Putting Combatant Commanders on a Demand Signal Diet

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In a series of articles on combatant commands, the Washington Post came to a sobering conclusion about the outsized power wielded by these globe-spanning military bureaucracies: They had “evolved into the modern-day equivalent of the Roman Empire’s proconsuls — well-funded, semi-autonomous, unconventional centers of U.S. foreign policy.” Their leaders “travel nonstop, oversee multimillion-dollar foreign study institutes and round-the-clock intelligence centers, host international conferences and direct disaster relief.” These powerful commanders are routinely “received by heads of state who offer gifts, share secrets, and seek advice.”

That was in 2000. The power, influence, and sway of combatant commanders has only grown since.

“We’re an 11-carrier Navy in a 15-carrier world,” Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, the program executive officer for aircraft carriers, lamented in 2013. That one statement summarized a global problem plaguing Pentagon leadership: The demand for forces continues to outmatch supply. Combatant commanders independently create requests for forces and operations from service chiefs. The services then need to juggle the unrestricted needs of multiple commanders who have no incentive to be sparing with their demands. Even when there are ample quantities of personnel and readiness, not enough hard questions are asked up front about whether the task or mission is essential or simply nice to have.



Before determining if a mission is essential, leaders should first answer the question “essential to what?” The attention of the U.S. military should increasingly revolve around fulfilling a stated objective of the National Defense Strategy. Tasks ranked as less important need to be handed off to another organization, or given to an allied partner, or stopped altogether. There is simply no more slack in the system — whether it’s readiness, time, or money — for forces to constantly churn for the sake of it while performing non-essential work.

The Customer Is Not Always Right

In 2016, when the government’s financial situation was nowhere near as perilous as it is at present, the Government Accountability Office reported to then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, “At a time of growing fiscal constraints and evolving security challenges, it is important to ensure the combatant commands are organized to meet their mission requirements in the most efficient and effective manner possible.” Today, combatant commands continue to make demands that are impossible for the services to meet in full, let alone in an “efficient and effective manner.” The question becomes: are the expectations of combatant commanders practical, driven by strategy, and bound by reality? Increasingly the answer appears to be no.

Earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced an internal review of combatant commands to determine the correct mix of personnel and resources to execute priorities of the National Defense Strategy. The results of this review are intended to inform the 2022 defense budget request, set to be released early next year. Such an effort is long overdue.

The dynamic between combatant commanders and service chiefs is complex. A combatant command is “composed of forces from two or more military departments,” and “perform military missions.” Functional combatant commands — like Transportation Command — operate and provide capabilities worldwide. Geographic combatant commands — like European Command — operate in specific areas of responsibility, with a regional military focus. In contrast, the services train and equip the forces that are eventually dedicated to specific commands, based on the requests set forth by combatant commanders.

Fundamental imbalances in the requirements-generation process and Pentagon resourcing decisions have favored combatant commanders over service chiefs for years. Combatant commanders rely on ever-growing headquarters staffs and consistently make substantial (and outsized) demands for forces that outmatch or over-tax supply. Determining the urgency and necessity of combatant commander force requests around the world for steady-state missions below the threshold of conflict is a frustratingly opaque and unproductive process, prominently leading to the creation of the Global Force Management system — a new bureaucratic power center within the Joint Staff. As the Navy, Army, and Air Force confront the prospect of flat or declining budgets, there should be more honesty surrounding the insatiable demands for presence along with the opportunity, readiness, and financial costs of constant action.

Reining in “Sprawling Mini-Pentagons”

At least two key issues should be considered and resolved: managing the expansion of the combatant commands (including staff and budgets), and curbing combatant commanders’ unbounded demands for U.S. forces, primarily for an ever-growing list of presence missions.

The Pentagon has tried to restrict the growth of headquarters staffs for years, at the combatant commands and elsewhere. When sequestration forced intense rounds of budget cuts in 2013, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter proposed a phased 20 percent reduction for the budgets of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and service headquarters — to include 20 percent reductions in personnel billets. In the same year, the Government Accountability Office also reported that the mission and headquarters support cost of combatant commands had more than doubled between 2007 and 2012.

Last month, Russell Rumbaugh noted in a new report that combatant commanders control about $4.5 billion — or 0.7 percent — of the total defense budget, but this funding comes from within the larger topline budgets of the services. Since combatant commanders report directly to the secretary of defense, Rumbaugh concludes this “blunt[s] the services’ control of the funding.” In the defense budget, $4.5 billion is small change, but budget control matters — billions spent on the combatant commands are billions that cannot be spent on other priorities, misrepresenting the budget power of the services. Far more importantly, measuring the budget of combatant commands does not fully capture, or even closely represent, their astonishing manpower and influence.

Two years after the attempted headquarters reforms of 2013, Michele Flournoy, former under secretary of defense for policy, observed that the combatant commands were “ripe for a real scrub in terms of the breadth of their functions and the level of duplication with the joint staff and with [the Office of the Secretary of Defense].” Also in 2015, Arnold Punaro, a member of the Defense Business Board, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, detailed that the staffing for combatant commands and joint billets was over 40,000 (including contractors), an increase by a factor of 10 from their establishment in 1958. Punaro also told Congress that defense infrastructure and staff growth was causing the department to spend more than it did at the height of President Ronald Reagan’s military buildup — despite warfighting forces being 40 to 50 percent smaller.

Punaro concluded, “The combatant commands have expanded from lean, warfighting headquarters to sprawling mini-Pentagons with thousands of staff members.” Since then, these headquarters staffs have grown by roughly another six percent, according to the Defense Manpower Requirements Report for Fiscal Year 2020. To be fair, part of this growth is driven by the establishment of Cyber Command and Space Command, but other, older commands, such as European Command, have also seen precipitous staffing increases over the past five years.

While combatant command headquarters continue to add billets, another perpetual tension exists between service chiefs and combatant commanders: The services never deliver enough forces — be that measured in ships, soldiers, or aircraft — to meet demand. This tension underscores the substantial clout of the commanders: While they directly control a miniscule amount of the defense budget, their force requests inherently and inexorably direct much of the focus of service chiefs.

Part of this problem can be attributed to expanding requirements for U.S. presence missions and the evolving concept of “presence.” Michael Mazarr points out that presence has become much more than “showing the flag.” Presence is now defined by deployments and stable bases, commitments to allies (as with Polish base development), providing military training and support to international partners, and responses to multifaceted issues like gray-zone conflicts. Over the past half-century, such presence, assurance, deterrence, dissuasion, coercion, and persuasion missions have become an increasingly important element of U.S. defense strategy. Combatant commanders ask for the forces required to carry out these myriad missions.

Mazarr notes that the Army “lacks sufficient forces” to fulfil the presence requests of combatant commanders and to be ready for large-scale warfare. Coupled with the current expansiveness of U.S. presence missions, the continued high demands of combatant commanders suggest that current force deployments are straining and taxing the military. This challenge is not service-specific.

In 2015, the Navy was only able to meet about 44 percent of the requests from combatant commanders around the world, and noted that it would require over 150 more ships to fully resource all requests. A month ago, Secretary Esper launched Battle Force 2045, announcing a 500-ship future naval fleet with added attack submarines and lighter carriers to compete with China’s rising navy. In 2016, combatant commanders testified that it would take a fleet of at least 80 attack submarines to fill all of their requests. Esper said that the “new Navy” will have an expanded attack fleet of 70 to 80 submarines, noting that “If we do nothing else, the Navy must begin building three Virginia-class submarines a year, as soon as possible.” Even with three more per year, the 70 to 80 submarines will not match the “at least” 80 requested by combatant commanders for several decades. Considering that the largest rebuild of the Navy in history fails to satisfy commanders’ minimum demands, it is clear that combatant commands and the Pentagon need a reality check.

Beyond demonstrating poor planning, the supply-demand mismatch of combatant commanders’ force requests has immediate consequences for servicemembers. The Army is smaller today than Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley recommended in 2017 and its operational tempo is staggering.

For active duty units, the Army considers a 1:3 deploy-to-dwell ratio — or the ratio between when a unit is deployed compared to when it is not deployed — to be ideal. By this measure, a 1:2 ratio is a red line. At the start of this year, while fulfilling just 60 percent of combatant commander personnel requirements, Bradley Bowman noted that “active duty Army corps and division headquarters, as well as brigade combat teams, combat aviation brigades, and Patriot battalions” all had an average deploy-to-dwell ratio below 1:2. The same issue existed in 2018, when the Army was reportedly experiencing “a deployment to dwell time ratio of about 1:1.2.” This operational tempo has remained despite reductions in large unit deployments, particularly to Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.

The Air Force’s decision to consider private contracts for refueling tankers is yet another consequence of substantial force demands and insufficient resources. Last December, Air Mobility Command said they face similar issues to the Army in preserving operational capability and warfighting readiness. Air Mobility Command Gen. Maryanne Miller made it clear that “there’s just some things we just cannot do.” With reduced tanker fleets and more than 25,000 non-supported flying hours, the Air Force may well be forced to spend tight dollars on contractor tanker fleets.

Reviewing the scope and value of presence missions should be a priority for the Pentagon’s review of combatant commands, because they have consequences. Be it the result of poor information or inadequate transparency, the force requests of combatant commanders seem unbound by reality.

Moving From the Global JENGA® Model

Fortunately, opportunities exist for reform. Combatant commanders and civilian defense leaders and overseers need to be more disciplined about the use of force — for any reason, including to keep the peace.

Right now, the services bring their individual platforms to bear as part of global force management. But this is like a military JENGA® puzzle where the services put in and pull out various parts without fully knowing the risks. Sometimes, this hurts the other services. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Mark Cancian reiterated last year, the Department of Defense’s global force management process prioritizes force requests from combatant commands. However, these requests have no limits, so “a gap always exists between requests and the forces available to meet them.” This is no way to determine the real and enduring needs of the combatant commands.

Service chiefs are thinking about how to manage these issues. The new Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown is still considering the right number of squadrons for his service, and while he is “not asking the Combatant Commander to take all the risk,” he is trying to balance the needs of combatant commanders against service requirements for overdue force modernization. Other chiefs should be having similarly serious conversations about what combatant commanders need and what the services can and should realistically deliver.

These discussions will help the combatant commanders, as well. As a result of competing interests and infeasible requests, the United States also faces rising challenges within the combatant commands. In a degraded global security environment, combatant commanders need to be able to execute their most critical missions effectively. In 2015, Bryan McGrath of the Hudson Institute said, “Jointness works at the level of warfighting,” but not as a strategy. That’s why ruthless mission, activity, and task prioritization in alignment with the National Defense Strategy is necessary. If service chiefs and combatant commanders are in agreement on this goal, it will improve the ability of both to prepare for the budgetary and national security challenges of the coming decade.

The Air Force, and all the services, should say “no” to themselves more often. Restraining the appetite for presence, assurance, and deterrence missions is essential to harvesting people, money, and risk to better focus on achieving strategic goals.

Leaders should ask themselves: Does the instinct to “do something now!” solve short-term problems but cause harm in the Future Years Defense Plan by wearing out man and machine faster? More prudent employment of forces is required. Great-power competition is a decades-long effort, and the Defense Department cannot hope that a series of sprints will be enough to prevail.

The Pentagon will also need to bring Capitol Hill on board early with any reform agenda in order for it to be successful. Congress aggressively challenged the unofficial conclusions of the Africa Command review during the defense budget hearings for FY2021. President Donald Trump’s decision to reduce forces in Germany, and his current push to leave Afghanistan by late December, have caused consternation and confusion. Indeed, an update from Secretary Esper in July on the status of his European Command focused solely on force posture in the region.

Determining the correct levels of support for combatant commanders, right-sizing the force, and convincing Congress of these decisions is a tall order. The Pentagon can improve these conversations by making sure that lawmakers are adequately informed.

The Pentagon still owes Congress a report on the headquarters staff of each geographic combatant command. Esper is also required to recommend a new number of military and civilian personnel required by the headquarters of each geographic combatant command by next January. Separately, reforming the global force management process would be a substantial undertaking, but it’s worth an evaluation. Continued U.S. commitment to presence missions — and their scope — is also a larger question that will confront Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House next year.

The United States faces rising challenges across three theaters. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, America is not the prosperous country that it was five years ago (or at least is not at the same levels of prosperity), and in the next administration, the budget will likely flatline at best. Combatant commanders should learn to prioritize strategy and understand the increased limitations of the services that will result from fewer resources. Facing these problems directly is an imperative for the future of our national security. They cannot be ignored because they are difficult.



Mackenzie Eaglen (@MEaglen) is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. She has also served as a staff member on the 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission, the 2014 National Defense Panel, and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel. Prior to joining the American Enterprise Institute, she worked on defense issues in the House of Representatives, in the Senate, and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Joint Staff.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Staff Sgt. Kelsey Tucker)