Options to Build U.S. Army Headquarters Elements for Large Scale Combat Operations

Justin Magula is a U.S. Army Strategist at the U.S. Army War College. He is on Twitter @JustinMagula. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Of the United States Army’s four strategic roles in support of the Joint Force, prevailing in large-scale ground combat is the most important[1]. The Army cannot accomplish this strategic role without an appropriately designed operational headquarters.

Date Originally Written:  March 4, 2021.

Date Originally Published:  April 5, 2021.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that operational and strategic headquarters play a significant role in the Army’s ability to achieve success in large-scale combat operations and that the Army underinvests in these capabilities.

Background:  In the past seven decades, the United States Army has reduced the number of operational-level headquarters it employs as part of its total force reductions[2]. The United States Army currently uses theater armies, corps, and divisions in roles that often exceed their designated functions. While this method has achieved some success in fighting irregular wars, it would likely prove less successful against a peer competitor.

Theater armies fulfill five persistent tasks in support of geographic combatant commands: set conditions in a theater for the employment of landpower, support theater security cooperation, provide support to other services, maintain administrative control of all Army forces in the theater, and provide operational control and sustainment support of any assigned or attached forces. Even though a theater army performs an impressive array of tasks, it is not designed to command and control units in combat. Alternately, U.S. Army corps serve as the Army’s highest tactical echelon in large-scale ground combat operations, overseeing combat divisions and subordinate units. Where theater armies focus across an entire theater, corps focus on designated areas of responsibility.

Significance:  The possibility of large-scale combat operations against Russia and China continues to increase[4]. A war against either country would likely require the Army to deploy a sizable land force. For such operations, the Army would require more than one corps and operational-level headquarters to oversee tactical operations. Currently, the Army does not have a headquarters designed to effectively command and control multiple corps in large-scale ground combat or serve as a land component command in a joint operational area in the event of a great power war[5].

Historically, the U.S. Army used field armies to control multiple corps and subordinate units in large-scale combat operations, like in both World Wars and the Korean War. The U.S. Army no longer has such a headquarters. Creating new field armies would give the army the ability to quickly transition to combat operations and control multiple corps if required.

This option paper proposes two possible solutions to fill this critical headquarters gap: forward-stationed field armies or expeditionary field armies.

Option #1:  The U.S. Army establishes forward-stationed field armies.

In this option, the U.S. Army would create field armies and forward station them in specific theaters. For instance, the Army could station a field army in the Indo-Pacific region as a subordinate headquarters to U.S. Army Pacific and one in Europe to support U.S. Army Europe and Africa since these are the two most likely theaters where large-scale combat operations would occur.

Risk:  Placing field armies forward in a theater would increase their vulnerability as prime targets for enemy attacks in war. These units would have difficulty transferring to support other theaters if the need arose. The cost of new facilities, equipment, and personnel would be high and would rely on host nation contract support.

Gain:  Creating forward stationed field armies allows the theater armies, as the field armies’ higher headquarters, to focus their efforts across the entire theater during competition and conflict as they are designed to do[6]. Additionally, these field armies could conduct theater-specific exercises, integrate with partner nations forces, and provide training oversight for subordinate units during competition. If the need arose to transition to combat operations quickly, these headquarters would be trained, ready, and integrated across their respective theaters.

Option #2:  The U.S. Army establishes expeditionary field armies.

The Army could create expeditionary field armies and base them in the United States. These field armies would be the same size as the forward-stationed ones. Like its current divisions and corps, the Army could use these field armies in an expeditionary manner to support American objectives abroad.

Risk: Under this option, these field armies would not have the same level of understanding of a specific theater as a forward-stationed unit might or the same level of integration with other theater forces and partners. In crisis, these field armies could deploy directly to a combat zone. In peacetime, these headquarters could risk being stretched thin by global commitments, exercises, and training oversight if placed in charge of other stateside Army units.

Gain:  This option would give the Army the greatest versatility to respond to almost any combat mission. Each expeditionary field army could be deployed in a tailored package to meet the theater commander’s needs, thus reducing the burdens of the theater army staff. The field armies could provide training oversight of other Army units in the United States, enabling better large-scale combat training for them. The field armies could also assist U.S. Army North for homeland defense and Defense Security Cooperation Agency missions. This structure would also provide the greatest employment opportunities for American civilians supporting these headquarters.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] U.S. Department of the Army, Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 1, The Army. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2019), v.

[2] Bonin, J. and Magula, J. (2021). U.S. Army Europe and Africa Headquarters: Reforming for Future Success. War on the Rocks. Retrieved March 3,2021 from https://warontherocks.com/2021/02/u-s-army-europe-and-africa-headquarters-reforming-for-future-success/

[3] Lundy, M. (2018). “Meeting the Challenge of Large-Scale Combat Operations Today and Tomorrow.” Military Review. Retrieved March 3, 2021 from https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/September-October-2018/Lundy-LSCO/

 [4] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. (2018). “U.S. Army Concept: Multi-Domain Combined Arms Operations at Echelons Above Brigade 2025-2045.” TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-8. Retrieved March 3, 2021 from https://adminpubs.tradoc.army.mil/pamphlets/TP525-3-8.pdf

[5] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication (JP) 3-31, Joint Land Operations.  (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2019), I-11.

[6] U.S. Department of the Army, Field Manual (FM) 3-94, Theater Army, Corps, and Division Operations. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2014), 2-4.

Command and Control and Headquarters Issues Defense and Military Reform Justin Magula Major Regional Contingency Option Papers U.S. Army

Options for the U.S. Department of Defense to Balance Peer Competition with Military Operations Other Than War

Greg Olsen is a cyber security professional and postgraduate researcher at University of Leicester doing his PhD on peacekeeping and civil wars. He can be found on Twitter at @gtotango. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The U.S. Department of Defense faces a significant challenge trying to balance preparations for peer competition while maintaining the capability of executing military operations other than war (MOOTW).

Date Originally Written:  May 9, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  July 1, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a cyber security professional currently researching the determinants for successful peacekeeping in civil wars for a PhD at University of Leicester.

Background:  With the release of the 2017 National Security Strategy, the United States is executing a policy pivot towards preparing for peer competition and away from nearly two decades of counterinsurgency. Yet, the most likely future military conflicts will continue to be small wars[1] and MOOTW—such as security force assistance, counter terrorism missions, evacuating U.S. nationals from conflict zones, and robust peacekeeping.

Significance:  The post-Cold War period of unipolarity has ended with a return to great power competition. Revisionist great powers are asserting themselves militarily in their near abroad and challenging Western hegemony. Consequently, the United States’ national security priorities have shifted to counter the threat. However, small wars and MOOTW are likely to be the dominant form of actual military conflict for foreseeable future. The challenge for the U.S. military is preparing for peer competition and continental conflict while maintaining the ability to execute MOOTW. For example, the U.S. Army has shifted from Brigade Combat Teams designed for counter insurgency warfare to warfare against peers[2]. What follows are three options for addressing the continuing need for conducting MOOTW.

Option #1:  The U.S. primarily employs Special Operations Forces (SOF) to address small wars and MOOTW. Currently, much of the U.S. counter terrorism mission is executed by SOF. Within SOF, the U.S. Army Special Forces were created to assist host governments in developing the capabilities to execute counter insurgency and counter terrorism missions. Other SOF are trained and deployed for direct action missions against high value targets. In many ways SOF is ideal forces for executing certain missions with a low footprint.

Risk:  The principal risk to this option is that special operations forces are not large enough nor equipped and trained to execute certain types of MOOTW, for example, evacuation of nationals during conflict, humanitarian disaster response, nor peacekeeping/peace enforcement missions.

Another risk is the inability to train and deploy enough SOF to the myriad conflict zones around the world. There is currently an arc of ethnic and sectarian conflict from Mali in western Africa through central Africa to the Horn of Africa[3]. Libya, Somalia and South Sudan are already failed states[4]. Transnational terrorist networks are active in the Sahel, the Middle East, and South Asia, and Southeast Asia[5]. Three Latin American states are in crisis: Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela[6]. These forces are part but not the whole solution to the MOOTW challenges across the globe.

Gain: SOF are ideal for executing hostage rescue, counter terrorism missions, and for training partner forces in counter insurgency missions.  SOF taking the lead for MOOTW frees up conventional forces to focus on their conventional mission.

Option #2:  The U.S. primarily employee military reserve units to address small wars and MOOTW.

Military reserve units provide capabilities that are useful for various types of MOOTW. The military reserves have been the bank upon which the active duty draws specialized capability from in surge scenarios, such as logistics, communications, intelligence, medicine, construction, and military policing.

Risk:  The principal risk to a strategy based on mobilizing reserve forces is political. If reserves were mobilized for a mission with low stakes, such as six months of peacekeeping in South Sudan, then public opposition to the policy is likely to be high. Furthermore, significant casualties would increase opposition and limit policy options.  An additional risk is the time it takes to mobilize these forces.  Certain crises require a rapid reaction and these forces take time to prepare for overseas deployment to a conflict zone.

Gain: These military reserve capabilities would be valuable to missions such as humanitarian disaster relief, occupation, security sector reform and partner training missions, and peacekeeping.

Option #3:  The U.S. primarily employee the Marine Corps, in a role it has historically held, to address small wars and MOOTW.

The United States Marine Corps (USMC), with its embarked Marine Expeditionary Concept, is ideal for rapid response to humanitarian disasters, evacuation of nationals from conflict zones, robust peacekeeping, and military assistance to host governments facing an insurgency. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Marines were landed for America’s “small wars”. Indeed, the deployments to Haiti (1915-1934) and Nicaragua (1926-1933) were precursors to modern twenty-first century robust peacekeeping operations[7]. Marines landed to restore order, evacuate nationals and/or secure multinational corporation property, organize and supervise elections, train police and military forces, and conduct counter insurgency operations. This “halls of Montezuma” and “shores of Tripoli” heritage is part of the strategic culture of the USMC.

Risk:  The principal risk is that it will divert the USMC from operating concepts needed for peer competition, but this risk can be overstated. Presence is key to the deterrence mission. In the European theater, this is the principal role of the USMC: deter by presence as both a trip wire and force for countering adversary hybrid warfare strategies[8]. In the Pacific theater, two operating concepts define the USMC role in great power conflict: (1) Littoral operations in a contested environment and (2) expeditionary advanced base operations[9]. The viability of both concepts has been brought into question based on analogies from World War II. The opposed amphibious landing may be an obsolete operating concept due to the political price paid for the high casualties that result if facing a peer enemy. The expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) concept is innovative but may not be viable. EABO proposes to use land-based resources to augment the Navy’s surface fleet for sea control, logistics, and ISR. The fundamental flaw is the vulnerability of forces ashore. A ship on an ocean is a difficult target to find and fix, but an atoll is a stationary target. Like the defenders at Wake Island in World War II, they are exceedingly vulnerable. The primary benefit of deployment to islands in the Pacific is as a tripwire deterrent, not as a viable fighting force when the shooting starts.

An additional risk is the damage that may be done to esprit de corps, if Marines begin to think that they are not contributing to the primary strategic challenge of peer competition. The USMC must guard against the impression that MOOTW amounts to “scallywag soldiering” like that of the period of British high empire. The USMC has a unique warrior ethos that must be maintained. In addition to the primary mission of small wars, the USMC must continue to be able to deter aggression and blunt the military adventures of a peer adversary as the “first to fight.”

Gain:  The United States Marine Corps (USMC), with its embarked Marine Expeditionary Concept, is ideal for rapid response to humanitarian disasters, evacuation of nationals from conflict zones, robust peacekeeping, and military assistance to host governments facing an insurgency. Rapid reaction and a flexible mix of capabilities makes this an ideal tool, especially in non-permissive environments. A battalion of Marines is the wrong tool for counter terrorism missions, it is the best tool when coercive presence is required.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, Stanford: Stanford University, 2012.

[2] Todd South, “New in 2019: From tanks to Strykers, major brigade combat team conversions are coming this year,” Army Times, 2 January 2019. Retrieved from https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2019/01/02/new-in-2019-from-tanks-to-strykers-major-brigade-combat-team-conversions-are-coming-this-year/

[3] SIPRI Yearbook 2018, Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2018.

[4] Fragile State Index Annual Report 2019, Washington, D.C.: The Fund for Peace, 2019.

[5] Country Reports on Terrorism 2017. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of State, 2018.

[6] SIPRI op cit.

[7] Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

[8] Shawn Snow, “No more Marine rotations to the Black Sea. The Corps is focusing here instead,” Marine Corps Times, 29 November 2019. Retrieved from https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2018/11/29/no-more-marine-rotations-to-the-black-sea-the-corps-is-focusing-on-the-arctic-instead/

[9] Sam LaGrone, “Lt. Gen. David Berger Nominated as Next Marine Corps Commandant,“ USNI News, 27 March 2019. Retrieved from https://news.usni.org/2019/03/27/lt-gen-david-berger-nominated-next-marine-corps-commandant#more-42200

Greg Olsen Insurgency & Counteinsurgency Major Regional Contingency Option Papers United States

U.S. Options for Responding to Sharp Power Threats

Anthony Patrick is a student at Georgia State University where he majors in political science and conducts research on Sharp Power.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Threats to U.S. and allied nations by sharp power actions (defined below).

Date Originally Written:  June 16, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  July 30, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is an undergraduate student of defense policies and an Officer Candidate in the United States Marine Corps.  This article is written with the base assumption that foreign actions against the U.S political system is a top national security challenge and a continuing threat.

Background:  Recent U.S. news cycles have been dominated by the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the U.S political system.  Other allied nations such as the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and New Zealand have also recently dealt with foreign political influence campaigns[1].  While historically nations have projected power either through military might (hard power) or cultural influence (soft power), rising authoritarian actors like the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, Iran, and North Korea are resulting to a hybrid mix of classical power projection through emerging technologies with revisionist intent in the international system known as sharp power[2].  Sharp power is more direct than soft power, not as physically destructive as hard power, and does not cause enough damage to justify a military response like Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 

Sharp power actions are normally covert in nature allowing the perpetrator plausible deniability.  Given the combined military and economic power of western democracies, sharp power is the preferred method for disruptive actions against the international order by authoritarian powers.  The effectiveness of sharp power is amplified by the open nature of democratic societies, especially in the information age[3].  Other examples of sharp power attacks include the North Korean hacking of Sony Pictures, the Iranian hacking of a dam in New York, PRC surveillance of Chinese students in foreign classrooms[4], and Russian actions in Ukraine and Moldova[5]. 

Significance:  The effects of sharp power actions can be very dangerous for western democracies.  One effect is a decrease in democratic legitimacy in an elected government.  When the citizens question if it was themselves or foreign actors who helped elect a government, that government is hamstrung due to a lack of legitimacy.  This lack of legitimacy can create new divisions or heighten polarization in the targeted countries.  Foreign actors can use the internet as a guise, pretend to be domestic actors, and push extreme ideas in communities, creating the potential for conflict.  This series of effects has already happened in U.S communities, where Russian actors have organized a protest and the counter protest[6].  These new divisions can also heighten political infighting, diverting political resources from international problems to deal with issues in the domestic sphere.  This heightened political infighting can give these revisionist actors the breathing room they need to expand their influence.  The increasing prevalence of these effects is a direct threat to U.S national security, chipping away at the government’s freedom of action and diverting resources to the domestic sphere away from international problems. 

Option #1:  Adopt military operational planning methodologies like Effects Based Operations (EBO) and Systematic Operational Design (SOD) at the interagency level to organize a response to adversary sharp power actions.

Risk:  The U.S also has the largest pool of soft power in the world and reverting to sharp power actions would hurt that important U.S resource[7].  Also, since these adversary countries are not as open, targeting would be a difficult task, and actions against the wrong group could be used as a rallying cry in the adversary country.  This rallying cry would give these adversaries a greater mandate to continue their actions against western democracies.  Lastly, successful sharp power actions against authoritarian countries could lead to more destructive domestic instability, harming allies in the region and disrupting global trading networks[8].

Gain:  By utilizing sharp power methodologies, the U.S would be able to strike back at opposing countries and deter further actions against the U.S.  The U.S has a large pool of resources to pull from in the interagency, and only needs a methodology to guide those resources.  Military style operational planning like EBO and SOD contain important theoretical constructs like System of System Analysis, Center of Gravity, and the constant reviewing of new information[9][10].  This planning style fits well for sharp power actions since it allows the government to create an operational plan for directed international political actions.  The U.S government can pull from the wealth of knowledge within the Department of Defense on how to combine these various frameworks to achieve sharp power action given their experience with designing complex operations on the joint level[11].  Successful actions would also give the U.S more leverage in negotiations with these countries on other areas and would divert their political resources from international actions 

Option #2:  Congress passes a Goldwater-Nichols-like Act to create a horizontal organization within the interagency, to address sharp power threats[12].

Risk:  Such reform would be substantial and would take a long time to implement.  The length of this process could delay any government response to both continued foreign interference and other international problems.  The congressional process is historically slow and designing the bill would also take a substantial amount of time.  Different agencies have set rules, procedures, and operating cultures, and changing those enough to allow effective interagency cooperation would also be difficult.  Option #2 would not change the defensive posture of the U.S government, thus it would not create the desired deterrent effect. 

Gain:  Streamlining the interagency process would increase the government’s ability to counter sharp power threats.  Option #2 would lead to better allocation of resources, more intelligence sharing, better allocation of authority during interagency deliberations, and provide more clarity on rules, regulations, and processes that govern interagency cooperation.  By adopting this reform, the national security council would be able to give task to a joint structure instead of a single lead agency.  This joint structure could operate like the joint command within the Department of Defense and create broad policy for interagency work[13].  By keeping a defensive posture, the U.S would also be able to protect its soft power appeal[14]. 

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendations:  None.


[1]  Kurlantzick, J. (2017, December 13). Australia, New Zealand Face China’s Influence. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/expert-brief/australia-new-zealand-face-chinas-influence

[2] National Endowment for Democracy. (2017, December 5). Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence. Retrieved from https://www.ned.org/sharp-power-rising-authoritarian-influence-forum-report/

[3]  Wanless, A., & Berk, M. (2018, March 7). The Strategic Communication Ricochet: Planning Ahead for Greater Resiliency. Retrieved from https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/3/7/the-strategic-communication-ricochet-planning-ahead-for-greater-resiliency

[4]  Sulmeyer, M. (2018, March 22). How the U.S. Can Play Cyber-Offense. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2018-03-22/how-us-can-play-cyber-offense

[5]  Way, L. A. (2018, May 17). Why Didn’t Putin Interfere in Armenia’s Velvet Revolution? Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/armenia/2018-05-17/why-didnt-putin-interfere-armenias-velvet-revolution

[6]  Lucas, R. (2017, November 01). How Russia Used Facebook To Organize 2 Sets of Protesters. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2017/11/01/561427876/how-russia-used-facebook-to-organize-two-sets-of-protesters

[7]  Nye, J. S., Jr. (2018, January 24). How Sharp Power Threatens Soft Power. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-01-24/how-sharp-power-threatens-soft-power

[8]  Breen, J. G. (2017). Covert Actions and Unintended Consequences. InterAgency Journal,8(3), 106-122. Retrieved from http://thesimonscenter.org/featured-article-covert-action-and-unintended-consequences/

[9]  Strange, J., Dr., & Iron, UK Army, R., Colonel. (n.d.). Understanding Centers of Gravity and Critical Vulnerabilities(United States, Department of Defense, United States Marine Corps War College).

[10]  Vego, M. N. (2006). Effects-based operations: A critique. National Defense University, Washington D.C. Institute for National Strategic Studies.

[11]  Beutel, C. (2016, August 16). A New Plan: Using Complexity In the Modern World. Retrieved    from https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2016/8/16/a-new-plan-using-complexity-in-the-modern-world

[12]  Dahl, U.S. Army, K. R., Colonel. (2007, July 1). New Security for New Threats: The Case for Reforming the Interagency Process. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/new-security-for-new-threats-the-case-for-reforming-the-interagency-process/

[13]  United States, Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2018). Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning.

[14]  Nye, J. S., Jr. (summer 2004). Soft Power and American Foreign Policy. Political Science Quarterly,119(2), 255-270. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20202345

Anthony Patrick Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) Deterrence Major Regional Contingency Option Papers United States