARY OF THE NAVY” by Bryan Durkee and Chris Bassler (26 February 2021)
I agree with the claim that combatant commanders (COCOMs in DOD-speak) have worn out U.S. naval forces. But this needs a look historically with some examples of this happening from the past.
First some definition and context are in order. The COCOMS have been around for a while, but they really came into their own after the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Reform Act (GNA) in 1986. Prior to that point it had been difficult for the COCOMS to behave badly as regards naval forces. Both Pacific Fleet and Atlantic Fleet Commanders (PACFLEET and LANTFLEET) were four star commands and had much say in how the forces under their control were used after they were deployed. Too, the numbered fleets, especially the 7th Fleet in the Pacific, but also the 2nd Fleet in the Atlantic during the Cold War tended to defer and confer more with the Fleet commands, while being officially under the operational control of a geographic COCOM. So Goldwater Nichols was the milestone for change.
It was not until the joint operations, first in Panama, and then—much more importantly-- during Desert Shield-Desert Storm, that the COCOMS began to actually use their beefed up powers under GNA. In Panama the SOUTHCOM commander exercised for more direction of the naval forces in support of JUST CAUSE and began to establish the norm of more active involvement in naval operational matters by a COCOM for the forces that were, after all, under his operational control (OPCON). The COCOM in this case was an army officer, General Max Thurman.
However it was during the run up to the so-called First Gulf War, DESERT SHIELD, where another Army General serving as the CENTCOM COCOM began to misbehave. In the past if the naval forces under the “command” of the COCOM, usually a numbered fleet, made a recommendation about deployment positioning and stationing, the COCOM deferred to the fleet commander’s recommendation, as long as the missions assigned could be performed as directed. General Norman Schwarzkopf, established the precedent of micromanaging naval operations, both in port visits for naval forces on call in the Sixth Fleet area in the Mediterranean as well as micromanaging US air defense by AEGIS cruisers for a transit President Bush made during a transit to the theater and to Europe. These might seem minor, but once a precedent confirms a way of behaving, that becomes the new norm. Bottom line, the advice of naval flag officers was rejected, despite their assurances that they could accomplish assigned missions A precedent that had been in place since the Korean War, which had been the last time such a thing had happened (under another Army General and his staff, Douglas MacArthur).
Since then, the actions of COCOMS regarding the use of naval forces have only become more invasive and have spread to a conception that whenever they need an aircraft carrier, for example, it should be made available to them, even though they might have more than enough land-based aircraft in their theater to meet all their requirements. Everyone likes to have a bit in reserve, but often the costs for having that extra bit of “slush” are also misunderstood. In one case, a COCOM whose area of operations included Afghanistan said he preferred using Navy aircraft carriers, despite the fact they needed significant support from Air Force tankers. Why? Because he did not have to worry about the administrative and logistical requirements of using aircraft actually based on land in his theater. In other words, it saved his staff work, and despite the fact that tactical air squadrons were available for deployment in country, where their reaction times to tactical events were much shorter.
Thus the arguments that this kind of behavior by the COCOMS has contributed to the current poor state of readiness in today’s Navy. Recently, because of attacks far inland in Iraq an aircraft carrier was delayed in leaving the Persian Gulf, despite the multitude of air bases in the region…but the belief that the carrier provided a more robust signal won the day. This does not seem to have done much good, using aircraft carrier to keep Shia militias and others in Iraq and elsewhere from attacking US forces and partners. But COCOMS learn slowly—if at all.
The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Naval War College, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
 Arleigh Burke, “Burke Speaks out on Korea,” in USNI Proceedings (May 2000), pp. 68-72:
See Mackenzie Eaglen, “Putting Combatant Commanders on a Demand Signal Diet,” 09 November 2020 at https://warontherocks.com/2020/11/putting-combatant-commanders-on-a-demand-signal-diet/ (accessed 3-31-2021).