America’s “longest war”—now in its eleventh year in Afghanistan—has proved a source of frustration to policymakers, military strategists, and academics alike. Hypotheses abound about why American progress appears sluggish. Everything from failed tactical objectives, fractured civil-military relations, and an unbridgeable cultural divide have been scrutinized.

One theory, postulated by Thomas Ricks, an author and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, suggests that “serially rotat[ing] our top war commanders” on an almost-annual basis has contributed to this stagnation. Writing in a New York Times op-ed article, Ricks notes that there have been 11 officers to lead the war effort in 11 years. “Rotating troops is appropriate,” he observes, “especially when entire units are moved in and out.” However, replacing commanders is inefficient and counterproductive.

Ricks may have it backwards: Perhaps the reason why the U.S. has not fully met its operational goals in Afghanistan is precisely because the military is not rotating its top commanders through the country with sufficient frequency. One need only look at U.S. naval operations during the latter part of WWII to find a useful case study for how pragmatically swapping theater commanders yielded myriad benefits in prosecuting the war.

During the Spring of 1944, two and a half years into the war, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, decided to split planning and execution duties between his two three-star fleet commanders—Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey and Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance. Spruance had, to that point, shouldered a lion’s share of the theater’s operational planning and was exhausted, and Nimitz and Admiral Ernest King, the Chief of Naval Operations, worried that as a result, the Navy would not be able to maintain its grueling offensive pace.

Nimitz created what came to be known as the “Two-Platoon System,” which entailed shuttling Spruance and Halsey—two disparate personalities—between the front lines in the western Pacific and his headquarters in Hawaii on opposing schedules. In short, individual ships, squadrons, and crews remained forward deployed to places like the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf while Halsey and Spruance moved in and out (when Halsey was in charge, the command was designated the Third Fleet; when Spruance rotated in, the command became the Fifth Fleet). While one was fighting, the other was back in Hawaii at Nimitz’s headquarters drawing up the battle plans for the next major operation. He would then fly out to the western Pacific with a small group of planners and aides (Halsey nicknamed his cadre the “Department of Dirty Tricks”), embark in a flagship, and lead the operation while his counterpart returned to Hawaii to begin the process anew.

Evan Thomas, author of Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945, observes, “For the rest of the war, Halsey and Spruance and their staffs would rotate roughly every six months.” This constant planning enabled the US to maintain unceasing pressure on the enemy by deeming the top commanders interchangeable—rather than indispensable—parts. This is an organizational pattern that is not found in hierarchies that utilize a traditional management model. Since tactical units remained in place, they were better prepared to fight the next battle because of their accumulated experience, knowledge of the enemy, familiarity with the operating area, and tightened unit cohesion. It was good for morale and encouraged cooperation. The unprecedented operational tempo had an added psychological benefit: “The name-switch was confusing to the Japanese, who assumed the Americans had two entirely different fleets.”

The current conflict in Afghanistan, by contrast, has undergone many operational and strategic shifts throughout the course of a decade of fighting. One cannot help but wonder how the strategic outlook would have changed had the commanders in Afghanistan had an opportunity to observe conditions on the ground, return home to plan for the next phase, and head back to the theater.

Ricks also argues that the organizational inefficiencies created by such high-level personnel turnover outweigh any perceived benefits. Keep in mind, however, that the Pacific War lasted roughly from late 1941 to mid-1945. Does Ricks suggest keeping one commander in place for 11 years (or even half that time—five and a half years)? It gives new meaning to the term battle fatigue.

“Imagine,” Ricks posits, “if, at the beginning of 1944, six months before D-Day, Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, told Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, that it was time to give someone else a chance.” Not to take anything away from Eisenhower and his great abilities, but if he had been unavailable, there is little doubt the D-Day invasion would still have occurred.

“Imagine trying to run a corporation,” Ricks hypothesizes, “by swapping the senior executives every year.” One need look no further for an example of organizational inefficiency than Apple Inc. to find a corporation less prepared to fill the void left by the death of its longtime chief executive, Steven Jobs. Since his death, Apple has suddenly found itself perilously close to losing its edge in new product development to hungry competitors. One-man rule may seem efficient but it runs the risk of making someone seem indispensable. Ike would be the first to say he was not indispensable.

Corporations are not typically run like military operations, which are mission-centric and are truly not for profit; rather, private-sector businesses must answer to stockholders and the bottom line. The military is hardly analogous to corporate America.

To be sure, Afghanistan in 2012 and the Pacific war in 1944 are very different conflicts: non-state actors versus a nation-state; asymmetric tactics versus conventional war; instant communication versus time-late information. Detractors may also point out that “chopping and rotating” top commanders is an inherently naval concept—one befitting of the maritime domain, which permits mobility and affords decision-makers with the option to choose when to take the offensive. Land battles, by contrast, tend to be of a more permanent nature. But such a sustained pace also makes it less likely that one ground commander can remain at his post—physically or psychologically—indefinitely. The basic tenets of military leadership and operational planning still apply, and have met the tests of time. As Nimitz said, “Hindsight is notably cleverer than foresight.”

Posted by LT Doug Robb, USN in Navy
Tags: ,

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Matt

    From the news I read I don’t see how you could believe commanders or anyone on the ground actually have much say in the strategy. The politician du jour is the General now. Was it General Allen’s idea to commit to withdrawal no matter the ground reality? Was it Ambassador Stevens that decided to ignore the Jihadist presence in Libya? General Patton would never have had the chance to win any battle with today’s political class. I think you have to be somewhat aloof to believe our strategies have anything to do with reality. Just as what happened in Libya the people on the ground are told to “normalize” so the NY Times can claim we won something and then they ignore the whole mess afterwards. Just like what happened in Libya before, during and after 9/11/12. Have you heard about Suffi Muslum shrines and graves in tripoli being razed to the ground since 9/11/12? The first attack on the consulate? Of course not. Smart people will just learn to stay home to begin with. Let the drones drone on into oblivion by themselves. If your going to be a loser you might as well be safe at home with your loved ones.

    • RightCowLeftCoast

      Very well said.
      To often strategy, and more importantly tactics, have been dictated at the Theater Command level down. Rather than learning from AARs at the Company and Battalion levels, and keeping in place and promoting effecting NCOs and Officers from that level, or another possible option is keeping them in-theater to train incoming Soldiers or Marines to emulate what went right, and warn them of

  • Phil Candreva

    You are arguing the same point as Ricks. First, 2 is closer to 1 than 11. Second, Halsey and Spruance were both going back to continue a consistent – abeit shared – strategy. Much different than 11 different strategies tacked end to end.

  • “Imagine trying to run a corporation,” Ricks hypothesizes, “by swapping the senior executives every year.”

    Already been tried…and failed miserably. I think it was one of the smaller airline companies in the 1980’s that tried this management fad (I think it was Piedmont but I cannot remember the company name from the case study…).

    The company fatally figured out too late that pilots make lousy gate service reps and flight attendants are not good mechanics…

    But it looked good on the power point slide from the management consultants!

  • robert_k

    This post is well written but poorly argued.

    Ricks is correct that having 11 Commanders in Afghanistan is problematic. Clearly having 11 different versions of Commanders’ intent and guidance, as well continually rotating key staff positions, generates internal friction and sends a negative message to the population of Afg, with whom we are attempting to build long term relations.

    To me, frequently swapping Commanders is an indicator of either a broken personnel system or desperation or combination thereof. Some Commanders surely rotated through this position to get a check in the box for this level of operational command. I also think there has been a “try it and see” approach to insert a new personality into the position and hope he can make a difference. The result of this approach speak for themselves.

    The analogy with Apple is also poor. No evidence is provided for the causal link between the death of Steve Jobs and loss of market share. Apple remains a prosperous and healthy global firm despite the loss of Jobs. Clearly since Jobs’ death was preceded by a prolonged illness, succession planning occurred. This is a completely different scenario than intentionally rotating Commanders.

    If the author contends that “one man rule” is inefficient then he challenges the entire concept of Command, which also applies to the navy examples cited.


    What does it matter. Once we committed ourselves to a disastrous long term strategy of occupation, we guaranteed ourselves we couldn’t win regardless of the General leading the fight.
    We never needed 100,000 people, most of them support personnel, in country. Convoys (moving targets), FOBs (fixed targets), conventional troops wearing conventional uniforms (self identifying as enemy targets), well diggers, school builders, and trainers.
    What we needed was bearded, man dress wearing, raggedy pickup truck driving SOF and CIA with backpacks full of cash and license to kill running around the country hunting Al Quaeda and Taliban with an air bridge for supplies and air power on call.
    We have been executing a plan to justify the expense of a huge conventional army, not a plan for victory, from the very beginning. What difference does it make how often we transfer leadership tasked with executing a terrible plan?