Command relationships between corps and ESCs

By Maj. Daniel J. N. BelzerJanuary 3, 2019

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Sustainment doctrine that delineates the relationship between the expeditionary sustainment command (ESC) and theater sustainment command (TSC) is incompatible with decisive action. Army Doctrine Publication 4-0, Sustainment, defines ESCs as "force pooled assets [that] are under the mission command of the TSC."

Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 4-94, Theater Sustainment Command, describes the TSC as a fixed headquarters that can deploy an ESC in specific circumstances. Even more confusing, Joint Publication 4-0, Joint Logistics, describes an ESC as a deployable subset of a deployable TSC that "provides a regional C2 [command and control] capability until the TSC can assume that function."

That these manuals barely overlap and in some cases establish two mutually exclusive conditions leaves logisticians to lean on unit-level standard operating procedures instead of published doctrine.

This article argues that an operational control (OPCON) relationship between the ESC and corps is the best answer for decisive action. The 593rd ESC validated a way ahead for such a relationship that leveraged experiences from exercises across the Pacific and the ESC's relationships with both I Corps and III Corps.


Sustainment doctrine defines ESCs as extensions of TSCs, but it does not acknowledge that each ESC has a very different mission set and relationship with its higher headquarters. This oversight extends to the roles of the ESC and TSC in both decisive action and counterinsurgency operations. This suggests that the support, security, and coordination requirements are equivalent in both environments; but actually, they are demonstrably different.

Nesting ESCs under TSCs in doctrine but not in practice requires ESCs to alter what they normally would do in order to accommodate exercises that loosely model disjointed doctrine. For example, the doctrinal relationship would require that ESCs communicate and coordinate through a TSC before coordinating directly with a corps, despite the fact that they are most commonly co-located with and assigned in direct support of a corps or joint task force (JTF) headquarters. In this scenario, having the TSC function as a theaterlevel middleman is neither effective nor efficient.


The cardinal rule for achieving supply chain efficiency is to reduce waste. Waste comes in many forms, but Soldiers are most often wasteful through duplication of effort. Some leaders will take it upon their organizations to complete duplicative efforts faster, rather than eliminating overlap and deliberately defining roles and responsibilities.

Other leaders identify duplicative efforts and assume that they have an "access problem." Junior and midlevel leaders need access to decision-makers; insufficient contact between "doers" and "delegators" often results in the redoing of tasks previously completed by others.

The modern answer to this problem, often called "flattening the leadership pyramid," is similar but insufficient. Flattening the pyramid in sustainment is easier said than done, especially in cases in which a TSC, on an infrequent basis, has assets that are enormously valuable.

In the case of the 593rd ESC, Warfighter Exercise (WFX) 17-04 highlighted the need to revise the command relationship between the ESC and the corps headquarters. This revision was a collaborative effort between the ESC and TSC staffs and effectively managed overlaps in decision-making and battle rhythm events.


Decisive action situations present critical distribution vulnerabilities. Materiel and commodities are available for units to use, but delivering them in advance of need--under extraordinary stress and in fluid environments--is the difference between winning and losing at the operational level. Conversely, counterinsurgency operations rely on fixed facilities that are arrayed to limit the length of lines of communication and built to maintain larger, fixed stocks. Units do not have the burden of maintaining their organic mobility.

"Momentum" and "initiative" do not have the same meaning in both cases. Instead, units prioritize responsiveness so that they react to situations with the correct materiel, commodity, and Soldier specialty.

Counterinsurgency represents a critical vulnerability in materiel management, not distribution management. Distribution is to decisive action what materiel management is to counterinsurgency.


The goal for TSC-ESC relationships outlined in doctrine was to model those of a geographic combatant command and a JTF. Because TSC and ESC doctrine was written for counterinsurgency operations, it matched that operational environment. It is not relevant to decisive action, which relies on rapid planning and decision-making.

Changing the doctrinal command relationships is the fastest and most reversible way to validate that the change achieves stated goals. If ESCs are not more anticipatory and responsive under the new arrangement, the Army could revert to and strengthen the doctrinal command relationships and alter how the ESCs are manned and deployed.

Doctrine defines the ESC as a forward element of the TSC, similar to the way a joint deployment and distribution center functions as a forward element of the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM). However, doctrine does not match reality.

There are nine ESCs in the Army; three are active component and six are reserve. Each active component ESC is co-located with a corps. No ESC is aligned, allocated, or assigned to a TSC, nor does a TSC fulfill the staff functions for long-term planning, which were deliberately omitted when ESCs were first created.

The fiscal year 2018 modified tables of organization and equipment for each ESC acknowledged this shortfall and reorganized officer billets to create a G-5 section. By altering the modified tables of organization and equipment, the Army has already acknowledged the flaw in the original doctrine.


The maneuver responsibilities in doctrine are fixed and should remain so. The role of a corps is to provide mission command as a JTF headquarters in order to execute operations on behalf of the geographic combatant commander. The JTF commander retains his responsibility to exert influence over a geographic combatant command subset known as the joint operations area.

The TSC retains responsibility for setting the theater on behalf of the geographic combatant commander. This includes executive agency responsibilities, but the TSC is a strategic enabler, not an operational integrator. The role of integrating and executing sustainment to JTF and host-nation forces in a joint operations area falls to the ESC.

When the primary sustainment functions are setting the theater (phase I) and joint reception, staging, onward movement and integration (phase II), the ESC should fall under the OPCON of the TSC and have a direct support relationship to a corps.

During phase III, where the primary sustainment functions are to build operational reach and maintain endurance, the relationships should change. The ESC should be moved under OPCON of the corps for the duration of phase III and IV and revert to TSC control for phase V when retrograding personnel, equipment, and materiel is the primary sustainment focus.

This arrangement would allow the TSC to influence unit arrival and departure schedules in concert with USTRANSCOM and better meet the requirements of transitioning a theater back to host-nation control.


Altering doctrine now represents an opportunity to unify sustainment relationships. There is no argument against a BCT retaining OPCON of a brigade support battalion. There is little argument over whether division commanders have or retain OPCON of divisional sustainment brigades.

Placing ESCs under the OPCON of corps is the most logical next step in unifying sustainment relationships. This arrangement best serves maneuver and sustainment organizations by avoiding confusion, improving access to corps enablers, clarifying planning horizons between the ESC and TSC, and codifying the decision authorities that JTFs should delegate to ESCs.

The maneuver community has valid angst and confusion regarding the differences between the command and support relationships under the current TSC-ESC architecture. Combat formations want to know how the change will augment the support they receive. Maneuver organizations deserve the simplest concept of support that the sustainment enterprise can provide. Applying and codifying the brigade and division relationships at the corps echelon is the simplest and most intuitive way ahead.

Pragmatically, BSB support operation sections (SPOs) execute sustainment planned by a brigade combat team S-4. Sustainment brigade SPOs enable division G-4s and are under the OPCON of their divisions. By extension, ESC SPOs enable corps G-4s and should be under the corps commander's OPCON.

Operationally controlled units have better access to corps enablers. A TSC cannot provide mission command for maneuver or combat support organizations in a JTF area. As a result, all of the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, security, route clearance and engineering, medevac, and aviation assets are coordinated through the JTF main or forward command post.

The current arrangement requires ESCs to forward their requirements through the TSC and then laterally to the JTF, creating a middleman without the tactical or operational context to prioritize sustainment and maneuver requirements with the JTF commander.

The original alignment between the TSC and ESC suggested a pass-back support relationship that only exists in specific cases. During phases I and II, while the TSC is focused on setting the theater and the ESC is preparing to begin reception, staging, onward movement, and integration, the pass-back relationship is essential. Once phase III begins, the TSC should assume the role of a strategic sustainment partner and leave execution to the ESC.

The TSC retains coordinating authority with the ESC, leveraging its relationships and processes with USTRANSCOM, the Army Materiel Command, and the Army Medical Department and their subordinate commands to resource JTF requirements.

The ESC commander communicates the JTF commander's sustainment priorities to the strategic sustainment enterprise. Once the TSC sets the theater during phase II, OPCON should be transferred from the TSC to the corps. This is a key sustainment task prior to beginning phase III.


Empowering the ESC commander to speak to the industrial base and the TSC with the JTF commander's authority requires delegation in decision-making. An OPCON arrangement codifies the relationship between the JTF and ESC commanders, which directly influences which decisions are delegated and which are withheld.

WFX 17-04 highlighted that this arrangement is especially critical to intertheater deliveries. During the exercise, the ESC commander was given the choice between downloading ammunition required to maintain coalition forces land component command deep fires and the critical class VII (major end items) required to regenerate combat power. This decision was unnecessary because the ESC commander was delegated as the authority to delay or anchor arriving vessels to prevent a berthing conflict.

Given the tactical and operational situation, the ESC commander decided to delay a vessel carrying items of low value in favor of berthing two carrying critical items. This decision may have been unpopular at the strategic level where the delayed cargo may have been of specific value to another JTF component.

But empowering the ESC commander to make the decision was ideal; it prevented a tactical halt during a critical step of phase III and did not create a distraction for the JTF or TSC commanders.

The OPCON arrangement between the JTF and the ESC encouraged the JTF commander to delegate decision authority prior to the sustainment rehearsal.

Command and support relationships between sustainment and maneuver organizations may be among the most contested discussions in the post-modular Army. Discussion and disagreement are critical to matching relationships to the problem sets.

During phase III operations, especially in a decisive action environment, the doctrinal relationship of the ESC and TSC is both ineffective and inefficient and requires revision.

The JTF gaining OPCON of the ESC at the end of phase II is a critical event equivalent to permitting theater sustainment to cross a line of departure. The OPCON relationship improves communication and coordination between ESC and corps-level staffs, alleviates confusion over roles and responsibilities in the concept of support, improves access and prioritization of corps-level enablers, and prevents the TSC from becoming regionally focused.

This arrangement meets the original intent of ATP 4-94, which states that the ESC specifically exists to provide a TSC commander with the "regional focus necessary to provide operational-level support to Army or JTF missions."


Maj. Daniel J. N. Belzer is the executive officer of the 308th BSB, 17th Fires Brigade. He was previously the lead support operations planner for WFX 17-04 and the S-4 for the 2nd Infantry Division Artillery at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the Virginia Military Institute and a master's degree in supply chain management from Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a graduate of the Red Team, National Security Policy, and Theater Logistics courses.

Brig. Gen. Jack Haley, Col. Dennis Kerwood, retired Col. Dave Saffold, Capt. Jon-Michael King, and many other members of the 593rd ESC contributed to this article.


This article was published in the January-March 2019 issue of Army Sustainment.

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