Last month President Obama signed the Unified Command Plan (UCP). The UCP establishes responsibilities and geographic boundaries for the U.S. military’s six regional and four functional four-star combatant commands (COCOMs). The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) reviews the UCP every two years and, through the secretary of defense (SECDEF), transmits recommended changes to the president for approval. Since 9/11, the Department of Defense (DoD) has faced classic “problems of the rich”: expansive challenges and very few resource constraints. The results were predictable—especially in the expansion of global command and control (C2) architecture. Flush with cash, DoD grew four-star commands from whole cloth, opting to add organizations to account for new challenges versus transform existing ones. This clearly contributed to higher defense budgets and arguably did not enhance military effectiveness. Now, faced with a period of increased austerity, DoD might—through the vehicle of the next UCP review—take a more comprehensive look at joint C2, identifying bold alternatives that drive down defense overhead without engendering increased risk.
Q1: What are the most significant UCP-driven changes to COCOM structure, functions, and responsibilities over the last decade?
A1: In addition to confirming closure of U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), the most recent UCP clearly delineated COCOM responsibilities for the Arctic and designated U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) as the joint advocate for Arctic capabilities. Further, it clarified and expanded the responsibilities of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) for countering weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats. None of these is insignificant. The changing Arctic, for example, is slowly emerging as an area ripe for increased defense cooperation and competition.
Most UCP updates fall in the category of “housekeeping.” However, there have been clear exceptions over the last decade. The 2002 UCP, for example, activated a fifth geographic combatant command—NORTHCOM—in response to newly perceived homeland defense and security demands. Related work that same year resulted in the merger of STRATCOM and U.S. Space Command. In 2006, the UCP introduced the concept of COCOMs as global integrators and synchronizers. This gave designated COCOMs oversight authority for planning and coordinating U.S. military responses to cross-cutting functional issues like pandemic influenza, missile defense, and counterterrorism. Finally, the 2008 UCP added a sixth geographic COCOM—U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), relieving U.S. European and Central Commands (EUCOM and CENTCOM) of their responsibilities for 52 of 53 African nations (Egypt remained under CENTCOM). The 2008 plan also specifically directed the regional COCOMs to account for future stabilization and reconstruction operations in their respective regions.
Q2: Where might the new SECDEF and CJCS look for efficiencies in the next UCP?
A2: The most recent UCP was a missed opportunity. Significant change has already come to DoD. More changes—likely smaller budgets and fewer forces—appear on the horizon. However, with the exception JFCOM’s closure, no substantial change to COCOM structure appears under consideration. This is puzzling given the current SECDEF’s desire to wring further efficiencies out of the tail without sacrificing the tooth. The new SECDEF and CJCS would be well advised to make UCP transformation a priority. With one war ending and another headed in that direction, there is an opportunity for fundamental UCP change at very low risk.
The smartest and lowest-risk near-term alternatives here are merger of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) with NORTHCOM and merger of AFRICOM (again) with EUCOM. NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM are both already hybrid organizations that share a number of common “civ-mil” challenges affecting the Americas (e.g., humanitarian and disaster relief, narcotics trafficking and organized crime, underdevelopment, and human migration). Favorable outcomes in either command’s area of responsibility (AoR) commonly relies on U.S. forces, U.S. federal agencies, and foreign partners acting simultaneously in both AoRs. As separate and distinct commands, there are obvious seams that might undermine unified action in the future. Merger into a new command for the Americas eliminates these seams and strengthens hemispheric defense, security, and crisis and disaster response.
Reconsolidation of AFRICOM and EUCOM makes sense as well. A stand-alone AFRICOM isn’t a failed experiment. However, it may now well be an expensive luxury. Prior to 2008, most of Africa fell within EUCOM’s AoR. Now, with AFRICOM having real difficulty establishing a presence on the continent and with Europe more a power projection platform than a theater of operations, EUCOM and AFRICOM’s reconsolidation provides senior defense leaders with a reasonable cost-saving option with inherent strategic logic to back it up.
Operation Odyssey Dawn—now NATO’s Operation Unified Protector—in Libya makes clear that sizeable future unilateral U.S. intervention in Africa is unlikely. U.S.-enabled operations, undertaken by capable partners operating under diverse coalition arrangements, are much more likely. Thus, working in concert with NATO—an alliance whose members continue to have strong interests in Africa—a newly minted U.S. European and African command would both cement the U.S. commitment to alliance collective defense and security and provide both European and African forces with the enabling backbone necessary for future contingency operations.
Currently, both EUCOM and AFRICOM also advertise building partner capacity (BPC) as core competencies. Indeed, for AFRICOM this is practically its sole reason for existing in the first place. NATO too is committed to BPC through its new strategic concept. This synergy of interests between two U.S. commands and the United States’ most important foreign alliance—wedded to the desire of all parties to drive down overall costs and distribute burdens—provides additional ammunition for those who might favor a EUCOM-AFRICOM merger.
Q3: What are the key risks associated with some COCOM mergers?
A3: The risks associated with COCOM consolidation are mostly artificial, more products of politics and military conservatism than real strategic calculation. The president would clearly be vulnerable to the charge that reduction of the number of COCOMs was somehow indicative of strategic retreat. A natural counter to this argument would be that the United States is not withdrawing but instead refocusing after a decade of war. The key challenges of the twenty-first century—especially those of greatest concern to NORTHCOM, SOUTHCOM, and AFRICOM—are often borderless, frequently trans-regional, and almost always nonmilitary in character. Thus, merger acknowledges the need for a broader perspective and a more sophisticated end-to-end understanding of how threats like this grow and metastasize.
Span of control is frequently an argument against merger as well. How, for example, is a single command going to manage engagement with all the countries of Europe and Africa combined? The response is as uncomfortable as it is necessary. As resources decline, larger COCOM AoRs will ultimately demand greater discrimination about where and how limited means are applied. To secure core U.S. interests in a specific AoR, four-star commanders will increasingly need to allocate resources and effort according to consideration of what absolutely must and can be done with what’s on hand and not what could and might be done with additional time and money.
Nathan Freier is a senior fellow with the New Defense Approaches Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a visiting research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
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