Small Wars Journal

Time is Always a Constraint: Transforming Headquarters Organization and Employment for the Multi-Domain Battle Environment

Thu, 07/20/2017 - 9:17am

Time is Always a Constraint: Transforming Headquarters Organization and Employment for the Multi-Domain Battle Environment

Colin Gandy

Time dominates present descriptions of the Multi-Domain Battle (MDB) concept which emphasizes the rapid and transitory nature of opportunities on the future battlefield as well as the growing imperative to better equip the tactical elements of the future force to exploit these fleeting windows of opportunity.[1] Notably, little has been said on what will be required to optimize the orchestration, synchronization, and decision support functions of headquarters elements and staffs in this environment. A new look at headquarters establishment and employment methods is required to ensure headquarters structures of the future are optimized for the speed and comprehensive battlefield awareness the MDB environment will demand.

Higher echelon headquarters are charged with the critical task of war organization: blending operational design, art, and interagency coordination seamlessly to ensure tactical action can be translated into operational and strategic success.[2] However, current methods to form and deliver these critical capabilities are too slow and insufficient for the demands of a rapidly shifting MDB environment. Equal efforts must made towards evolving the methods and force structures at the theater and transregional command and control levels as is being focused on pursuing technological and tactical innovation.

As the Joint Force looks to move forward with the MDB concept it is important that the discussion not be drawn solely into the areas of tactics and technology. German lessons learned after the First World War (WWI) illustrate this concisely. Development of a revolutionary tactical doctrine supported by technological advances in equipment allowed the German military to organize tactical formations in a new decentralized manner and employ these forces in a different way. This greatly increased the tempo of the battle and achieved stunning tactical breakthroughs.  Despite this tactical success, however, the comparatively less nimble headquarters, logistical, and theater support elements of the German forces were never sufficiently organized and applied to sustain these tactical breakthroughs, resulting in operational and strategic failure.[3]

An assertion of the MDB concept which has echoes of the German experience is the premise that technology will permit employment of a wider range of capabilities at a lower tactical level and at a more rapid pace than in the past.  If true, this will significantly increase the challenges of future war planning and organization, re-creating the theater management and operational reach problems confronted by the WWI German military on a global scale.

The MDB concept presents a landscape where the rapid and transitory nature of opportunities in the operational environment require tactical units to have the authority, ability, and capacity to exploit opportunities as they emerge before being outmaneuvered by the enemy. Not as well addressed are the implied tasks that these forces must be generated, positioned, sustained, and networked together in the correct places and at the correct times to be capable of responding to these opportunities as they occur.  This work takes place amongst and between higher echelon headquarters and staffs that are presently not structured to function in a rapidly shifting future multi-domain fight.

Absent a world of unlimited resources, the processes and decisions governing the theater/operational level orchestration of Joint Force capabilities will remain tasks distinct from the integration and application of these capabilities at the tactical level. Decisions required to ensure theaters are set and capabilities are available for employment by tactical commanders at the times and places required will continue to be made at headquarters focused on the operational and strategic levels of war. Current force structure and methods are not sufficient to meet the challenges of an emerging multi-domain battlefield of escalating tempo and complexity.[4] It is not just the commander who must be agile on the multi-domain battlefield, but the assembled structures of the headquarters staff organizations that support them must also evolve to address the future operational environment.

Air Force Chief of Staff General Goldfein describes the advanced multi-domain mission command required to fight effectively in MDB as, “a continuous feedback loop between command direction and real-time reporting of emerging threats and opportunities from tactical units” [5] , This feedback loop will only function if the staff assessment, information processing, and decision support mechanisms for the commander are as coherent and well exercised an element of the Joint Force as its line units are tactically proficient. Achieving this level of coherency and competency at speed is the challenge existing headquarters organizational and force assembly processes must evolve to meet. Some of the outlines of the significant changes required in structure and function for the Joint Force to prevail in an MDB environment can be seen in the 2012 Capstone Concept for Joint Operations: Joint Force 2020 (CCJO).

A central tenant of the CCJO is the concept of cross-domain synergy. It posits that the future Joint Force must be able to rapidly aggregate and disaggregate to mass Joint effects in time and space across all domains to minimize risk to the force.[6] This bringing together of composite units is a complex activity, requiring leaders from the tactical level up to the Joint Force commander to establish new working relationships each time they are aggregated. This requires staff elements to continuously revise unit management, control, and decision support processes for commanders as the attachment and detachment of units takes place. The task organization and employment of non-habitually associated units becomes even more difficult as the intensity of combat in the environment where these forces are being assembled increases. All these actions contribute to the time deficit incurred before elements can be employed and are further prolonged if the headquarters assembling these unit force packages is simultaneously trying to assemble itself.

Joint Task Force headquarters (JTF HQ) elements assembled piecemeal after a crisis has occurred will not reach high levels of performance quickly enough in a highly contested MDB environment to allow the Joint Force to seize the initiative above the tactical level. To use a popular analogy, “building the airplane in flight” while engaged in an high intensity MDB fight only gives the adversary more opportunities to attack the components of the airplane in detail as attempts are made to assemble it.[7] A more effective approach would be to arrive on the field with a completed aircraft (a fully operational dedicated JTF HQ) and to tailor the weapons package (the tactical capabilities under that headquarters) as the situation requires.

The Joint Force must organize and train its headquarters and staff elements to conduct rapid aggregation and disaggregation in a contested environment as a matter of standard operating procedure if it is to succeed in the future MDB environment. Training done across services focused on the establishment of the myriad of complex interoperability and supported/supporting relationships between service components and units required to form and effectively employ a JTF of any size, remains infrequent. Exacerbating this challenge, staffs that form the connective tissue for the melding and coordination of capabilities across the service components of Combatant Command (CCMD) headquarters have been disadvantaged by recent force reductions. The disadvantages of these reductions have been compounded by increasing demands on these headquarters to manage an expanding portfolio of theater shaping, deterrence, assurance, and advisory tasks occurring simultaneously across the globe. A brief reading of the Central Command (CENTCOM) posture statement provides some insight as to the breadth and depth of activities across the range of military operations and domains that CCMD headquarters and their service components must manage on a daily basis.[8]

As the increasing speed and complexity of the future MDB environment impinges on this complicated balancing act, commanders and staffs must better organize in order to have flexible and responsive options to prevent mission failures. The establishment of dedicated contingency headquarters elements within service component commands should serve as the first step toward mitigating this emergent challenge.

Joint doctrine states the preferred method to form a JTF HQ is to use an existing command structure, typically one of the CCMD service component headquarters.[9]  Doctrine caveats this preferred method, however, with the statement that newly designated JTFs will require extensive augmentation and sufficient time to organize and begin functioning in a role apart from their steady-state service component support functions. Augmentation by elements not in the theater and unfamiliar with the CCMD region and issues will slow the establishment and limit the effectiveness of new JTF HQs. Under current force structure constraints commanders are driven into an ad hoc process of assembling a JTF HQ architecture from scratch for each new deserving crisis. In a rapidly moving future MDB fight where an adversary is attempting to present the US with a fait accompli, this process takes time the Joint Force will not have. In some cases, a delay in establishing a functional JTF HQ could lead to mission failure if the adversary achieves their end state before the JTF HQ can form.

Exemplifying the constraints facing current headquarters structures was the downsizing and eventual elimination of the dedicated Operational/Contingency Command Posts from theater Army/Army Service Component Command headquarters. [10]  This ensured that if the Army service component of a CCMD is tasked to form a JTF HQ it will be faced with three poor choices: taking personnel and effort away from steady-state theater management missions which keep the CCMD prepared for other emergent crises, hedging the effort put toward dealing with the emergent crisis to sustain its required cross-theater and service support requirements, or requesting external augmentation in the form of additional forces unfamiliar with the region or emergent crisis to form the JTF HQ. All of these choices require valuable time, present potential exploitable opportunities to an adversary, and create inter-organizational friction that will have adverse down-chain effects on subordinate tactical units.

The Army presently attempts to mitigate the loss of this in-theater headquarters capability by providing deployable Division and Corps headquarters to support emergent needs from a centralized US based force pool. However , the deployment, reception, staging, onward movement and integration of a modular headquarters element into a theater requires valuable time and adds a level of complexity and inefficiency to the process of organizing for combat that a CCMD engaged in an high-intensity MDB fight can ill afford. The US Marine Corps and the US Air Force face similar JTF HQ rapid aggregation challenges with the headquarters components of Marine Air-Ground Task Forces[11] and Air Expeditionary Task Forces,[12] both are subject to the same deployment, assembly, and integration into existing force structure issues faced by theater Army headquarters attempting to arrive and apply an expeditionary Corps or Division staff to the theater as a JTF HQ after a crisis has occurred. Dedicated mission command elements forward stationed with the CCMD would provide an on-hand regionally embedded and networked structure under which tactical units could rapidly be organized and fight.

Growing a combination of CCMD dedicated contingency headquarters elements and a deliberate joint integration training plan for these headquarters and staffs across the service components within the CCMD can begin to eliminate JTF HQ responsiveness gaps. To ensure the tactical capabilities of an MDB enabled force are not hobbled by avoidable friction, or resource and capability shortages at the operational and strategic level, these contingency headquarters elements should be forward stationed within their assigned theaters and continuously exercise JTF assembly activities across and between other services and combatant commands. This will ensure that a consistently available bench of complex mission command capable units trained to rapidly form JTF HQs are already positioned in theaters when needed.

These issues are not new. Previous approaches to resolve the slow pace of JTF HQ activation included the short-lived creation of Standing Joint Force Headquarters (Core Element) units (SJFHQ (CE)) at the CCMD level.[13] While the future MDB environment will doubtless require new mission command and network capabilities from a similar-type CCMD dedicated contingency headquarters formation much can be learned from the structure and processes of the SJFHQ (CE) construct.[14] Simply reviving the SJFHQ (CE) model, however, will not give these new elements the required capabilities, capacity, or endurance to prevail. Two major issues with the SJFHQ (CE) structure was its small size (50-60 personnel) and its existence as a direct reporting unit to the CCMD, independent from the service component controlled and funded processes that make CCMD theaters run on a daily basis.

New dedicated contingency headquarters elements should be grown within the service components of the CCMD with their training and readiness oversight for Joint matters residing with the CCMD. Service component commanders would retain manning authority over the billets in these elements, eliminating the need for the direct CCMD management required under a SJFHQ-CE type structure, but be answerable to certification and oversight processes of the CCMD through a regularly executed exercise and evaluation cycle.

In this model, service billets within the respective service component headquarters of the CCMD would be established forward in theater for these dedicated headquarters contingency elements. The advantages over the independent SJFHQ-CE model are numerous. Service component commands have a connection to the U.S. Code Title 10 train, man, and equip relationship with their parent services that CCMDs do not, better positioning them to bridge service and Joint issues that would arise during the formation and long-term lifecycle management of these new formations.

Ownership of these new units by the service components will require minimal change to existing chains of command and responsibility. The personnel staffing these contingency headquarters elements would not require direct control by a CCMD headquarters as an independent unit, with all the administrative and service-unique requirements that entails, until they are tasked to organize into a contingency JTF HQs. Furthermore, service component ownership would likely increase the percentage of billet fills by service force providers as they would not need to remove members from service manning pools and place them in less flexible Joint billets for a 2-3 year period when assigned. When the unit is activated as a JTF HQ, it can shift to a modified Joint Manning Document if further augmentation is required. Flexible service billets would also give service component commanders more internal organizational options to ensure manning levels are responsive to support CCMD priorities depending on the demands of the region. Finally, a cyclical requirement to exercise and be certified by the CCMD on Joint rapid aggregation/disaggregation methods and contingency plans would serve as a function to ensure the service component commanders maintained a baseline level of manning and proficiency within these elements to fulfill regular certification requirements.

A combatant commander with multiple contingency headquarters formations across their assigned service components would have increased flexibility to select the type of headquarters element most appropriate to the problem at hand. This would simultaneously broaden their range of capabilities available to address emergent crises and shorten response times. This model also reduces the variables born of friction in the current planning and headquarters formation processes of constructing JTF HQs from individual augmentees and units external to the CCMD that lack deep situational or contextual knowledge of the CCMD structure, region, and issues. Exercises conducted by these elements could even extend to direct coordination with other service components who may control storage and management of regionally specific equipment or facilities that could be paired with rotational tactical units to evaluate the currency and utility of war stock-type equipment positioned in certain theaters.

Where tactical commanders must be flexible enough to innovate rapidly with the capabilities they have at hand in the MDB environment, headquarters and staffs must be equally informed by the larger contingency, regional, and global context to rapidly evaluate what impact aggregate tactical effects have achieved in support of the campaign. This must occur concurrently with the preparation and orchestration of supporting assets at levels above the tactical fight to provide the Joint Force commander multiple ways to achieve their follow-on objectives. Where the MDB concept is emphatic on the requirement for the future force to have a credible forward presence, this forward presence should extend to include CCMD dedicated contingency headquarters elements superbly trained to manage the regionally and geographically informed rapid aggregation and arrangement of the entire range of Joint Force capabilities in space and time. [15]

Much discussion has focused on the technological and tactical aspects of transformation required for the future Joint Force to be prepared to fight the Multi-Domain Battle. However, the transformation required for commanders and staffs to ensure these emerging capabilities are employed for maximum operational and strategic effect must also be addressed. In a complex, contested, and ambiguous environment commanders must indeed have units that are supported by a wider range of high-technology tactical capabilities. The critical component that sets up the battle and arranges engagements to further the progress of the campaign, however, is an expertly trained and regionally attuned headquarters elements, capable of operating across the entire range of military operations while conducting continuous organizing and orchestration activities across multiple lines of effort simultaneously. The technical and tactical ability of a unit to prop open a “window” in the MDB environment is of no consequence if the orchestration required to bring the Joint Force to bear on conditions beyond that “window” is lost in the proverbial shuffle of an ill-prepared headquarters.

End Notes

[1] “Multi-Domain Battle: Combined Arms for the 21st Century,”, (accessed April 10, 2017), 4.

[2] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Operations, Joint Publication 3-0 (Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 17, 2017), xii.

[3] Samuels, Martin, Command or Control: Command, Training, and Tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888-1918”, (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1995), 272-275.

[4] Jeffery M. Reilly, “Multi-Domain Operations: A Subtle but Significant Transition in Military Thought,” Air and Space Power Journal, Spring 2016, (accessed April 14, 2017), 63-65.

Dr. Reilly illustrates that potential adversaries are innovating technologically, but they are also widely reviewing and adapting their operational concepts and strategies.

[5] David Goldfein, Enhancing Multi-domain Command and Control…Tying it all Together (Washington, DC: U.S. Air Force Staff, 2017), 2, (accessed April 03, 2017).

[6] Martin E. Dempsey, Capstone Concept for Joint Operations: Joint Force 2020 (Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2012), 5, (accessed April 03, 2017).

[7] Charles W. Cosenza, “Standing Joint Force Headquarters (Core Element): Its Origin, Implementation and Prospects for the Future”, Joint Center for Lessons Learned: Quarterly Bulletin, Vol 6, Issue 3, June 2004, (accessed March 30, 2017), 3.

Cosenza references instances in the early 2000s where less technologically dependent JTF HQs established after crises had occurred, and not tasked with the additional complications of conducting rapid aggregation operations, typically required months to begin functioning at full operational capability. The author observed a more recent example of this persistent issue during the multiple iterations of reorganization and augmentation executed over several months in 2015-2016 by the former Army Central (Forward) element as it transformed into the headquarters for Combined-Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve. ARCENT (FWD) then transitioned core JTF HQ responsibilities to an Army Corps headquarters deployed from the US, requiring yet another round of transition, integration, and restructuring activities.

[8]  Statement of General Joseph L. Votel on the Posture of U.S. Central Command, March 9, 2017, linked from The U.S. Central Command Home Page, (accessed April 4, 2017).

[9] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Task Force Headquarters, Joint Publication 3-33 (Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 30, 2012), II-1, (accessed April 8, 2017).

[10] Michael Shekleton, “Combatant Commander-Based Design: The Modular Army in Context,” December 29, 2014, (accessed April 4, 2017).

[11] United States Marine Corps, Organization of the United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Reference Publication (MCRP) 1-10.1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Navy, May 2, 2016), 1-9, (accessed April 6, 2017).

[12] United States Air Force, AETF Organization, Annex 3-30 Command and Control (LeMay Center for Doctrine, Alabama: November 7, 2014) (accessed April 6, 2017).

[13] Richard J. O’Hanlon, “Commander’s Message: Standing Joint Force Headquarters (Core Element)” Joint Center for Lessons Learned: Quarterly Bulletin, Vol 6, Issue 3, June 2004, (accessed March 30, 2017), 1-2

[14] Charles W. Cosenza, “Standing Joint Force Headquarters (Core Element): Its Origin, Implementation and Prospects for the Future”, Joint Center for Lessons Learned: Quarterly Bulletin, Vol 6, Issue 3, June 2004, (accessed March 30, 2017), 3.

[15] “Multi-Domain Battle: Combined Arms for the 21st Century,”, (accessed April 10, 2017), 4.


About the Author(s)

Major Colin Gandy is an Army Strategist with several combat deployments as an Infantry officer and service in the Joint Staff J-7 and Army Staff G-3/5 Strategy, Plans, and Policy Directorate. He holds a Master’s degree in Policy Management from Georgetown University and a BS in Anthropology from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He is presently assigned as a military operations analyst at the National Defense University, Washington, DC.


I am curious relative to "time" how does surpassing the then longest war, Vietnam is by on going operations in Afghanistan and a necessitated return to Iraq and now spilling over into Syria with as many ramifications today with Turkey, Russia etc.,. as existed against the back drop of Vietnam. Who says that the American public gets tired of war?
Some segments may get tired of hearing about our longest wars or simply have short attention spans, but as long as there is no draft and not too much treasure is spent on operations it doesn't seem to raise eyebrows that President Obama mucked up Middle Eastern policy so bad that we had to go back in and clean up the mess. And the anti Trump crowd continues to hope hating Bush and blaming Trump for Obama's failures won't be noticed.
We have not even begun to start learning the lessons, the broad strokes, of time; mass "immigration" to the west and Hijarah settlers colonizing sharia enclaves tacit or permitted seems to have started a conquest of the EU resulting in greater antisemitism and a concerted attack on democratic institutions with regressive liberal socialists holding hands with Islamists. Similar legislation was proposed to bring hundreds of thousands of Islamic colonizers resistant to assimilation to the USA entirely at tax payer expense. We dodged that bullet.
Vietnam was the war that in time the American public simply stopped caring about, reneged on its promises and military support dooming millions to communist tyranny, and a continuing genocide of tribal peoples that goes unreported.
How long can America go on remote without being invested in the vision George Bush saw in assisting genuine democratic forms of government even if it took military power to accomplish? Stability? in an Islamic nation facing the crisis of modernity with religious fanaticism?
We have adopted to living with mafia communist governments can we survive Islamic Jihads by ignoring them or deeming such notice Islamophobic?
While western analysts are wondering how averse the mega cities, governments will become less able to serve and consequently govern, over population, littoral spaces lost and carbon emissions we continue to talk about time in ways that have limited meaning.
It is not only how fast can we get off the blocks when the starting pistol is fired, its can we go the distance and have we finally lived down that false positive first propagandized during Vietnam?