WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is considering a major overhaul of its geographical combatant commands, possibly realigning oversight within hot-button areas of the world and eliminating thousands of military and civilian positions,according to defense sources..
While the plans for combatant command (COCOM) realignment and consolidation are still notional, sources say some options include:
■ Combining Northern Command and Southern Command to form what what some are calling “Americas Command” or “Western Command.”
■ Dissolving Africa Command and splitting it up among European Command and Central Command.
■ Expanding Pacific Command to include Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are part of Central Command.
In all, the realignments could shutter two COCOMs and eight service-supporting commands, totaling more than 5,000 people both uniformed and civilian.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for the first time hinted at the consolidations of the COCOMs during a July 31 press conference when he announced significant budget-cutting options the Defense Department would have to make should federal spending cuts remain in place across the decade.
Defense officials would not comment on specific consolidation plans being considered.
The sequester is forcing the Pentagon to look for ways to cut spending quickly. Shuttering a COCOM would impact US relations abroad, and underscores the need to eliminate the budget caps, a defense official said.
“Combining combatant commands is certainly not something that we want to do, but something that we have to consider because all cuts have to be on the table,” the official said.
Members of the Joint Staff and other defense officials have been exploring options for COCOM realignment since last year, according to sources.
Regional experts agree the Pentagon could reorganize its combatant commands to better align the headquarters with long-term strategic goals.
Combining Northern and Southern commands could lead to greater resources for activities in South and Central America, which experts say has long been DoD’s most neglected region.
Combining the regions could better address cross border issues — particularly drug trafficking — between Mexico, South America and the United States, said Bob Killebrew, a retired Army colonel and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Mexico is part of Northern Command, which also includes the contiguous United States, Alaska and Canada.
“[I]t makes ... sense not to have a kind of artificial DoD boundary, not only between Mexico and Central America, but between Mexico and the American border as well,” Killebrew said.
Organizing oversight of Africa has been a topic of debate — mostly in the academic community — ever since Africa Command split from European Command and became a stand-alone COCOM in 2008. Before that, European Command oversaw much of the continent, with Central Command overseeing the Horn of Africa.
“The [oversight] that was diffused over multiple commands really wasn’t something that was in our best interest nor in the best interest of our partners on the continent,” said Kip Ward, a retired Army general who was the first commander of Africa Command.
Major changes to the existing Africa Command construct are not likely during a COCOM reorganization, experts say. US military operations in Africa, ranging from the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya to the recent campaign against terrorists in Mali, underscore the need for a dedicated COCOM, defense officials say.
Since its establishment, Africa Command has added value and has been well received on the continent, Ward said.
“I think that the focus that AFRICOM is able to bring to that vital, important part of the world is still important,” he said.
Meanwhile, experts agree that Afghanistan, Pakistan and India should fall under the same COCOM, regardless of whether it’s Pacific or Central. India falls under Pacific Command while Pakistan and Afghanistan are part of Central Command.
Since security, foreign policy, economic and trade issues with India predominantly involve Pakistan and vice versa, placing them under the same COCOM could better streamline US military ties with each country, some experts say.
The same is true for security and policy issues involving Afghanistan, since much of the violence in the nation is along the Pakistani border.
“It’s better that the people who are dealing with India are the ones that are at least fully aware of, or completely in the picture, of what was discussed between two top dignitaries between the US and Pakistan,” said Hassan Abbas, a former Pakistani government official who served in the administrations of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf.
“If they are the same team, or the same group of people that are in the same institution who are dealing with India, it actually provides more leverage for the United States and more opportunities to go for a coherent policy rather than dealing through two different commands,” said Abbas, a senior adviser and fellow at the Asia Society and a professor at National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs. He stressed that this is his personal view and he was not speaking for the university or the US government. “I think this makes sense.”
Federal budget caps would cut about $500 billion from planned defense spending over the next decade. The caps have already cut $37 billion from the Pentagon’s 2013 budget.
With that in mind, Hagel on July 31 announced the findings of the four-month-long Strategic Choices and Management Review, an effort that examined options the Pentagon could take to meet those spending targets, while trying to achieve the goals of its Pacific-focused military strategy.
If the caps remain in place across the decade, “additional consolidations and mission reductions,” such as “consolidations of regional combatant commands, defense agency mission cuts, and further IT consolidation” might be necessary, Hagel said.
“These changes would be far-reaching and require further analysis and consideration,” he said. “Though defense bureaucracies are often derided, the fact is that these offices perform functions needed to manage, administer and support a military of our size, complexity and global reach.”
The actual COCOM realignments would be laid out in the Unified Command Plan, a document that “establishes the missions, responsibilities and geographic areas of responsibility” for COCOM.
The Unified Command Plan — which originated in late the 1940s — is usually reviewed every two years and was last updated in April 2011.
The Pentagon last shuttered a major command in 2010 when it closed US Joint Forces Command, in an attempt to trim overhead. But many of the positions associated with that command remained as the Joint Staff absorbed nearly 3,000 uniformed and civilian workers.
The growth in headquarters staff sizes at the COCOMs and across the entire military has been a major issue of late.
Between 2010 and 2012, staff sizes at the six geographical COCOMs have increased more than 7 percent, adding nearly 1,000 civilian and military positions.
In addition to those numbers, each service operates its own subordinate commands to the individual COCOMs. Many positions at the service commands are redundant to positions at the COCOMs, according to the Government Accountability Office.
“If they were to streamline or combine [COCOMs], you certainly won’t have as many components,” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general and former Senate staffer who chairs the Reserve Forces Policy Board. “It depends on how they do it.”
Hagel announced this summer a plan to cut COCOM headquarters and Pentagon staffs by 20 percent and reduce duplication.
Pentagon officials overseeing the reorganization should also consider changing the title of the four-star generals and admirals who oversee these regions from combatant commanders to something less invasive, Killebrew said.
“It’s a horrible [title] because what most of these commanders do is military assistance and military cooperation with other countries,” Killebrew said. “When you say you’re a combatant commander the first thing somebody in a small country says is, ‘But I don’t want to go to war. I just want to talk.’ ”
This is especially the case when dealing with some African and Central and South American nations.
A combatant commander used to hold the title commander in chief, or CINC, a title that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld abolished in 2002.
Killebrew said the title should be changed to “unified commander or something that implies working with other countries and not invading them.”
Paul McLeary contributed to this report.