Regional Command: A New “Whole of Community” Approach

By Isaiah Oppelaar

Over the past few decades, the United States has increasingly favored use of the military instrument of power to ensure its security and pursue its interests. Increased reliance on the military has led to reduced interagency coordination and a shift from viable and necessary diplomatic, information, and economic levers. Conflicts such as Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Neptune Falcon and the subsequent Operation Unified Protector, and Operation Inherent Resolve all demonstrate the limits of American military power to fully achieve national ends. A former US ambassador noted in a recent discussion with the USAF Air War College, that continually turning to the military reduces diplomatic options that could influence outcomes at far less cost and risk. As he further highlighted, “No country has ever said ‘Thank you’ for the damage caused by the US military.” In many cases, non-military options could achieve the national strategic end state without the long-term costs of destruction, failed governments, and civil war. What is particularly lacking is a true whole-of-government approach at the operational level, where strategy and policy are translated into the actions that generate influence. To integrate and synchronize the full spectrum of national power on achieving it interests, the United States must restructure its regional leadership construct and establish Interagency Regional Commands (RC) empowered with a new Strategic Command Authority (SCA).

The Disconnect between National Instruments of Power

The diplomatic, informational, and economic instruments of power remain too detached from the military instrument in part because of a lack of alignment between military and interagency regional organizations. While geographic combatant commands have a regional focus and presence, building partnerships across the region, non-military departments often organize at the operational level by function or by individual country. This misalignment creates discontinuity which inhibits full, balanced, and complementary use of all instruments of national power in pursuit of national interests within regions.

Further, current US joint doctrine provides a methodical process for phasing planned operations, but fails to meaningfully address coordination with non-military organizations and instruments of power. The first phase, Phase 0 (Shaping), typically involves intelligence preparation of the operational environment coupled with coordinated non-military actions to diffuse potential crises. Phase 0 is ongoing and is only followed by Phase 1 (Deterrence) once military forces are directed to execute a named operation to deter further aggression by the adversary by civilian authorities. Phases II (Seize the Initiative) and III (Dominate) follow, if required, and hopefully result in the complete defeat of the adversary. Phases I through III are military-led actions executed under the authority of the President and Secretary of Defense requiring only limited coordination with non-military organizations. According to joint doctrine, Phase IV (Stabilization) is “required when there is no fully functional, legitimate civil governing authority present.” Phase V (Enable Civil Authorities) comes last, during which the “goal is for the joint force to enable the viability of the civil authority and its provision of essential services to the largest number of people in the region.” Unfortunately, neither joint doctrine nor State Department organization provide a framework to coordinate the military end-state of the operation with the organizations well suited to ensure civilian authorities can successfully begin the work of rebuilding.

Regional Command: A Synchronizing Agency for a “Whole of Community” Approach

Taking military action against any adversary without “Whole of Community” coordination adversely influences the strategic landscape with potentially unexpected results. Since all military operations start and end with civilian-led actions in an adversary country, US instruments of power must be synchronized and coordinated throughout the full spectrum of conflict. This synchronization will maximize the effectiveness of resources and effort. To achieve this end, the US requires a new organizational construct to incorporate the available tools of national power. Regional Command enables the United States to exploit the benefits of non-military organizations before, during, and after the application of military force by overcoming departmental stovepipes. It provides for the exchange of information and the coordination of actions to ensure the tasks create the desired effects and synchronizes the full complement of coalition capabilities to achieve the national strategic end state.

Regional Command, when coupled with Strategic Command Authority (SCA), establishes the authority to exercise command and commit resources across the departments, agencies, and organizations within a specific region to more closely align and synchronize the activities of each of the nation’s instruments of power. By combining the effects of non-military instruments of power with the combatant command’s forces, the diplomatic instrument is able to negotiate while bolstered by the synchronized deterrent value of the military. The RC model compels collaboration across the agencies and departments needed to form and support a legitimate civilian authority, particularly in Phase 0 and Phase V environments. This provides the unique mixture of perspective and capabilities to comprehend and accept the risks and costs of each kind of action. The organization of all the elements of national power under a single civilian leader responsible for synchronized planning of all instruments of power allows the RC to apply the full scope of national power in a way that is salient to their region’s challenges and context, continuously from pre- to post- crisis.

Once formed, the RC would leverage forces and capabilities across the “Whole of Community” to plan and execute operations via a civilian command authority (CCA). The CCA exercises authority over a Regional Command and operates under Presidential direction. As often as possible, the RC would also include non-governmental organizations and international partners. This collection of diverse thinkers and organizations provide the RC with the capability to not only execute regional operations, but to exercise the elements of strategic and operational design to envision a different future and take actions to make it a reality. In other words, the RC will have the capability to fully understand the environment, determine a desired end state, and execute actions with intentionality focused on achieving that end state.

To enable the RC, legislation is required to authorize a new command authority, Strategic Command Authority. Traditional military command authorities (Combatant Command or COCOM, Operational Control or OPCON, Tactical Control or TACON, and Support) provide the necessary authorities for military operations. However, a new authority is needed to synchronize and leverage the full menu of capabilities of the RC. Under most situations, the President-appointed civilian command authority (CCA) in the RC would exercise SCA over personnel, organizations, and agencies within the region, including the military. Upon Presidential direction for major combat operations or declared war, SCA passes to the Combatant Commander. COCOM and lower levels of authority are not inherent in SCA and stays with the assigned or gaining Combatant Commander (CCDR). The CCDR will retain the ability to delegate authorities to a Joint Task Force, as required. However, SCA provides presidential authority via the CCA to direct how a Combatant Commander employs the force. Upon the transfer of SCA from the CCA to the CCDR, the CCDR, with all regional command capabilities functioning in direct support, executes Phase II and III military operations to reach the military end-state. The CCDR maintains SCA until major operations are completed or when it is appropriate for the CCA to assume SCA. Once the President transfers SCA back to the CCA, the military component supports the CCA to execute shaping, deterrence, stabilization, and assistance in the transition to civilian authority.


The RC is a disruptive but innovative solution to the lingering problem of integrating the instruments of national power to achieve the national strategic end-state and address the complex national security environment. The RC construct provides the capability to responsively respond in accordance with national interests to contingencies from non-combatant evacuations operations, humanitarian relief, security for democratic elections, bilateral trade agreements, hybrid warfare such a Russia’s action in Crimea, to major combat operations including the use of weapons of mass destruction. When the President decides to use military force, Geographic Combatant Commanders (GCC) plan the operation with guidance from the SecDef and the CJCS and in theory, these senior national leaders serve as the coordinating authority for the “Whole of Community” organizations, to include non-government organizations. Then the GCC carries out planning the military operation to achieve the military termination criteria. In contrast, the RC enables continuous, integrated planning and execution by engaging the diplomatic, information, and economic instruments of power in synchronization with the capabilities of the “whole of community.” This not only empowers the US to respond to crises and situations, but to shape regions over time to reduce the likelihood of larger-scale disruptions and military conflicts.

Barriers to the RC

There are a number of barriers preventing the acceptance of the RC concept. First, it creates a new level of bureaucracy in an already bloated national security establishment. In a Republican-controlled political cycle, an increase in government spending of this magnitude is untenable without sufficient guarantees regarding the potential cost-savings from future military engagements that require some level of reconstruction. Additionally, the Department of Defense (DOD) is likely to fight this change due to a reduced level of regional independence. Any protests by the DOD will most likely focus on the potential challenges associated with the increased levels of bureaucracy and will be primarily political, out of concern for any potential cuts to military spending, their headquarters staffs, or loss of influence in the government. However, most senior military officials understand the importance of “Whole of Community” involvement and the potential benefits of such an organization. Finally, per the former US ambassador, the State Department is not currently postured to assume the increased role of leading the strategy across theaters due to the lack of personnel, funding, and training infrastructure to develop future regional diplomats. Although numerous, none of the barriers are insurmountable in a political environment marked by rapid change.


The United States is failing to adapt to a more dynamic national security environment, instead strengthening counterproductive organizational stovepipes. The RC concept provides a way of crossing institutional stovepipes while providing a synchronization of capabilities from disparate and unique organizations. Additionally, the RC has the potential to reduce the over-use of the military instrument due to the lack of other potentially more effective tools. Although this option requires legislative action to enact the proposed Strategic Command Authority, the potential benefits enable the United States to return to a balanced approach to national security founded on a broader use of the instruments of power. By not utilizing the military instrument as often, the military is able to maintain a higher state of readiness, improve the quality of equipment and personnel, and message new capabilities in a way that actually increases deterrent value. Finally, the synchronization of these instruments provides the opportunity to perform strategic design in a way that enables a clearly defined strategic end state and the execution of deliberate Phase 0 actions that shape the desired environment.

Isaiah “CHAFF” Oppelaar is a KC-135R/T Evaluator Pilot with over 120 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Unified Protector. He is a graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School and a student at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations

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