On the surface, at least, not much appeared to have changed at the old Atlantic Command in Norfolk when Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, showed up last week for a formal ceremony renaming it the Joint Forces Command.

The banner and command insignia were different. So was the stationery. But the command's geographic area of responsibility--overseeing U.S. forces in the Atlantic--is largely the same. Its headquarters, too, in a two-story brick building, hasn't budged.

"It's a subtle but very profound change," Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., the command's leading officer, told reporters, trying to convey a significance about the renaming not readily apparent to the naked eye.

In fact, there was some deeper meaning to the switch--and no small dose of Pentagon and congressional politics behind it.

By playing down the command's regional responsibilities and playing up its "joint" role, the name change called attention to the organization's intensified mission to get the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to experiment together more creatively and develop new weapons and tactics more quickly and economically.

"We're mapping out for this new command a mission that is not only regional and functional, but a mission to realize this military's full potential," Cohen declared at the ceremony, replete with 19-gun salute and military band.

Spurring greater cooperation among often rivalrous military branches has long been a Pentagon policy objective. But the rhetoric often has exceeded the reality.

The services still tend to pursue their own operational concepts and draft their own requirements for new weapons. This has led to some improved products--better planes, ships and tanks, for instance--but not enough revolutionary new combat systems or approaches to warfare that transcend traditional service roles.

Gehman's expanding mission is to push the services to find more common ground in what they buy and how they fight. One of his top priorities, according to military officials, will be to look at how the U.S. military can better conduct rapid operations.

Another early project will be figuring out how to improve coordination among an existing hodgepodge of military and civilian intelligence centers in selecting targets and assessing bomb damage during war, the officials said.

While the Norfolk command has some history as a center for joint training and experimentation, the initiative marks an acceleration of this mission. It also reflects a compromise with senators who had pressed for more rapid change.

A congressionally mandated panel that reviewed Pentagon strategy and force structure recommended in 1997 creation of a command devoted solely to cross-service innovation. Two senators on the Armed Services Committee, Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), began drafting legislation to compel creation of such a command. But Cohen and Shelton asked them to hold off, promising to take action from within.

They set up a directorate last year to start assessing new technologies and organizational structures, anticipating this month's formal restyling of the Norfolk command. Gehman and his staff already claim some success over the past year in compelling the services to ensure that several anti-missile systems under development be able to communicate with one another.

There is no shortage of skeptics predicting that the Joint Forces Command will fail to overcome the power that the service bureaucracies exercise over weapon choices. Most Pentagon funding is controlled by the services, and about 90 percent of Pentagon experimentation remains in service hands.

Without enforcement authority, or even a full-fledged seat on the Pentagon councils that set procurement policy, the Joint Forces commander must rely largely on the power of persuasion.

Still, congressional supporters are hopeful.

"Would I like to see this thing moving faster? Sure," said one Senate Democratic staff member. "But this is not a bad first step. I would see this more as a glass half-full then half-empty."