Military Command Relationships and Nomenclature

As a Naval Officer, we live in an organizational structure that gets more complex the higher in the chain of command you go. As a Naval Aviator in squadron in a carrier air wing, it is relatively simple. The squadron commanding officer reports to the air wing commander and the air wing commander reports to the battle group (or strike group as they are now called) commander.

From there it becomes much more complex. Normally, admiral in charge of the battle group commander reports to a numbered fleet commander but there are some cases where the admiral could be assigned as the Joint Task Group commander and report directly to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff. Or, one of the battle group’s assets could be assigned to report the joint chiefs. Under the current joint structure, one could be a SEAL Team leader as an ensign or a chief petty officer and be a joint task group commander and report to a four star admiral or general.

As a chief of staff for a flag officer, one of the first things I learned was that in prepping your boss, i.e. the admiral, for meeting with other flag and general officers, make sure he is up-to-date on any changes in the command relationships that affect those who will be in the room. You don’t want him to be blindsided on this issue or any other. A successful meeting of admirals in one in which their deputy chiefs of staff have all the flag officers nodding in the vertical on the key issues. If they don’t, you will have many long days ahead!

Some of the command relationships can be really byzantine because in Korea for example, the Commander, United Nations Command has a naval component commander who can be a South Korean admiral or the Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet or a U.S. admiral who is also the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Korea (CNFK). The three star admiral who command’s Seventh Fleet has many other relationships. The admiral who has the CNFK billet quickly learns that he has an administrative command and does not command any ships. If, on the other hand, if the naval component commander is a South Korean, he only commands the U.S. ships assigned to him for specific missions. In any war, U.S. naval units that would be sent to support a war in Korea would be under the operational command (and provided by) Seventh Fleet in support of the Commander-in-Chief, United Command. Seventh’s fleet’s operational chain of command goes up through Commander, Pacific Fleet whose boss is Commander, Pacific Command and is now abbreviated as PACOM. PACOM, as he is known, is a peer to the Commander United Nations Command. Even this description is a simplification of the command relationships that swirl around the peninsula that is one short step away from a shooting war.

The point of this is that as a novelist, I tried to simplify the command relationships while at the same time be as accurate as possible. What I did was skip key levels and only refer to the units in the fight and their overall commander. All the levels in between were for the most part ignored. The guiding rule is that unless the complexity of the command relationship adds to the plot, it is left out. While the details may be interesting to me and some others who have had to operate in these types of joint commands, for the majority of readers, it is not relevant.

Which leads me to the second problem – the terminology of equipment – and when and where to be specific. While many of us who have flown military aircraft back in the 1970s know the difference between an APX-76 transponder and earlier, less capable ones, most people don’t. Readers of military historical fiction know that a transponder is an electronic means of telling friendly aircraft from foes. Few know the difference between the different modes unless they are either in defense industry or pilots.

While writing BIG MOTHER 40 and what I hope to be follow-on novels, I struggled to be accurate in terms of equipment but not bore readers with administrivia about the precise names of the equipment in the aircraft. I spent a lot of time on the net making sure that the aircraft were equipped with the equipment described or the folks on the ground had access to the weapon. But beyond that, detail that does not add to the plot or the action doesn’t need to be included.

Marc Liebman