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Confused or Absolved?
Our COMMZ ‘Megaproblem’

In his book, Managing the Dream: Reflections on Leadership and Change, Warren Bennis quotes a high-level executive in a large organization as saying, “If you’re not confused, you don’t know what’s going on.” Our military leadership culture seems to be oriented toward a different philosophy: “Only if you are clear and have identified the problem will you know what’s going on.”

Rather than trying to remove confusion about “megaproblems,” I believe we should attempt to appreciate the level of our confusion about complex joint mission areas. By “megaproblem,” I mean a “mess,” or conglomeration, of problems—a network of problems that are interconnected and interactive, creating complexity on a grand scale. We are accustomed to using the “scientific” method of breaking down problems into smaller pieces and attacking each one. This results in functional (isolatable) problems, such as “joint theater logistics” and its subproblems. As we attempt to define and manage smaller parts of a megaproblem, we often are surprised to find that the problem we have focused on has “morphed” from its original state and is now a “moving target” for resolution. We execute solutions that we hope will solve the problem; however, because we did not address the larger network of problems, we sometimes create even more confusion. This is why, if you take a look at the logistics problems experienced during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, you will find repeats of some of the documented “lessons learned” in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and even as far back as World War II.

In a contingency operation, the communications zone (COMMZ) is a complex joint mission area. The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines “communications zone” as “the rear part of a theater of war or theater of operations (behind but contiguous to the combat zone) which contains the lines of communications, establishments for supply and evacuation, and other agencies required for the immediate support and maintenance of the field forces.” Problems repeatedly experienced in the COMMZ include a lack of centralized control, insufficient ground transportation and movement control, inadequate distribution and asset visibility, and unsatisfactory reporting of logistics status.

In his seminal book, The Sinews of War: Army Logistics, 1775–1953, James A. Huston writes of the World War II (WWII) logistics experience—

Ill-defined lines of authority and responsibility bred chronic problems of coordination throughout the war in Europe. Appointment of Lieutenant General John C. H. Lee to be Deputy Theater Commander for Administration and Commanding General, Communications Zone, appeared for a time to give a certain integration to the structure; but this was deceptive, for field commanders resisted the arrangement and General [Dwight D.] Eisenhower [the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe] finally rescinded it. The result was an anomalous situation in which theater and COMMZ staffs overlapped (where the chiefs of technical services had theater-wide responsibilities) but the COMMZ commander had no theater-wide responsibility as such. It was confusion between theater and COMMZ organization—indeed confusion in conception—which would not end with WW II.

A more holistic “system of systems” perspective better reveals our COMM megaproblem and the fact that we have framed “joint logistics” problems by trying to isolate them from other problems, such as joint command and control and battlespace awareness. After a functional analysis, we attempt to reintegrate solutions across other problems; for example, through the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System, or JCIDS. The inherent problem with this operations research/systems analysis methodology is that we are constrained by the functional areas we have chosen. These choices are based on existing functional expertise in stovepiped organizations, so we restate subproblems in what we think are simplified cause-and-effect relationships. However, when we, as functional problemsolvers, attempt to reintegrate subproblems and the identified solutions, which often are really solutions that were looking for problems, we discover we cannot put “Humpty Dumpty” back together again.

Take, for example, the current efforts toward institutionalizing new theater logistics “organizational solutions” such as the deployment and distribution operations center (DDOC). As valiant and progressive as they are, these efforts do not holistically address a higher systems-level view. The DDOC is a “solution” that places national-level organizational representatives forward or adjacent to the joint operations area to manage distribution. One of the most confusing aspects of prosecuting the full range of military operations is that of prosecuting COMMZ capabilities efficiently and effectively. The DDOC does seem to address a critical subproblem of the joint operator—enabling the national support structure to establish liaison and a “management reachback” capability with regional combatant commander organizations. However, it does not provide a holistic solution of the megaproblem of integrating the differentiated, interdependent missions of theater infrastructure development; general engineering; communications; intelligence; security or force protection; enemy prisoners of war and detainee processing; rear combat operations; survivability; area (land) management; host nation support; coalition support; embassy liaison; integration of interagency and nongovernmental organizations; or traditional logistics sustainment and joint reception, staging, onward movement, and integration. The DDOC solution does not address these rear area concerns that together constitute the COMMZ megaproblem.

How can we renew some mental models that might help us appreciate this COMMZ megaproblem? Global operations now and in the foreseeable future will require a base or bases of operations and corresponding national and regional lines of operation (LOOs) and lines of communication (LOCs). These positional concepts remain the fundamentals of strategic and operational art. Even in nonlinear or noncontiguous operations, imaginary lines will exist between the base, the objective, and the forces (internal and external LOOs and LOCs). I have heard more than one senior officer say that there are no rear areas in noncontiguous operations. However, the insightful Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3–41.1, Rear Area Operations, demonstrates how “rear” areas are likely to be with us always.

Managing all of the supporting activities required to sustain the LOOs and LOCs effectively and efficiently is a critical megaproblem for the U.S. military, at both the department and combatant commander levels. When expressed in operational art terms, the problem seems manageable. Nevertheless, we have not taken an integrated system of systems view of this megaproblem. It is time to appreciate the magnitude of this COMMZ megaproblem and at least share confusion about its complexity across functional stovepipes.

In trying to solve the problem, our initial impulse might be to assign it to a matrixed team for solution. Unfortunately, the complexity of megaproblems exceeds the problem-solving capability and authorities of lower level officers and civilians who often are assigned to capabilities-based analysis teams, working groups, task forces, and other ad hoc assemblies.

Russell Ackoff, a noted management and organization scholar and author, would criticize this method for three reasons. First, assigning a team to study a small portion of the megaproblem and eventually recommend a solution assumes that, while the team is working on the problem, the problem is not changing. Second, these sorts of teams typically come up with a recommended solution that ultimately is not implemented. Finally, Ackoff would suggest that the main reason for failure is that such teams do not take into account the whole—the complete set of interdependent relationships within a mission area.

Megaproblem management requires the supervision of a high-level general or flag officer who is charged with handling these interdependencies as a normal course of his work. Unfortunately, the COMMZ megaproblem has no such executive assigned to it. Perhaps this is something we need to consider if we intend to solve it.

In Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management, the author suggests four ways to treat a problem—

• Absolve it (by ignoring it and hoping it solves itself).
• Resolve it (by applying a clinical approach of diagnosis and treatment that results in a satisfactory outcome).
• Solve it (by doing something that yields the best possible outcome).
• Dissolve it (by redesigning the system that has the problem in order to reach an ideal state).

Have we inadvertently chosen to absolve the COMMZ megaproblem? Go ahead—admit that you are confused about the complex interdependencies associated with the COMMZ megaproblem. In admitting your confusion, you actually are revealing that you know what is going on.

Colonel Christopher R. Paparone is the Deputy Director (J3/4) for Logistics and Engineering at the U.S. Joint Forces Command. A Quartermaster officer, he has served with various commands and staffs in his 27 years of active duty. He has a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University. He can be contacted by email at christopher.paparone@us.army.mil.