Rumbling through the Pentagon, US regional military formations like the Pacific Command and the ranks of defense intellectuals in think tanks is a proposal to rearrange the way the US defends its interests.
It is tempting to dismiss this as bureaucratic maneuvering, but a proposal for such fundamental change would reveal much about how US leaders see the world, how they define threats to US security and how they intend to meet those dangers.
Critics say the nine combatant command’s tasks often have little to do with military operations. Rather, the forces seek to build partnerships with other militaries, undertake peacekeeping and support disaster relief efforts.
Officials in the US Department of State, CIA and other agencies often say that the military services should align themselves with their civilian counterparts.
The issue is politically touchy: A spokesman for the Pacific Command declined to comment on it while a Pentagon official said only: “The [US] Joint [chiefs of] Staff continually reviews a wide variety of options for the joint force and how it can be structured more efficiently.”
Under scrutiny is the issue of combining the Northern Command, which is responsible for defending the continental US, with the Southern Command, which covers Latin America. Advocates contend that this would cut headquarter staff, while opponents argue that missions in North and South America require different approaches.
Another proposition would dissolve the Africa Command. Its operations would be divided and shifted to the European Command and the Central Command, which is in the Middle East.
Still another idea is doing away with most of the regional commands in favor of one responsible for the close-in defense of the continental US and two more on the Atlantic Coast and on the Pacific Coast, to operate overseas.
Critical to a sweeping revision would be changes in the Pacific Command (PACOM) which is headquartered in Hawaii. It is the largest of the US commands and may be the largest geographic command in the world, stretching from the West Coast of the US across the Pacific and Indian oceans to the east coast of Africa.
A key decision would be the place of security relations with India in the US scheme of things. There are three possibilities:
The “status quo,” in which India remains in PACOM and arch-rival Pakistan remains in the province of Central Command (CENTCOM). Advocates of this position argue that the present setup works and it would be better to keep separate the relations with nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, as is done with China in PACOM and Russia in the European Command. Officers in each command work constantly with their counterparts in the other command.
The second possibility is moving India and several smaller South Asian nations out of PACOM’s purview to the domain of CENTCOM. Advocates of this idea say that shrinking PACOM would help overcome the “tyranny of distance” in the region and ease operational control. It would also ease dealing with the diverse cultures of East and Southeast Asia, and would permit PACOM to focus more on China, potentially a powerful adversary.
However, others say Pakistan should be shifted from CENTCOM to be in the same command as India. Advocates say that every decision about one must take the other into account. Moreover, Pakistan is a client of China and moves that PACOM plans vis-a-vis China must consider Pakistan. Because Pakistan is so connected with Afghanistan, it too should be absorbed into PACOM.
US President Barack Obama’s administration’s decisions on these issues may tell the world how serious the US is about its plans to “pivot” toward Asia.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.