JFCOM and the Unkindest Cut of All

Acknowledging there is waste in defense spending, one wonders why DoD is at the head of the line for budget cuts while our military is engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror. One early budget casualty was Joint Forces Command. As reported in the Army Times, JFCOM “employs nearly 6,000 military and civilian personnel, with the bulk of those working in southeast Virginia. Its mission is to train troops from all services to work together for specific missions.”

Were JFCOM outside of DoD, it likely would have survived in perpetuity, like almost every government program voted into existence. In this case, JFCOM carried the stink of the military. And that, in the age of Obama, makes for a budget cutting opportunity. Ostensibly, Secretary Gates axed it because of the proportionally large numbers of contractors working for JFCOM.

Well… even a broken clock is right twice a day.

JFCOM is to DoD what the “Bridge to Nowhere” is to Alaska: a spending hole with little tangible benefit other than the jobs it provides (with taxpayer money) and the votes it bought. It’s also a place to park yet another four star general waiting for a service chief job to open up, or retirement.

The real reason to shut down JFCOM is that it never worked. I’d wager that almost all of JFCOMs people are capable and devoted. Yet, they assumed an impossible task. There’s an old adage that while many things in life can be learned, few can be taught. Like all other institutes of centralized learning, what JFCOM provides and what the real world demands, highlights the vast difference and utility between explicit and tacit knowledge.

A few years ago my corps was training as a joint task force for an exercise in Thailand. To help us out, Pacific Command sent their “certification” team to our planning conference, armed with the latest doctrine, techniques and procedures from JFCOM. After listening to five minutes of irrelevant checklists, and unworkable procedural advice, I asked the major leading the certification team how he and his team would certify intelligence operations for the JTF?

Major Certification: “Well, for example, we’ll look at how you employ your Trojan Spirit” (intelligence satellite communications).

Me: “We’re not using a Trojan Spirit. Landing rights for the system, transportation, security and spectrum deconfliction are too expensive for the exercise budget. We’ve coordinated for a cheaper T-1 line instead.”

Major C: “OK, then we’ll look at how you employ your all-source analysis system and see how effective it is at battle tracking during the exercise.”

Me: “We aren’t using the all-source. Our intelligence element that runs the system is in Iraq and we’re unable to get personnel who can devote several months training together, here, to run one for the exercise. We’re going to do an exercise workaround instead.”

Major C: “Instead of this workaround, have you checked with Forces Command to try and fill your personnel vacancies?”

Me: “We did that several months ago. The operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have pulled lots of intel folks away. And even if we could get soldiers, they wouldn’t be a cohesive unit with the special training required to run the automation.”

Major C: “Then, we’ll examine your training objectives and match those to your joint mission essential task list to see how you perform. After we observe and control that, you’ll be well on the way to certifying as a JTF.”

Me: “Those essential task lists are so broad as to be meaningless. For example, ‘perform operational intelligence’ could mean anything and everything we do within the exercise context. And the fact you “certify” us as a JTF is meaningless, having trained within the artificialities of a canned scenario lacking any of the depth and complexity of the real world, the ad hoc team we’ve assembled will vanish once the exercise is done.”

Undaunted by a display of tacit knowledge gained through years of experience, the major then continued his brief. To be fair, he was not an intel officer and was merely executing his task. Neither he, nor his superiors, however, seemed to get that the meaningful action is on the periphery, and not at headquarters. Training ad hoc organizations like JTFs are exercises in fluid dynamics; a complex network of people, processors, sensors, communicators and knowledge in constant flux and continual adaptation to its environment and purpose. Such things tend to defy external analysis.

Not living in a hardscrabble world in which one must daily surmount obstacles, intransigence and human frailty, academics prefer maxims and ideas, things easily gained by rote memorization, i.e., explicit knowledge. One can argue that most analysis and commentary in the public domain are external, and thus, shallow. As an example, Abu Muqawama’s post:

“Rumors of JFCOM’s demise have been floating around for some time, though, so this cannot be completely unexpected. One of the wisest military analysts I know remarked, upon hearing the rumors, that JFCOM does three valuable things that either the joint staff or another command will now have to pick up:

1.  Writing joint doctrine.
2.  Monitoring force readiness and modernization across the services.
3.  Coordinating U.S. and NATO modernization efforts.”NATO is an empty shell only to be revitalized when Europe is attacked by Russia. As for 1 and 2, I believe, like Peter Drucker, that there is nothing so useless as doing well that which should not be done at all.A truly wise military analyst was Sun Tzu. In his blog, Walter Russell Mead describes how reading The Art of Warwas an “unsettling experience” since there were no weapons and tactics Sun Tzu would not use, and in his time, Sun Tzu conflicted with the prevailing pieties of rule based, Confucian China:“The Art of War, a book which has inspired Chinese emperors, Japanese shoguns, Napoleon, Mao Zedongand Ho Chi Minh, does not just subvert conventional morality. It is even more profoundly opposed to the bureaucratic mind: the approach to the world that believes that everything can be reduced to technique and procedures.”Two thousand years later, we still celebrate Sun Tzu. In a few years, JFCOM, and those who created it, will be forgotten.

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