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Reforming Military Command Arrangements: The Case of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force

Reforming Military Command Arrangements: The Case of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force - Cover

Authored by Henrik Bliddal.

February 2011

99 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Our national security system turns our overall capabilities into active assets, protects us against the threats of an anarchic international system and makes it possible to exploit its opportunities. Today, however, the system is arguably in dire need of reform. Much remains in the dark about how the organizations that safeguard our national security are reformed because international circumstances change. The author examines a crucial historical case of military reform: the establishment of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF)—the direct predecessor of Central Command. He discusses how the U.S. military adapted to the emerging security challenges in the Persian Gulf in the late 1970s by recasting military command arrangements. The RDJTF was one of the components of President Carter’s Persian Gulf Security Framework, which marked a critical strategic reorientation towards the region as a vital battleground in the global competition with the Soviet Union. The author also suggests how national security reforms can be understood more generally. In this way, he lays out some of today’s challenges that we must face in effectively restructuring our security and defense establishment. Especially in these times of fiscal restraint, a better grasp of institutional reform is very much needed. Based upon original interviews with key civilians and military officers as well as extensive archival research, including the analysis of material only recently declassified, this monograph is the most complete account of the establishment of the RDJTF thus far.


After the Shah of Iran was deposed and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the United States began to craft a new Persian Gulf Security Framework (PGSF). Consisting of military, diplomatic, economic, and covert steps, it signified a historic strategic reorientation towards the Persian Gulf. This paper examines an integral part of the PGSF: the creation of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF). As the first real tool for U.S. power projection in the area, and the immediate precursor to today’s Central Command (CENTCOM), the RDJTF has indeed left an important mark on the U.S. approach to the Persian Gulf. This paper is the fullest account of its creation thus far.

The RDJTF is both an example of forward strategic thinking as well as one of organizational resistance and competing understandings of the international environment. In Jimmy Carter’s first year as President, the administration recognized an acute weakness in U.S. power projection capabilities and consequently mandated the creation of a Rapid Deployment Force (RDF). However, for almost 2 years, nothing happened because the U.S. military services were not interested in such an RDF. Differences at the senior level about how to react to Soviet actions in the Persian Gulf provided additional cover for the military to ignore the RDF. Only the fall of the Iranian regime in early 1979 put the RDF back on the agenda. However, the military was soon locked into an interservice quarrel that pitted the Army against the Marine Corps. A compromise was adopted in October 1979 that established a semi-autonomous RDJTF to be led by a Marine commander under an Army superior and with a global role, but an initial focus on the Persian Gulf. At the same time, key figures on the National Security Council staff started advocating for a separate unified command for Southwest Asia. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, they were able to push harder for this objective, but gridlock in the military services was now joined by a struggle for control between the Marine commander of the RDJTF and his Army superior. Even though the costs of delayed RDF implementation became clear, when a serious Soviet military threat to Iran emerged in the summer of 1980, the Carter administration was still not able to establish a unified command, which had to wait until President Ronald Reagan’s terms in office.

Today, policy advocates are calling for wide-ranging changes in the way the United States is organized to meet the threats of a new security environment. In this light, the case of the RDJTF takes on additional significance, since it represents a major adjustment in a changing international environment. For despite all the advocacy and activity, still too little is known about the difficulties that so often plague reform processes. This paper therefore turns to the past to recognize some of the challenges ahead. Thus, even though the national security system has changed greatly over the past 30 years, this paper ends with the suggestion that the underlying mechanics of reform have not changed and lays out a model for understanding national security reforms. It is argued that efforts at national security system reform are caught between two logics: Policymakers push to adapt to shifting international conditions, but national security organizations continually strive for greater autonomy in the national security system and bigger shares of the budget. These two logics are most often at odds, thus producing sub-optimal results. Further studies of the reform processes are therefore essential. It is not enough to know how best to rearrange the system, which is a very difficult task in itself. Equally important, the organizational hurdles for reform must be analyzed much more closely. Only then will the United States be able to take real steps to improve its institutional capacity to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.

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