How to make the combatant commands more effective
Every two years, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reviews the Unified Command Plan that defines the roles of the combatant commands. Next year, Gen. Martin Dempsey will have his first opportunity to revise the status quo. Recent history and current situations suggest that one or more combatant commands might be eliminated and their areas of responsibility redistributed in ways that could improve both efficiency and effectiveness.
Proponents of consolidation say eliminating a major headquarters and command structure can save money without reducing effectiveness. They point to last year’s disestablishment of U.S. Joint Forces Command, which seems to have had a negligible effect on military operations. They note that the purpose of U.S. Northern Command approximates that of the Department of Homeland Security. They cite critics who say the 2008 creation of U.S. Africa Command was unwarranted.
But such changes must be made with care. The primary concern must be the effectiveness of the war fighter, not the efficiency wrung from the consolidation. It would be efficient, for example, to return AFRICOM’s area of responsibility to U.S. European Command. Both operate out of Stuttgart, Germany, and have analytic components in Molesworth, U.K. But this would not be effective. Africa has little in common with Europe; forces deployed for a contingency in Europe are unlikely to deploy to Africa. Moreover, a crisis in the southern continent is more likely to spill over to the Middle East than is one in Europe. Finally, AFRICOM and EUCOM have so few combat forces assigned to them that the ability of a reunified EUCOM to track an area so large is dubious.
The same pertains to another proposal often advanced in recommendations to revise the UCP: folding U.S. Southern Command into NORTHCOM. Such proposals do not take into account the areas of the globe where conflict is likely to occur, conflict is likely to spread or U.S. forces are allocated. They do not take advantage of the sociopolitical factors that align parts of the world. They do not factor in the increasing competition for natural resources that accompanies climate change. They sacrifice effectiveness for the sake of efficiency, based on an antiquated model of the world.
Instead, our chief considerations should be not the ease with which consolidation occurs but how the new alignment distributes forces, addresses threats and maintains the commander’s integrity of operations. Here are changes that would do just that.
Merge EUCOM into NORTHCOM. In the last UCP, President Obama allowed NORTHCOM to expand into the Arctic Ocean. This was a response to the strategic challenges presented by the retreat of sea ice, which is granting new access to resources and creating new strategic sea lanes of communication. Arctic nations, including the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia, have been swift to contest each others’ claims to hydrocarbon resources; non-Arctic nations such as China are exploring ways to establish a presence in the Far North. Putting EUCOM’s AOR under NORTHCOM’s command would continue in this path, shifting the merged command’s focus from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arctic Rim, but it would do more as well. It would bring all of NATO under one umbrella, taking advantage of Canada’s European ties and fostering a better understanding of the issues that affect partner nations.
Finally, it would help national security policymakers break free of Cold War thinking, encouraging them to no longer see the world in East-West terms, but rather in North-South ones.
Expand PACOM to include Pakistan and Afghanistan. That Pakistan is part of U.S. Central Command’s AOR has more to do with politics than with affinity. Ever since India was partitioned, Pakistan’s security posture has pointed east toward U.S. Pacific Command. Pakistan and India (and, to a lesser degree, Bangladesh) are forever linked by geography, demographics and history. The Kashmir issue remains unresolved, while Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal is part of China’s strategic posture. South Asia’s freshwater resources, allocated at partition and under pressure from climate change, promise to become contentious. India helps Pakistan to define itself by what it is not; the U.S. intelligence community finds it impossible to analyze one without a thorough understanding of the other.
Yet however sound the idea from a military point of view, placing India and Pakistan into a single AOR presents diplomatic challenges. To help integrate these hostile neighbors, PACOM should consider adopting an explicit diplomatic mission, as AFRICOM has done.
Merge AFRICOM into CENTCOM and add Israel. The Arab Spring uprisings that started in Tunisia made their way to Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and Syria, undeterred by carefully drawn combatant command boundaries. So closely are the Middle East and North Africa linked that the two are collectively denoted by the acronym MENA in military, academic and business circles.
With CENTCOM boundaries drawn to include all of Africa, all of the Arab League would fall into one combatant command. Finally, having all of Africa and Middle East in the same AOR would help the United States to track al-Qaida groups from the Maghreb to the Levant.
Yet, as important as the understanding of the dynamics in MENA is to the United States, equally important from a combatant commander’s perspective is the allocation of military resources. AFRICOM has lacked the resources necessary to track the dynamic political-military environment in the continent since it became fully operational in 2008. CENTCOM, on the other hand, has more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets than any other combatant command.
Although this is attributable to the current war posture, CENTCOM is nonetheless likely to keep a large share of the nation’s ISR assets long after forces draw down. Merging AFRICOM into CENTCOM would help ensure adequate re-sources to monitor this large, diverse and dynamic continent. CENTCOM would be wise to adopt many of the lessons from AFRICOM’s experience about partnering, diplomacy and basing.
Israel has not been part of CENTCOM for diplomatic reasons that echo Pakistan’s exclusion from PACOM. Wrapping Israel in the CENTCOM fold and adapting to a new political environment brought about by the Arab Spring requires the application of diplomatic power. In short, it requires a model of operations similar to the one AFRICOM has used since its inception.
Expand SOUTHCOM to include Mexico and the Caribbean. The sociopolitical factors that exist in Central and South America are unique to that part of the world. Placing all of Latin America under one AOR will make SOUTHCOM better poised to analyze, track and conduct operations against the drug cartels operating south of the U.S. border. Adding Mexico and the Carib-bean will also give it more resources to conduct this crucial mission.
Two outliers. Arguments could be made that the Central Asian Republics — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan — should be-long to NORTHCOM (because they were part of the Soviet Union) or to their current home, CENTCOM (where the institutional knowledge currently resides). But like Pakistan and Afghanistan, these countries should actually fall under PACOM’s AOR. The Central Asian Republics do not fit with NORTHCOM’s Arctic and Atlantic focus, while CENTCOM’s assumption of AFRICOM’s portfolio shifts its focus away from Central Asia.
If PACOM expands to encompass Central Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, a case could be made for shifting Antarctica to SOUTHCOM to relieve some of the burden on the larger command. But that would require a viable alternative to New Zealand for staging Antarctic operations for the sake of unity of command. Unless one can be found, Antarctica should remain in PACOM