DoD officials aren’t happy about the prospect of reducing the number of combatant commands — only because of budgetary duress are they even considering the idea — but there are good reasons to consider redrawing the map.
The biannual review of the Unified Command Plan offers a chance not only to consolidate offices and trim budgets, but to improve command and control and even strategic viewpoints.
NORTHCOM, almost all agree, is ripe for some sort of merger. NORTHCOM’s commander doubles as the head of NORAD, which provides vital air defenses to North America, and the command’s only other area of concern is Mexico. One idea on the table: Create a new Americas Command by folding the underutilized NORTHCOM into the underfunded SOUTHCOM, combining responsibility for all of Latin America, including the Caribbean, under one command.
A more radical, proposal would combine NORTHCOM with European Command, unifying responsibility for the Arctic region where competition for trade routes and natural resources is heating up. This approach would help national security policymakers “break free of Cold War thinking,” notes Armed Forces Journal, by grouping COCOMs into north and south rather than east and west. Responsibility for Mexico, meanwhile, would shift to Southern Command, unifying the remainder of the Western Hemisphere.
This too deserves serious consideration.
Some propose dissolving Africa Command, created only five years ago, by again splitting responsibility for the African continent between EUCOM and Central Command. This makes little sense.
The same imperatives that drove the creation of AFRICOM five years ago pertain today, only more so: The African continent is a bubbling cauldron, where unstable governments and terrorist organizations vie for control of natural resources and vast swaths of desert and jungle. Instability reigns from north to south, with ongoing conflicts in Libya, Mali, Somalia and more. China, meanwhile, is working hard to establish economic and diplomatic sway. This is not a region to be marginalized.
If AFRICOM must be merged in the name of budgetary savings, there is a better answer: By combining it with CENTCOM, the entire continent could be held under a single command, which should help smooth the sharing of counterterror intelligence and tactics. Certainly, it would allow better distribution of ISR assets and other forces, so abundant in the CENTCOM area of operations and so hard to come by in AFRICOM’s. Moreover, the Arab Spring and its ongoing reverberations show how instability can spread from one region to the next.
Another point of debate is where to draw the line between CENTCOM and Pacific Command.
The Unified Command Plan map assigns India to Pacific Command and Pakistan to CENTCOM, splitting responsibility for the world’s least stable nuclear-armed fault line. India and Pakistan cannot be properly understood in isolation.
India and Pakistan are assigned to different COCOMs because of the diplomatic challenge of treating with two enemies under one roof. Moving Pakistan out of CENTCOM and into PACOM could make sense in the context that Pakistan is an Asian, rather than Arabian Gulf power. But where Pakistan goes, so must Afghanistan. And moving Afghanistan out of CENTCOM would needlessly complicate operations in the theater.
Change is never easy, but it always brings opportunity. US military and diplomatic leaders must think hard about making the most of that opportunity to more logically and effectively realign the way they divide up the globe.