Esper’s combatant command review to finish by September

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A C-130J Super Hercules from the 61st Airlift Squadron, Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., sits on the flightline at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Feb. 9, 2020, during a capstone exercise taking place in the Indo-Pacific Command's area of responsibility. (Air Force photograph)
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Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper is reviewing the combatant commands’ force posture to ensure the forces have the right mix of personnel and resources to meet the National Defense Strategy’s priorities, a senior defense official told reporters at the Pentagon.

Speaking on background, the official said the combatant command review is a prudent step as the department faces the return of great-power competition with China and Russia. 

U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Southern Command already have been through the process, officials said. The rest of the combatant commands will undergo the same scrutiny, with all reviews finished by September.

Esper will personally oversee the reviews, the official said, just as he did the reviews of defense agencies in his review of Fourth Estate organizations late last year. Those are the organizations in the Defense Department that are not military services.

Under that review, the secretary looked at defense agency budgets for efficiencies. Those reviews found $5 billion that can be applied to higher-priority needs in the department. “We need to take a look at our foundation and we need to do a ‘zero based review,'” the official said. “That is what this is all about, and every [combatant command] has to go through this process.”

Navy Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, U.S. 6th Fleet commander, speaks with Italian Rear Adm. Paolo Pezzutti while embarked aboard the Italian navy European multipurpose frigate ITS Alpino, Feb. 7, 2020. The visit was at the invitation of Italian Vice Adm. Paolo Treu, Naval Fleet commander in chief. U.S. 6th Fleet, headquartered in Naples, Italy, conducts the full spectrum of joint and naval operations, often in concert with allied and interagency partners in order to advance U.S. national interests and security and stability in Europe and Africa. (Navy photograph by PO1 Marvin E. Thompson Jr.)

The official stressed that the process isn’t just about cutting money or resources, but using the money and resources where they make the most sense and where they will do the most good with regard to the National Defense Strategy. “It’s not about savings,” he said. “But you can assume that large, high-performing organizations like … combatant commands, over time will build up a certain amount of inefficiencies. So I think there will be some savings.”

The process is about aligning strategic guidance and priorities with resources, the official explained. He noted that U.S. Africa Command — a relatively new combatant command — still had thousands of tasks it was ordered to perform. Some of those tasks are outdated, but they are still on the books, the official said. This needs to change.

The department’s effort mirrors what any high-performing large organization does, the official said: It is taking stock of the crucial missions and making sure they are resourced correctly, and the National Defense Strategy is a good guiding document. Competing with China and Russia is the strategy’s priority, followed by countering Iran and North Korea. Overarching all this is the problem of violent extremist organizations. The U.S. military also needs to reset force readiness. 

This process does not mean combatant command winners and losers, the official said, noting that the United States needs to compete with China and Russia globally. “So we care about their activities in Africom, we care about their activities in Southcom and around the world,” he said. “But we have to be judicious on how we apply our resources.”

Members of the Guinea armed forces practice advanced weapons techniques during the Flintlock Exercise in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Feb. 15, 2020. Through exercises such as Flintlock, U.S. Africa Command, Special Operations Command Africa and U.S. Special Operations Command provide military training opportunities to foster relationships of peace, security and cooperation among all Trans-Saharan nations. (Army photograph by Staff Sgt. Sidney Sale)

The review will look at the full range of activities in the geographic and functional commands. These commands also bleed over, in some instances, into the area of other federal agencies. DOD officials must ask if a mission is core to the department or not, or if another agency should be footing the bill. “These are tough questions,” the official said. “But they must be asked.”

Esper will chair these reviews, and the combatant commander will participate, along with DOD policy, Joint Staff, comptroller and evaluation personnel. The secretary goes back to basics, noting that combatant commands posture forces as a result of decades of operations that have evolved over time, the official said. He asks the commanders to imagine a blank slate and then — given the situation today — how the forces would be arrayed. The secretary will also ask what the ideal makeup of forces should be and what missions those forces should be performing, the official said.

“Some of it may be aspirational, but you have to start looking at that in that regard and seeing where it makes sense,” the official said. “So all of that comes into play.”

Some aspects of the review will be announced immediately, such as Esper announcing the deployment of an Army Security Force Assistance Brigade to Africa to train partner nations, rather than a regular infantry brigade. The security force brigade is designed to train local forces, and the infantry brigade would be better served getting ready for full-spectrum operations, the official explained.

Other changes will have to wait until the full review is completed. The official said there will undoubtedly be capabilities — in information technology, for example — where there can be some economies of scale, but this cannot be known until the review is completed.
 
 
 

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