Sooner or later it was bound to happen as even a hyperpower has limits. After nine years, the United States is reassessing its commitment to the longest war it has to date prosecuted. Monday's announcement by Defense Secretary Robert Gates of budget cuts, a personnel freeze and the dissolution of United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) represents the beginning of a marked change in how America will protect itself and how it calculates priorities within our nation's defense.
Coming, as these decisions do, a matter of days after the wholesale disclosure of classified information by a renegade website and the launch of a series of investigative reports by a national daily into waste and redundancy within the intelligence community, they will satisfy two different constituencies: those who favor a less activist national security sector and those who, while more hawkish, support a leaner and more efficient national defense establishment.
However, the merits of Secretary Gate's proposed austerity measures cannot be gauged in terms of dollars and cents alone. Any such large-scale alteration as to how an administration invests in the security of the country must by its nature have doctrinal as well as operational consequences --- especially the decision institutionally the easiest to focus on: the dismantling of the four-star joint command in Norfolk.
The creation eleven years ago, out of the former Atlantic Command, of a new organization which would serve the other regional combatants' commands in promoting "jointness" – or the integration of military capabilities across all services: Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines -- was closely connected to the sweeping reform of the US military that occurred in the late 1980s. After several very exposed failures – especially the disastrous attempt to rescue our hostages in Iran that was Operation Desert One – Congress mandated interoperability across all services through the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986. This would lead to the creation of two non-regional commands: US Special Operations Command and, later, US Joint Forces Command.
Although, at the time, such a congressional "intrusion" into the mechanics of the armed forces was resented by many in uniform, the results have been positive. Today an ambitious officer who wants to climb the rank structure to General or Flag officer status must serve a joint, or "purple" tour (as they are called, as this is the color one arrives at after all the service colors are mixed). He or she cannot stay safely within the culture of one military force but demonstrate familiarity and expertise in the ways of its sister services.
Although a child of the Cold War, this concept of jointness was only truly proven well after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the last twenty years as the nation has deployed soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to highly complex theaters such as the Middle East, the Balkans, and after September 11th 2001, into Central Asia, it has become clear that the conventional ways of war no longer apply. With enemies who have no nation-state or national army, who wear no uniform and fail to follow the established laws of war, there is no room for classic divisions of labor established for an era in which the main forces of one nation would meet the main forces of another on the battlefield and fight until a clear victory was imposed by the one upon the other. Jointness may not be a concept found in the classic canons of strategic masters such as Carl von Calusewitz, but neither were such works written with today's enemies in mind.
Today, not only is jointness needed more than ever, it should be a concept implemented across all departments of government which have a role in national security. If one cannot become a general unless one has executed a "purple" tour, then likewise, one should not be able to become an ambassador unless one has served in a military tour, or become a CIA head-of-station unless one has served in a stabilization mission. You do not have to be a fan of nation-building to understand that the ability to work with other elements of government and to know their capabilities (and limitations) is an asset that will make the nation better able to cope with a most un-Clausewitzian world.
Secretary Gates is right to finally rein in the defense sector, especially given the slow rate of economic recovery we are witnessing. Nevertheless, of all the waste and redundancy that should be tackled first, United States Joint Forces Command need not be the first. On the contrary, the Secretary should hold up the concept of jointness as a model for his other cabinet colleagues and convince the Commander-in-Chief that in an age in which we see the globalization and democratization of violence, the nation would be well-served by not just more purple within the armed services, but by the institutionalization of a culture of "SuperPurple" across all the organs of American national security. Our enemies already operate in a cross-cultural and post-conventional world. We should – in this – emulate them.