In 2018, I was assigned to a two-star headquarters in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. From this perch, I was able to observe firsthand a trend that had become apparent to all students of global American military intervention over the arc of the long war.
Even then, before the U.S. agreement with the Taliban and eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan, it was apparent that American military involvement in the Middle East was in a slow and steady decline.
American focus was shifting to the Far East and Europe, and this was painfully obvious to the U.S. generals responsible for the Middle East. The subsequent American engagement in the Russia-Ukraine war further cemented the shift away from the part of the world where the current generation of military leaders cut their teeth.
The result was three- and four-star headquarters—designed to coordinate and resource large-scale conflict—maneuvering a shrinking number of pieces on a remarkably low-density chessboard. As the size of formations in the Middle East continued to shrink, and as the size and priority of contingency forces potentially committed to regional contingencies also shrank, plans that should have involved maneuver of division-sized elements suddenly involved battalions, platoons or, in some cases, squad- or team-sized elements.
It is not my intention to suggest American military involvement should grow in parts of the world where the U.S. was formerly engaged. On the contrary, there is much to recommend shrinking the force to avoid the costs of large overseas military deployments and “war fatigue” in the American public, and to focus on existential, future contingencies. Priorities are appropriately established by civilian leadership, no matter how difficult it sometimes may be for the individual armed services to embrace the choices made at that level.
However, the challenge the Army faces within the operational force is not posed by three- and four-star headquarters remaining in place, but by the forces arrayed under these headquarters not being sufficiently large enough to merit such a robust and top-heavy structure.
The problem of smaller and smaller downtrace elements becomes one of too many leaders overseeing too few followers. As the fight shifts away from defeating an enemy on the battlefield and toward “keeping the slides green”—satisfying the penchant of general officer staffs to report that all is well—and preserving the headquarters budget, leaders’ focus unhelpfully turns inward on the formation itself and on what few remaining activities persist in the area of operations.
Critical information requirements become disproportionately weighted toward friendly-force information requirements. Units whose function was to secure territory instead talk of deterrence and partnerships. Company and field grade leaders, who in wartime are entrusted with significant autonomy, become little more than guardians of higher headquarters’ metrics, contorting logic to measure activities not necessarily related to any notion of mission success.
These activities instead are designed to portray success during steady-state operations where the desired end state cannot be anything more than a slightly improved version of the current state of affairs, given the modest forces arrayed to achieve it.
Does every joint combatant command merit four-star leadership? Perhaps, when the forces assigned to an area of the world shrink, the command infrastructure arrayed above it should also decrease proportionately. Much smaller cavalry squadrons often are assigned a rear-area security role once their reconnaissance mission at the front line is completed, after they hand the prosecution of the battle over to larger infantry and armor battalions.
As a cavalryman, I get that some missions are less crucial than others at different phases of the battle and become “economy of force” efforts. Shouldn’t this same realization be applied at higher levels to preserve appropriate levels of leader-to-led ratios, not overwhelm lower-level headquarters with too much oversight and appropriately trim higher headquarters elements in line with the rest of the force?
Trimming headquarters may be seen as part of appropriate reductions toward a peacetime military. There are ways in which this might be accomplished. For example, smaller geographic combatant commands might be reduced to three-star billets and consolidated under a smaller number of four-star commanders, reducing the number of four-star commands and consolidating regions where the military footprint is light. By repeating this at multiple intermediate levels (corps, division, brigade), it may be possible to align seniority of controlling headquarters with the number of service members subject to their control.
The cost of failing to trim these headquarters in line with reductions in their downtrace formations could be significant. The American military could produce a generation of junior leaders—the senior leaders of tomorrow—who come up the ranks without the ability to exercise discretion or weigh risks at their level, deferring to the overinvolved micromanagement of insufficiently busy generals. Senior leaders, in turn, will become overreliant on information systems that stovepipe team-level information up to their level, not allowing them to focus on their strategic or operational level tasks and forever dragging their focus down to the tactical level. Instead, perhaps soldiers should recommit to the fundamentals of Mission Command and realize that operating along those lines is structurally impossible in a world with too many leaders and not enough followers.
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Maj. Garri Benjamin Hendell, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, is a cavalryman attached to the 55th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, where he is serving as the operations officer for a brigade task force. He has served in leadership and staff positions at the platoon, company, battalion, brigade, division and joint force headquarters levels and at the National Guard Bureau, both in uniform and as a civilian branch chief. He has deployed three times to the U.S. Central Command area of operations.