Unity of Command?

Nov. 1, 1955
There has been a recent quickening of the tempo of the long-standing debate on control and missions of Air Force units employed in support of ground forces. Army officers, many of whom have never been fully satisfied with the theory or practice of existing air support doctrine, are raising the issue once more. And so, largely in Army periodicals we find unofficial statements of the Army’s requirements for adequate air support, with the clear implication that if the Air Force can’t or won’t do the job, the Army itself will have to provide its own air support—just as the Marine Corps does.

The principle Army commander is now unable to exercise any control over the air elements from which he should receive air support. Many soldiers consider that this is an intolerable situation, that it jeopardizes the successful prosecution of the land battle, and—above all—that it violates the principle of unity of command.

It may be heresy, but as an Army man I find it impossible to reconcile this argument with established Army doctrine, or with Army concepts of the principles of war. I believer that there is an inherent inconsistency in reasoning with demands that local ground commanders should have command control of supporting air units on the basis of the “established and proven principle of unity of command.”

The Army does not use this argument to criticize its own doctrine of employing supporting Army weapons. And the Army does not give command control of non-infantry supporting weapons to the local infantry commander.

Does the infantry regimental commander command is own supporting artillery? Rarely, and then only when it is impossible for a higher commander to assign other artillery missions.

But, comes the quick reply, the division commander does exercise command over artillery supporting his division.

Of course he does. Because these weapons have range and flexibility commensurate with the usual missions and scope of activity of the division. But the division also receives additional support from longer-range artillery, much of which is capable of supporting more than one division. As a consequence, such longer-range supporting weapons are rarely placed under the command of the division commander, but are controlled by the corps commander. It would appear, in fact, that current Army doctrine envisions—atomic cannon and rockets—as controlled by the Army ground commanders, but they are not local ground commanders in terms of the capabilities of these long-range artillery weapons.

And why do we not give command control of these supporting weapons to the infantryman who makes us of their firepower—be he squad, company, battalion, regimental or divisional commander? The reasons lie in the principles of war, in particular those of mass, economy of forces and—strangely enough—unity of command.

Applying our principle of unity of command to three-dimensional war, one commander must exercise full control over all combat forces normally operating within a given theater of war. This includes air as well as ground and naval units. The commander must consider the requirements of air combat as well as land and—sometimes—naval combat.

The ultimate objective of all of these forces is to overcome the enemy’s resistance so that John Doughboy can get to, and hold, the territory which proper authority wishes to deny the enemy. There is no doubt in my mind that john Doughboy’s role will always be fundamental to imposing our national will on an enemy. But certainly there will be times, as in Korea, when for one reason or another a theater mission will be strictly limited. Maybe this objective will be merely to provide bases for strategic air forces, or their refueling planes, or their fighter support; or to secure sites for radar or interceptors defending our own vital regions. Whatever the theater mission, however, the joint tasks of theater ground, naval, and air elements will be directed towards the assurance that the infantryman can secure his objective.

This being the case, shouldn’t tactical air forces be under the direct command of the theater ground force commander? And wouldn’t it be logical for them to “assist in the air battle in the gaining of air superiority . . . only at such times as there is not an overriding requirement for close support”

The answer must be a resounding: No!

One does not need to subscribe to Air Force doctrine to see why the first priority mission of the air must be to gain and maintain air superiority. The answer lies in another principle of war as set forth in Army doctrine—security. Not only security for the aircraft but security for the ground forces themselves.

It is wonderful for Army forces to have close air support to augment their own ground firepower. But the land forces can fight effectively only as long as the enemy air does not interfere regularly and in strength. Ground troops will not wax enthusiastic about seeking the enemy plastered if they are going pounded just as hard at the same time. Simple common sense dictates that the foot soldier must prefer neutralization of enemy air close-support capability over our own close-support activities, if there should unfortunately be any conflict in priorities. Our own close-support activities cannot possibly be effective if the enemy is in a position to challenge us seriously in the air.

There is an interesting parallel between air-ground and naval support in amphibious operations. In the name of unity of command the Navy insists on retaining control over naval forces supporting an amphibious landing. No one, so far as I know, says that in this insistence the Navy has postulated a new principle of war—“that of equality of command between [sea] and ground.” Most soldiers accept the Navy position. Obviously, without control of the sea, there can be no effective naval support for the ground forces. All we ask is that ground and naval elements be under the same catastrophe of the battle for Leyte Gulf.

It is difficult to see why this parallel of naval-ground coordination is not free of air-ground coordination.

And what of the second priority mission of tactical air support? Should it be interdiction, or should it be close support? This is, perhaps, largely a matter of circumstances.

We must remember, however, that there are few targets which can be observed from the ground or from low-flying observation aircraft, which cannot be hit more accurately, more quickly, more effectively, and more repeatedly by ground weapons. This is true whether the aircraft flies at 200 miles per hour (and is thus most vulnerable to modern enemy anti-aircraft fire) or whether it flies upwards of 400 miles per hour in the ground attack role.

Certainly the aircraft is our “best tank destroyer,” when the tank is on the road or in rendezvous areas. But the rocket-launcher and the artillery cannot be excelled when the tank is closely engaged with our own ground forces.

But it’s awfully nice to see those birds peel off and clobber the fellow on the other side of the hill! And we know that there is nothing that can make the other fellow feel any unhappier. So whenever they can be spared from the air battle, ground-attack aircraft should add to the firepower and psychological pressure which destroy the enemy will to win. Let’s not forget, though, that they can contribute more directly to the land victory by beating up rear areas, lines of communication, supply depots and command post, than they can spraying a vaguely defined front line with machine guns, bombes and napalm. And so, in a conflict of priorities, the less spectacular interdiction role is more useful to the ground soldier, who has his own weapons to hurt the enemy to his immediate front.

But what of the argument that the close-support planes need not necessarily be the high-performance aircraft essential to victory in the air battle? Couldn’t we use cheaper, more maneuverable, and thus more effective, air weapons for close support? Under today’s circumstances, such a solution does not seem reasonable.

These limited capacity aircraft could not be employed in great numbers, or effectively, while the battle for air superiority is going on. And so, while awaiting the result of the air battle, expensive (and scarce) combat pilots would be sitting idly by, while their grounded aircraft would become attractive targets for enemy air attack. If we should lose the air battle, with significant numbers of pilots and aircraft thus ineffective, we should have done so because we violated the principles of mass and economy of force, in pursuit of a false dollar economy in building cheap—and useless—aircraft.

If we win the air battle, the value of these cheaper planes is still questionable. Modern anti-aircraft weapons are so effective as to make their employment extremely hazardous. We should probably be forced to call in the high-performance aircraft for at least some of the close support. And let us not forget that close air support is a bonus—more valuable psychologically than in casualty effect—over and above our efficient ground weapons.

So it is that, with the weapons available today for the air and ground battle, the current theory of command and of missions for tactical air support is sound, in terms of Army doctrine for the employment of supporting weapons in terms of principles of war, and in terms of comparable, satisfactory, doctrine of naval support for ground forces.

Does this end the argument? Unfortunately, it does not. Because abstract theory is not going to satisfy those who are certain that the theory has not held up satisfactorily in practice.

Why don’t we have similar complaints about the Navy in its amphibious close-support role? Of course they don’t do it as often, and it is possible to find examples of lack of cooperation on both sides in amphibious operations. But, in general, the naval man is proud of the way in which he handles this second priority mission, and the ground soldier is enthusiastic about the promptness and effectiveness of the support, despite his recognition of certain inherent limitations.

The airman, however, is (apparently) less interested in doing the close-support job than are his Marine Corps or Navy cousins. It seems to the soldier that the Air Force man lacks the incentive which impels the Marine flyer to do a fine job in his role. And there is some evidence that naval flyers are more interested—and therefore more effective—than Air Force pilots, who are every bit as good professionally.

Is the answer to adopt the Marine Corps system for the Army? Or to put all tactical air forces “in Navy blue”? Could be, if we recognize the need for adhering to sound theoretical doctrine, for the reasons discussed above.

This, however, seems a rather childish solution. What did Shakespeare say of the odor of the rose? If the theory is sound, changing nomenclature, or color of uniforms, can offer only a temporary improvement, at best. What is needed is the will to work together effectively, and mutual understanding of capabilities and limitations.

Unity of command is a meaningless expression without such a will—existing on the part of all members of the command—and without mutual understanding.

The example must be set at the very top. Lip service is not enough. The commanders must believe in the correctness of the theory and in the importance of working closely and effectively together. They must insist that results be achieved. Methods are unimportant if this prerequisite is met.

And it can be met in air-ground operations. It has been met. Let’s look at the record.

Three sets of names are sufficient to demonstrate how strong-willed, capable soldiers and airmen can work successfully together in accordance with the concepts of our current prescribed doctrine: Patton and Weyland, Krueger and Kenney, Montgomery and Tedder. We should not forget that our current doctrine emerged largely as the result of failure in North Africa, in February 1943, of the doctrine to which some soldiers now wish to return. Nor should we overlook the signatures on the official statements of the revised doctrine: G. C. Marshall on FM 100-20, 21 July 1943, and Dwight D. Eisenhower on FM 31-35, August 1946.

One final postscript is perhaps desirable. Do the arguments made above imply that it should be eliminated completely

Emphatically not!

There is no argument among the services about the necessity for organic Army light aviation for such functions as observation, command, communications, and evacuation. Nor should there be any argument about the need for organic Army air vehicles to provide modern mobility for large Army units on the battlefield. It would be ridiculous if the Army should be deprived of a form of transportation which should be as routine as trucks and armored personnel carriers. And airmen should be happy to encourage such developments since the drain and strain on their logistic air units would be correspondingly reduced.

One again there is a convenient amphibious parallel. The establishment and employment of Amphibian Engineer commands by the Army in World War II in no way threatened or interfered with Navy control over all combat support vessels, or over the strategic transport lift.

This is fully consistent with the concept of the principle of unity of command. Forces which must, by their very nature, be primarily employed in the land battle should be under the command of that ground commander who is able to make most effective use of their range, flexibility and other capabilities. Similarly, forces which must be primarily capable of employment in the air battle, should be under an air commander, while forces at sea must be under a naval commander. But when there are elements of two of more services working with each other in any area, over-all unity of command is essential, with the over-all commander making final decisions on force employments whenever there is a conflict of views or interests.

And, as has been true since the dawn of history, unity of command in name will become unity of command in fact only when all elements work together wholeheartedly on the basis of mutual respect and good will, which can be developed only as a result of intensive and intimate working together, with a clear understanding of each other’s problems.

Colonel Dupuy has been PMST at Harvard University since 1952. A 1938 West Point graduate, he served in combat at Burma in WWII, later was a staff officer in Operations on the War Department General Staff. He served as a military assistant to an Army undersecretary before being assigned to the Plans, Policy and Operations Division of SHAPE.