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Theater JFMCC─Back to the Future?

Captain Steve Kornatz, USN (Ret.)

Lessons to be Learned from Admiral Nimitz

Given the advent of highly capable maritime weapons systems being fielded by potential regional hegemons, senior U.S. Navy officers are working to implement a “theater” Joint Forces Maritime Component Commander (T-JFMCC) construct at the Navy’s forward fleets. While the terms “service component commander” and “Joint Forces Maritime Component Commander” are clearly defined terms in joint doctrine, the term “theater component command” is not. Similarly, the term “T-JFMCC” is not defined in Navy doctrine. As the Navy sorts out organizational and functional policies related to T-JFMCC, there may be significant value in looking to World War II history for lessons learned.

A T-JFMCC typically involves an area of responsibility (AOR)-wide war against a near peer enemy. In this situation, theater-level functional component commanders (maritime, land, air, etc.) may be designated. Each of these command large-scale forces is capable of operating across the entire AOR.  Maritime forces would likely be organized as task forces (TFs) either regionally or functionally focused. In effect, this scenario posits a “standard” joint force structure employed in most operations today albeit on a grander scale. The ultimate factor for establishment of theater level components is the scope and scale of the fight in terms of time and space requiring large maneuver forces operating over huge areas.

Today, the establishment of theater functional component commanders is driven by the need to synchronize limited tactical assets across a large geographic space over long periods of time to accomplish operational objectives.  

As naval staffs grapple with establishing the structure, doctrine, and procedures required to implement a T-JFMCC concept, they would be well served to look to history for ideas. In particular, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, in his role as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) [1], functioned as what would be recognized as a T-JFMCC with several AOR-wide TFs and should be studied.

During World War II, Nimitz simultaneously was commander-in-chief of two major commands responsible for the majority of the Pacific Ocean, millions of personnel, and three fleets comprising thousands of ships. On 31 December 1941 Nimitz relieved Admiral Husband E. Kimmel as CINCPAC responsible for all naval forces and naval operations in the Pacific Ocean, a responsibility similar to today’s Commander, Pacific Fleet (CPF). Later, on 8 May 1942, Nimitz assumed duties as the newly instituted Commander-in-Chief Pacific Ocean Areas (CINCPOA). This was responsible for all military operations within most of the Pacific Ocean and its islands, excluding areas under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. This command was similar in nature to today’s Commander Pacific Command (PACOM).

Nimitz essentially established a theater component commander construct in the Pacific during World War II. As theater commander, Nimitz established TFs with geographic (North, Central, South) or functional (submarine warfare, logistics support) responsibilities.

Nimitz’s responsibility for two major commands (one naval and one joint) may convolute for some the lessons learned relative to the contemporary term “T-JFMCC.” To use his experiences to guide organizational, doctrinal, and procedural development of the T-JFMCC concept, concentration must focus on his CINCPAC role.[2]

As CINCPAC, Nimitz oversaw the maritime aspects of the entire Pacific theater. While initially focusing his forces in the South Pacific Area (Coral Sea and Guadalcanal), the Central Pacific Area eventually became his main effort with operations in the North and South Pacific Areas supporting or shaping the Central Pacific drive. In studying Nimitz’s efforts, it becomes clear that the majority of his energies were dedicated to command and control (C2), command relationships, and the connection (at the operational level of war) of C2 to intelligence, logistics, movement and maneuver of forces, operational fires, and protection. A summary of how Nimitz synchronized these operational functions offers practical lessons for those implementing the T-JFMCC construct today. Of note, with one famous exception, Nimitz did not interfere with ongoing tactical operations.

Operational Command and Control
Nimitz’s perspective of C2 resided at the operational level, allowing subordinate commanders freedom to execute operations. He instituted permanent subordinate naval commanders in the South Pacific Area and the North Pacific Area while he retained command in the Central Pacific Area. [3] This was done in support of the concentration of effort in the Central Pacific drive. The South and North Pacific Areas had limited dedicated naval forces with additional forces allocated as necessary to accomplish the specific objectives of thwarting Japan’s ability to cut the sea lines of communication between the United States and Australia and protecting U.S. territory in Alaska, respectively.

The forces allocated to efforts in the South and North Pacific Areas were truly economy of force measures. This allowed the massing of the preponderance of naval force for the drive across the Central Pacific Area. For this most critical objective, Nimitz retained command, delegating tactical control to his TF commanders (Admirals Raymond A. Spruance and William F.  Halsey Jr.) for specific, approved operations. Nimitz shifted forces to and from the three Pacific Ocean Areas (POAs) as required to accomplish his objectives. In today’s parlance, each of the areas could be considered a separate geographic TF with the Central Pacific being the main effort and the North and South Pacific being supporting or shaping efforts.

One of the critical C2 concepts Nimitz developed involved alternating the commanders and planning staffs (Halsey as Third Fleet and Spruance as Fifth Fleet) of the naval forces operating forward. While Halsey was executing an operation, Spruance was back in Hawaii planning the sequential operation. This not only allowed Nimitz to oversee the planning of major operations but also facilitated a quick operational tempo.

Additionally, Nimitz retained control over theater-wide submarine operations which worked to cut Japan’s lifeline of resources from the Southern Resource Area.  Nimitz delegated command of day-to-day submarine operations to Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood (Commander Submarines Pacific and Commander TF 17), however, his interest in this critical shaping effort ensured synchronization of submarine operations with ongoing operations in all areas.

Operational Intelligence
Nimitz was not involved in tactical level intelligence collection and analysis. Rather, the CINCPAC staff concentrated on fusing intelligence gathered across the three POAs. Theater-level intelligence work reduced risk and allowed for bold naval actions that were coordinated across the areas. Probably the most famous intelligence success of World War II was Fleet Radio Unit Pacific’s (Station Hypo) use of a network of radio intercept stations, code breaking, and intelligence fusion to ascertain Japan’s planned attack on Midway Island. Nimitz oversaw the coordinated employment of operational planning, intelligence, timely force movement, and high level assumption of risk to enable a tremendous victory at Midway. Essentially, CINCPAC ensured that tactical operations planned and executed by Fletcher and Spruance supported higher operational objectives in the Pacific.

Additionally, Nimitz ensured that submarines not directly assigned to the Leyte Gulf operations in October 1944 supported the success of Operation King II. Several submarines, interdicting Japanese shipping between Japan and the Southern Resource Area, were relocated just west of the Philippines to support Operation. Their specific mission was to locate Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) warships transiting toward the amphibious objective area in Leyte Gulf. Submarines Darter (SS-227) and Dace (SS-247), stationed west of Palawan Island, located Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s IJN forces, notified Halsey, and then attacked Kurita.CINCPAC’s involvement ended with the coordinated employment of forces: U.S. submarines assigned to a different mission were tasked to support objectives in the Philippines.         

To support operations throughout the POAs, the Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean Areas (JICPOA) was established adjacent to Nimitz’s headquarters and employed more than 1,000 analysts. The center is considered “the United States’ first effective, all-source intelligence unit” and included communications, photography, document exploitation, and prisoner interrogations.[4]

Operational Logistics
Because of the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean and the huge number of forces assigned, success in prosecuting the war there required a tremendous logistical effort. CINCPAC was not involved with logistics of individual units; the CINCPAC staff planned a theater-wide concept that directly supported the Central Pacific drive. Nimitz’s staff established forward operating bases and relocated them to keep pace with operations.

In 1943, Nimitz created two service squadrons (SERVRONs) under Service Forces Pacific Fleet. These provided mobile service to the fleet as it moved across the Pacific. This made it possible for Nimitz to create repair and supply facilities thousands of miles away from an established Navy base. The squadrons enabled Navy ships to operate in the western Pacific for a year or more without returning to a permanent port facility. Even battle damaged ships could be repaired forward in floating dry dock facilities. Nimitz referred to Service Squadrons 4 and 10 as his “secret weapons.”[5]Similarly, CINCPAC’s logistic efforts enabled submarines to endure shorter transits to patrol areas and thus had more time on-station by establishing refuel and repair stations forward (e.g., Midway, Guam, and Subic Bay).

The CINPAC effort was responsible for ensuring that capabilities were established throughout the theater to ensure timely sustainment of forces operating forward. This enabled fleet commanders to operate their forces knowing that fuel, food, munitions, replacement aircraft, and ship repair facilities would be there when needed.

Operational Movement and Maneuver
Nimitz coordinated all operational level movement and maneuver of forces throughout the theater without involving himself or his staff in tactical maneuver. This entailed developing a campaign plan, selecting the commanders and forces to execute the operation, ensuring his commander’s intent was understood, and then letting the subordinate commanders execute the mission while he oversaw planning for the follow-on operations. Additionally, Nimitz had in place intelligence, logistics, fires, and protection schemes to support the success of ongoing operations.

While famously not involving himself in tactical maneuvering, Nimitz was far from passive in planning major operations. He set the date for the assault on Kiska Island in the North Pacific Area, approved the plan, and then turned the operation over to Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid for execution. During planning for the Marshall Islands campaign, Nimitz asked for recommendations from Spruance (overall commander), Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner (Amphibious Force commander), and Marine Corps Major General Holland M. Smith (Amphibious Corps commander) on which island in the Marshalls to assault first. After the horrendous losses suffered during the assault on Tarawa a few months earlier, many CINCPAC staffers, including Spruance, Turner, and Smith, thought it best to attack outlying islands before assaulting the main Kwajalein atoll. Nimitz felt that by applying lessons learned from Tarawa, the best option was a direct assault on the main island. He overrode all of his subordinate commanders and decided Kwajalein would be assaulted first. Nimitz, however, did not interfere with Spruance’s execution of the agreed upon plan.[6]

Operational Fires (Theater Level Effects)
Nimitz did not get involved in tactical fires; he approved subordinates’ plans and allowed them to execute them. CINCPAC planned operational fires to create effects across the theater to shape the battle space for planned operations. In early September 1944, Halsey conducted aircraft carrier raids in the central Philippines. Based on the lack of aggressive response from the Japanese, he recommended intermediate operations against the Taluads, Mindanao, the Palaus, and Yap be cancelled and Operation King II (Leyte) be advanced from its original December timeline. Based on Halsey’s recommendation and theater intelligence, Nimitz agreed the Leyte operation should be advanced but he still felt securing airfields in the Palaus was necessary to his overall Central Pacific drive.  This was the recommendation he forwarded to the Combined Chiefs of Staff and it was ultimately approved. The Palau operations went as scheduled and the landings on Leyte were advanced by two months.

Additionally, about two weeks prior to the landings at Leyte, Nimitz tasked Halsey to conduct a series of carrier raids on airfields in Formosa, Luzon, and the Ryukyu Islands to deplete regional Japanese airpower before the 20 October assault on Leyte. These raids were devastating to Japanese airpower and gave tremendous advantage to U.S. forces invading Leyte.

Another example of Nimitz’s shaping with theater-level operational fires was his use of the Pacific Fleet submarine force. He employed unrestricted submarine warfare from the outset of the war and built a submarine organization and infrastructure to sever Japan’s connection to natural resources in the Southern Resource Area. Nimitz and Admiral Ernest J. King were convinced this, coupled with continuous air bombardment, would be enough to cause Japan to surrender.  By war’s end, U.S. submarines sank more than 1,300 Japanese ships (approximately 5.3 million tons) accounting for 55 percent of Japan’s merchant ship losses, effectively annihilating the Japanese merchant marine.[7] Because of Japan’s reliance on imported resources, the Allied war against Japanese shipping is generally considered the single most decisive factor in the collapse of the Japanese economy.

Operational Protection
CINCPAC’s view of protection generally was not concerned with individual units.  Nimitz took a theater view of protection, balancing it with assumption of risk at his level. He was mainly concerned with protecting his ability to achieve intermediate and ultimate objectives. For example, his application of economy of force in the South and North Pacific Areas assumed some risk in those areas while protecting his ability to prosecute the Central Pacific drive.

Another example is Nimitz’s reaction after the failure of pre-invasion bombardment against Japanese forces on Tarawa. The admiral had a mock-up of Tarawa defenses built on Kahoolawe Island in Hawaii to test the effectiveness of various types of ammunition. Two lessons learned were: (1) fire control teams needed to be landed with the first wave of troops to direct accurate fire and, (2) hydrographic reconnaissance in support of pre-invasion planning was needed to determine water depth, beach slope, and underwater obstacle locations.[8]   These ideas were used by planners in all follow-on operations.         

Nimitz also employed forces to protect individuals, akin to personnel recovery today. Over the course of the war, U.S. submarines were specifically positioned during major operations where naval aviators might have to ditch. They rescued more than 500 airmen shot down in Pacific operations, including future President George H. W. Bush.                         

Lessons to Be Learned
During World War II, Nimitz and other senior naval commanders became masters of operational art and were acutely aware that victory was predicated on the operational level of war setting the conditions for tactical success. Nimitz was faced with a problem that spanned millions of square miles and would take years and massive amounts of resources to solve. Perhaps the most critical step he took to bring about the unconditional surrender of Japan was to establish and modify his C2 methodology. Nimitz decided to act as a “T-JFMCC” and his vision ultimately resulted in victory.

Today, senior naval officers are grappling with how to organize maritime forces to plan and execute across a wide expanse of ocean area, with the need to possibly deter or defeat a near-peer adversary — similar to Nimitz’s challenge. The officers tasked with establishing a T-JFMCC construct today can derive practical lessons from Nimitz’s experience as CINCPAC.

Nimitz established a C2 structure that enabled him to oversee theater-level maritime operations and to synchronize the other operational functions for tactical forces dispersed across a massive theater facing a competent adversary based on the following lessons.

1.  C2 is the decisive issue at the theater level. A T-JFMCC must dedicate time and energy to establishing command relationships that focus on the main effort and modify them as necessary. Nimitz’s C2 arrangement of forces operating in the three POAs and adaptation of C2 relationships over time left no doubt about his theater level main effort.

2.  The synchronization of C2 with the other five operational functions at the operational level of war is what provides the foundation to success in combat.  This methodology directly supports operations in a communications degraded environment. Nimitz synchronized and prioritized operational functions across three POAs — yet, he allowed tactical level commanders to command their forces in execution.

3Stay out of the tactical weeds of subordinate TFs and concentrate on coordinating the efforts of all maritime forces across the theater. Nimitz had three questions posted on a wall: (1) Is the proposed operation likely to succeed? (2) What might be the consequences of failure? (3) Is it in the realm of practicability of materials and supply?[9] “Nimitz would develop a plan, pick the right people to carry it through, let them know what he expected — then get out of the way to let them do the job.”[10]

4Centralized planning enables synchronization and decentralized execution enables increased tempo of operations. Concentrating on planning and synchronizing operational functions across multiple TFs enables the success of decentralized execution. This is particularly valid in a communications degraded environment. Clearly, Nimitz built his C2 structure to conduct centralized planning. The CINCPAC staff ensured all supporting operational functions were synchronized to enable the planned operations to succeed.

5.  Ensure subordinates understand the T-JFMCC’s concern for risk during any given operation and understand the level of risk delegated to them. Nimitz ensured his subordinates understood his view of risk for any given operation and also understood why risk limits were in place. At Midway, Fletcher and Spruance were instructed in an adjunct letter to the Operation Plan: “ will be governed by the principle of calculated risk, which you will interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of your force to attack by superior enemy forces without good prospect of inflicting, as a result of such exposure, greater damage on the enemy.”[11] Nimitz knew that Midway had great potential to alter the course of the war, but he also was cognizant the forces employed at Midway were the only remaining major naval forces in the Pacific at the time.

6.  A T-JFMCC should conduct external planning coordination with other components and be responsible for any external fight for required resources. This will ensure theater level coordination with other theater components while properly allocating resources to each TF. At the same time this frees subordinate TF commanders to concentrate on conducting operations. Nimitz conducted theater level coordination with MacArthur and routinely met with King to present Pacific maritime resource requirements for future operations.

7.  Conduct maritime campaign assessment to ensure the T-JFMCC is on track to accomplish the ultimate objective. Nimitz always kept his ultimate objective in mind as he prosecuted the drive across the Central Pacific.  With his planning methodology, Nimitz readily assessed accomplishment of intermediate objectives. His intermediate objective (Formosa) only changed after a meeting with President Roosevelt and MacArthur in July 1944 that adjusted objectives among CINCPOA and SWPA resulting in the decision to go to the Philippines in October 1944.

8.  At the T-JFMCC level, focus planning to ensure synchronization of ends, ways, means, and risk throughout the maritime theater. Nimitz always maintained the big picture view of the theater and adjusted intermediate objectives, reassigned forces, and assumed risk as necessary to stay focused on the ultimate objective.

9.  Purposefully delegate operational and tactical control and understand they can vary in different parts of the theater as well as in time. By establishing his command relationships relative to the three POAs and maintaining command in the main effort Central Pacific, Nimitz delegated command in time and space as he determined it would best fit the situation. Additionally, Nimitz adjusted command relationships in the three POAs as the war progressed, relieving under-performing commanders (Ghormley in South Pacific and Theobald in the North Pacific) as necessary.

10.  Keep the T-JFMCC main effort in mind always and understand why it is the main effort. Everything else must be addressed as supporting or shaping of the main effort. Nimitz had clarity in his prioritization of the Central Pacific Area as his main effort and he did not waver from that throughout the war.

Having enjoyed several decades of unmatched sea power, the U.S. Navy today is seeing challenges at sea from aspiring regional hegemons. As these potential adversaries develop capabilities to spread maritime conflict across an area of responsibility the Navy must be prepared to respond. Tactical level forces are prepared today for conflict with any adversary’s tactical forces. The challenge of regional conflict at sea will come from the difficulties associated with C2 to synchronize large numbers of tactical forces in time and space. This is where the T-JFMCC concept has its greatest value. The most difficult concern for a T-JFMCC will be theater-wide C2 of maritime forces, particularly when communications become degraded. As CINCPAC, Nimitz had similar challenges and adapted his C2 construct over the duration of World War II in the Pacific.  Today’s Navy would be wise to look to Fleet Admiral Nimitz for theater JFMCC lessons to be learned.



[1] Not to be confused with the acronym CINCPAC for the later unified command Commander-in-Chief Pacific Command, since changed to CDRUSPACOM.

[2]To be able to apply the historical aspects of Nimitz as a theater component commander to today’s T-JFMCC concept, there are a few assumptions that must be noted to provide a meaningful comparison:

1)      The T-JFMCC concept applies to major wartime missions only. By definition (JP 1-02) a functional component command is established to perform particular operational missions.                                        

2)      The T-JFMCC has command responsibilities over multiple, simultaneous TFs.

3)      A scenario involving a T-JFMCC includes AOR-wide, near-peer maritime threats.

4)      A T-JFMCC scenario involves more than just air wing sortie generation, to include sustained multi-dimensional operations (surface, air, sub-surface, BMD, etc.).

[3] VADMs Ghormley, Halsey, Newton, and Calhoun were assigned a Commander in the South Pacific Area and RADMs Theobald and Kinkaid and VADM Fletcher were assigned in the North Pacific Area.

[4]Jeffrey M. Moore, Spies for Nimitz: Joint Military Intelligence in the Pacific War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004), xiii.

[5] Brayton Harris, Admiral Nimitz: The Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theater (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 150.

[6] Ibid., 129.

[7] Navy Times Editors, Operation Victory: Winning the Pacific War (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1968), 70.

[8] Harris, Admiral Nimitz, 126.

[9]  Ibid., 102–103.

[10] Ibid., vi.

[11] E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976), 87.

Published: Mon Aug 13 13:54:57 EDT 2018