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COCOM, ADCON,OPCON, TACON, Support —Do You Know the Difference?


The news article about the new Army Materiel Command (AMC) arrangement with the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC), published in the May–June 2007 issue of Army Logistician, improperly explained the SDDC’s command relationships. According to the news article—

The change in the status of SDDC means that SDDC is under the administrative control of AMC but the operational control of TRANSCOM.

SDDC is assigned to the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) as its Army service component command (ASCC), and the command authority, therefore, is “combatant command” (COCOM). According to Title 10 of the U.S. Code (USC) 164(c)(1), COCOM authority “includes giving authoritative direction to subordinate commands and forces necessary to carry out missions assigned to the command, including authoritative direction over all aspects of military operations, joint training, and logistics” (emphasis added).

Under 10 USC 3013(b), 5013(b), and 8013(b), the Secretary of the Army retains oversight for the “internal organization, training, logistics [meaning internal logistics], readiness, control of resources and equipment, mobilization, demobilization, administration, support, and discipline” of SDDC. In doctrinal terms, these are administrative control (ADCON) responsibilities, even after the assignment of SDDC’s capabilities to TRANSCOM, which is a functional combatant command. It is important to note that ADCON is not a command relationship but serves as a doctrinal interpretation of the departmental responsibilities outlined in the Federal statute.

My purpose here is not to single out Army Logistician’s mistake. Rather, the Army Logistician news article is an example of misrepresenting appropriate command relationships that brings to light a wider professional concern: How well do Army logisticians understand how command relationships can affect logistics responsibilities at all levels? A basic understanding of the four types of command relationships is critical to achieving this understanding.

In the joint force commander’s purview, four types of command relationships are possible. COCOM, as already mentioned, is the broadest command authority. Based in Federal law and delegated by the Secretary of Defense when he assigns forces in his “Forces for Unified Commands” memorandum, COCOM cannot be further delegated by the combatant commander.

Operational control (OPCON) is a joint doctrinal term and, thus, is not based directly in law. It reflects a more temporary arrangement than COCOM and includes the authority to organize commands and forces and to employ those forces as the receiving commander considers necessary to accomplish assigned missions. OPCON does not, in and of itself, include authoritative direction for logistics or matters of administration, discipline, internal organization, or unit training (as would COCOM). Because he has COCOM over assigned service capabilities or OPCON of other capabilities, as directed by the Secretary of Defense, the combatant commander may delegate OPCON over capabilities to lower-level commanders within his organization.

Tactical control (TACON) is a joint doctrinal subset of authorities that also is not based directly in law and that is something less than OPCON. It limits authority to direct control of administrative movements or maneuvers within the operational area as necessary to accomplish missions or tasks assigned. By virtue of having COCOM or OPCON of service-assigned or other combatant command-assigned capabilities, TACON can be delegated further down the chain within the same organization.

Support is a command relationship that is explicitly described in joint doctrine as a two-way responsibility. First, the supported command (that is, the commander who receives assistance from another commander’s force or capabilities) is responsible for ensuring that the supporting commander understands what assistance he requires. Second, the commander who provides the support must understand the requirements and fulfill them. Unlike OPCON or TACON, support is not a clear subset of COCOM authority, so to speak of “delegation” of support is inappropriate. Among combatant commanders, Defense agencies, and service departments, the support command relationship is critical to conducting joint operations and may exist separately, without reference to COCOM, OPCON, or TACON.

What adds to the problem of interpreting the practical aspects of these authorities to Soldiers is that Army doctrine (for example, Field Manual 5–0, Mission Command) does not recognize support as a bonafide command relationship. I have served with Army colonels and generals, even those in key joint staff or command positions, who, because they were inculcated with the Army view that “support” is not a legitimate command relationship, inappropriately call for “OPCON” or “TACON” while developing theater-based or national command and control structures. Hence, we see in emerging Army doctrine the propensity to “OPCON” AMC’s Army Field Support Brigade to a combatant commander or his subordinate ASCC.

This tendency in the Army creates two critical issues. First, by law, only the Secretary of Defense or the President can OPCON forces that are assigned to a service department or a supporting combatant commander. AMC is assigned to the Department of the Army. AMC’s presence in theater may not be provided for by a Secretary of Defense deployment order designating the OPCON relationship and certainly not by the Secretary’s “Forces for Unified Commands” memorandum. Yet these are the only ways an OPCON relationship can be established legally. Second, an OPCON relationship would effectively cut off the relinquished capability from its main purpose and source of mission—to represent the Army’s ADCON responsibility (such as its provision of materiel) in theater. Even if the Secretary of Defense approved of the transfer of forces, it would not make sense. A support relationship is more appropriate when it is essential that the technical direction remain with the assigned organization so it can best provide task direction and use of resources as it supports from forward areas in a theater or in a joint operations area. Again, the Army needs to get on board with this legal and joint doctrinal concept—that “support” is a command relationship.

Getting back to the relationship among AMC, SDDC, and TRANSCOM, we must be careful to conceptually separate ADCON from command relationships, though both are inherent to any ASCC mission. SDDC and its subordinate elements are inextricably dependent on the Department of the Army because SDDC obtains resources, direction for training, methods of morale and discipline, and such through its departmental ADCON relationship. In that regard, the Army has decided to use AMC as the new intermediary source for controlling administration instead of having SDDC rely directly on Department of the Army-level staff supervision. Nevertheless, SDDC has been, and remains, under the COCOM authority of the Commander of TRANSCOM.

Dr. Christopher R. Paparone is an Associate Professor in the Army Command and General Staff College’s Department of Logistics and Resource Operations at Fort Lee, Virginia. A retired Army colonel, he has a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University.