WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy has had two aircraft carriers steaming in Middle Eastern waters for most of the past three years.

And despite warnings from the Navy that maintaining the two-carrier presence there over an extended period could have drastic effects on the fleet, they stayed for one simple reason: a general believed they were necessary.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees combat operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, said it needed the extra aircraft carrier year round to help support and carry out strikes against the Taliban and other insurgent fighters in Afghanistan.

The Navy said it could deliver the two carriers, but only for nine months out of the year — one carrier would be present for the remaining three months. Even as combat operations in Iraq came to a close, the requirement remained, until this month.

Facing an uncertain future budget, the Pentagon in February announced it would delay the deployment of the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group, which would have been the second carrier in the Middle East.

Experts say that budget uncertainty combined with a refocused military strategy could further play a role in the prioritization of regional combatant commands’ (COCOMs’) operational requirements and lead to more constraints when senior military leaders make these requests, experts say.

“Combatant commands don’t have to fund these capabilities ... so they don’t have a natural constraint on their ‘requirements,’” said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank in Washington.

The Army, Navy and Air Force are responsible for funding the troops, equipment and weapons that combatant commanders deem essential.

As the Pentagon prepares to shrink its budget $487 billion from planned spending levels over 10 years — and perhaps an additional $500 billion over that same period should across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration begin next month — the Defense Department’s January 2012 announced military strategy is expected to play a critical role in requirements allotment.

For more than a decade, CENTCOM has received the largest portion of U.S. military assets due to combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Other commands, such as U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which oversees operations in South America and Latin America, and more recently U.S. European Command (EUCOM), have received fewer.

The Pentagon’s year-old military strategy, which puts more emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region, is expected to elevate U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), SOUTHCOM and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) requirements, experts say.

The new military strategy could elevate the requirement requests from combatant commands that have historically ranked lower in priority over the past decade.

“I think you’ll see a waning of effort in the CENTCOM area,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, a former EUCOM deputy commander. “You’ll see a growing attention being paid to AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM. I think [U.S. Northern Command] will remain important. I don’t think we’re ever going to get away from the fact that we actually have to have a combat capability to protect America now.”

In the coming years, much of the focus in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia will likely center on training local forces through partner building efforts and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

The vast majority of the Pentagon’s expansive unmanned aircraft inventory — key tools in ISR operations — has been in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The Cost of Presence

Scaling back COCOM requirements could in fact lead to a trimmer force. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has often said the size of the U.S. military — as laid out in the Pentagon’s military strategy — will get smaller, but remain agile and flexible.

“To an extent, all of the services can justify their force structure and so forth based on the presence requests of the combatant commands,” Gunzinger said.

With defense spending already set to decline in the coming years, and the deeper cuts looming, some analysts believe throttling back on requirements could help the Pentagon save billions of dollars without major capability losses.

“I think given the chance to do it right ... DoD could afford to take some more cuts and they will,” Wald said. “I don’t get real nervous if they’re given a chance to do the right planning. I think the COCOMs will follow that eventually if that kind of guidance and leadership comes out of the Pentagon.”

Presence, or forward basing troops, ships or aircraft in a particular region, is a major cost driver.

“Everything is on the table and that means our global presence is certainly on the table, not just how many, but how we do it,” Gunzinger said.

For example, a Navy presence reduction could mean reducing the number of aircraft carriers, which in turn reduces the number of carrier air wings and other assets that support the ship.

“The calculus driven by presence requirements are pretty significant and justifies keeping more carriers around,” Gunzinger said. “If that presence policy changes, then that can have implications on the size of the carrier fleet.”

Gunzinger — a former deputy assistant defense secretary and a retired Air Force colonel — said the COCOMs could do a better job addressing particular requirements by mixing and matching different weapons and forces to deliver a certain capability.

“Don’t ask me for a carrier battle group, ask me for what is it you want me to do,” he said. “These are the kind of things that could be managed through the joint process and could mitigate some of the strains on the force, especially for our capabilities and units that are in high demand.”

Traditionally, urgent battlefield requirements, which have been extremely prevalent in Iraq and Afghanistan, are for weapons or equipment already in production. Historically, experts say, an urgent battlefield request is given higher priority based on the rank of the person requesting it.

The Threat

A classified document called the guidance for the employment of the force establishes priorities and makeup of U.S. assets in different regions of the world. Based on that document, the combatant commanders develop war plans and create a force posture that seeks to deter conflict.

Combatant command requirements are overseen by members of the Joint Staff through the Global Force Management process. The combatant commanders provide a list of requirements to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff once per year. Those requirements — the majority of which are classified — are then adjudicated through this process.

“Usually, the demand for presence, forces and so forth exceeds the supply, so you have to have an adjudication process that allocates forces and so forth across the COCOMs,” Gunzinger said.

At the same time, urgent requirements are reviewed every few weeks, most often to address requests from the battlefield.

Because combatant commanders strive to reduce risk, the practice could lead to “requests for capabilities that can be a little unrealistic at times,” Gunzinger said.

“If your responsibility is to do this in your [area of responsibility] and you think you need that to do it, then you’re going to ask for it, probably without concern for other theaters,” he said.

Combatant commanders are “attempting to minimize risk, and that can drive a significant request for force structure and capabilities and presence, and you’re not required to pay for those, the services are,” Gunzinger said. “There’s no governor on those requests due to resources, and that’s why you have that centralized Global Force Management process.”

But military officials and many lawmakers argue that combatant commanders’ requests are justified due to threats, such as terrorism.

“[T]here’s this big suggestion that somehow our combatant commanders are coming up with all of these wish lists of everything they want,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services seapower subcommittee. “When you really do the analysis, when you peel that onion back, they’re not. You know, they’re making requests that we truly need and they truly need.”

Despite the looming defense spending cuts, the Global Force Management oversight process is not expected to change, said a spokeswoman for the Joint Staff.

The only way to inject more constraint in the requirements process is though strong leadership, experts say.

Pentagon brass needs to send a blunt message to the COCOMs as yearly budgets shrink: “Think a little smarter about how you’re going to spend,” said Todd Harrison, also with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“You need a strong set of leaders in the Pentagon who are willing to say: ‘OK we get it. That’s what you would like, but you need to support that as a requirement,’” Gunzinger said.


Christopher P. Cavas contributed to this report.

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