"Don't Stop Now, Mr. Secretary. You're on a Roll!"

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ most recent decision to shutter Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) and to cut the Department of Defense (DoD) contract workforce are new examples of his penchant for bold decisionmaking. The centrifugal pressures of ongoing wars, long-term readiness, and looming federal deficits are forcing his hand. Though jarring to individual losers, the secretary knows that DoD’s long-term health and viability rely on his preemptively attacking waste, excess, and redundancy now. The alternative would see others force less discriminating cuts on him later. Gates’ drive for innovation and efficiency is not a precursor of diminished military capability. Instead, like the FY 2010 budget moves, it is one among many essential steps the United States must take if it is to avoid becoming a bloated military giant, leaving its other—often more appropriate—instruments of modern power hobbled by inattention and underinvestment.

Though bold, Gates’ moves so far are still nibbling away at the margins. Even tougher action is required, if he hopes to generate the savings and institutional innovation necessary to simultaneously bring ongoing wars to a satisfactory conclusion and reset the force for the future. Closing JFCOM was essential, but it is not sufficient. With recent hints at a 2011 departure, the secretary has good reason to make his most dramatic moves now or risk their reversal on his departure.

As Secretary Gates is already considering a sweeping merger of headquarters staffs inside the Pentagon, he should entertain expanding this to the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCC) as well. Indeed, if he wants to continue shifting “tail” to “tooth,” he would be wise to direct that the next Unified Command Plan rationally consolidate a number of regional military responsibilities with minimal risk to readiness. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has adjusted to new security challenges by adding headquarters, not transforming existing ones. This has left the U.S. military top heavy and over-structured in the field. A cost-saving rationalization of GCC responsibilities is long overdue. Further, it may force the very “whole-of-government” transformation that many hope for in the future.

Initially, the six regional GCCs (AFRICOM, CENTCOM, EUCOM, NORTHCOM, PACOM, and SOUTHCOM) might become four. Much later, perhaps three. A down payment on more revolutionary change might consolidate NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM and EUCOM and AFRICOM now. The first two could easily become a single “Americas Command.” This acknowledges the true difficultly found already in separating the problems of one from the other. It also combines commands that in practice have relatively few unique military responsibilities. Most if not all military operations in the hemisphere support larger, civilian-led efforts (e.g., SOUTHCOM’s response to the Haitian earthquake). A new Americas Command could maintain standing Joint Task Force (JTF) headquarters generated from within existing service component commands and targeted at the unique demands of the hemisphere’s three distinct subregions—North America, the Caribbean and Mexico, and Central and South America.

NORTHCOM’s homeland defense mission—securing North America from military attack—was already the exclusive job of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) prior to 9/11. It might be again with modest adjustment. Whatever “unique military” missions are found lacking in NORAD could be strengthened in close cooperation with Canada (and perhaps someday Mexico), eliminating obvious mission redundancy. NORTHCOM’s homeland security mission, on the other hand, where military forces are employed to support U.S. civil authorities, already raises delicate constitutional questions and inadvertently militarizes many inherently civilian functions. This might be ameliorated in part by a bigger Americas Command that is more clearly focused on preventing or responding to violence and disorder in the near abroad, while only standing by to support the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at home.

A reconsolidation of AFRICOM and EUCOM seems to be a reasonable reduction in defense overhead as well. Previously, Africa was EUCOM’s responsibility. A consolidated “U.S. European and African Command” could look east, north, and south again—although this time with a much stronger mandate to operate with partners in Africa. A change in name and focus is not insignificant. However, now, in an era of scarce defense resources, distinct African and European commands may be luxuries.

A single U.S. European and African Command could be based around the old EUCOM. Along with its more traditional alliance responsibilities, the new command might also be a catalyst for broader NATO engagement in the type of lower-risk capacity building that is core to AFRICOM’s mission today. A new U.S. European and African Command also acknowledges and mitigates the discomfort African nations express about the prospect of U.S. military presence on the continent. In addition, it might prompt other U.S. government agencies to assume greater responsibility for routine engagement in Africa. Like the proposed NORTHCOM-SOUTHCOM merger, span-of-control concerns borne of a larger area of operations (AoR) could be mitigated with standing JTF headquarters. These too could be built from preexisting structures. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the distant future, acknowledging that Europe is now more a power projection platform for allied “out-of-area operations” than in it is active theater, CENTCOM too might be rolled into this command, ultimately paring the number of GCCs to three.

In the end, AFRICOM and NORTHCOM emerged from 9/11 as a remedy for perceived under-preparedness and under-vigilance. A four-star proconsul was subsequently publicly responsible for every square inch of the Earth’s surface. However, these changes raised, in the minds of some, the specter of increasingly militarized U.S. foreign and security policy. Secretary Gates himself has cautioned against this and is well positioned to do something about it. An inevitable question is: “How does GCC consolidation really help?” The answer is simple. Aside from obvious cost savings, bigger AoRs require the GCCs to be more strategic in their engagement and investment. Greater clarity and focus in missioning from the top also will refine their planning focus toward that which is most important. The lower the strategic payoff and the less “uniquely military” the challenge, the likelier it is that someone other than DoD should lead, casting the GCC as a supporting and not supported institution.

This path will inevitably run up against military convention. Senior officers are inherently conservative when it comes to change—often for good reason. Redundancy is a virtue. More resources are always better. Yet, most senior leaders also recognize that there are limits to what the country can bear fiscally, especially given a decade of war and a bleak economy. The JFCOM decision was a good start but only that. With it, Secretary Gates has already succeeded where his predecessor did not, forcing a controversial headquarters downsizing decision on an innately cautious military leadership. He should avoid leaving more dramatic GCC decisions on the table for his successor.

Reduction now from six to four GCCs is clearly doable and prudent. History suggests that the current GCC system will survive DoD’s austerity drive intact unless Gates himself commits publicly to even greater change now. The secretary will need to initiate changes like this well before he departs. Neither option would be easy or, likely, popular. But, this is not a time for unquestioned perpetuation of the status quo. Secretary Gates has an opportunity to rethink the most recent changes to our global command and control architecture—especially those that rose out of peculiar circumstances. He should capitalize on it.

Nathan Freier is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute.

Commentaries are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Nathan Freier