Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Combatant Commanders and OpTempo

The Navy constantly complains that it is underfunded and cannot meet the combatant commander’s requests.  As a result, Navy operations tempo (OpTemp) is far too high and critical ship maintenance is being deferred, training is being neglected, and readiness is degrading.  It seems obvious, doesn’t it, that if the combatant commander’s requests can’t be met then the Navy needs more funding?  Well, before we ship additional barges of money to the Navy, let’s think about this system a bit more.

Who or what are the combatant commanders (CC)?  You can readily find all the information you want on them on the Internet so I’m not going to bother providing any more than the bare bones highlights. 

The US Department of Defense has organized its command and control of the armed forces via regional or functional commands with a high ranking General or Admiral in charge of each command.  Here are the commands.

  • United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM)
  • United States Central Command (USCENTCOM)
  • United States European Command (USEUCOM)
  • United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM)
  • United States Pacific Command (USPACOM)
  • United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM)
  • United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)
  • United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM)
  • United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM)

Simplistically, the commanders assess the military needs of their area of responsibility and request the forces they feel are needed to meet those needs.  Pretty straightforward, right?  In order to continue this discussion, let’s recognize that none of us has any access to the combatant commander’s requests or the process of prioritizing and filling those needs.  Thus, any further discussion is pure speculation.  So, with that said, let’s speculate, apply some logic, and see what we come up with!

Let’s start by seeing what data and logic we have to work with, given that we just stated that we have no insight into the actual requests or process.

  • Here’s a truism:  You need more military assets to fight a war than you do to simply “patrol” a region.

  • Here’s a data point:  The only region in the world that is actively engaged in combat is the Middle East (USCENTCOM) and even that is limited and sporadic. 

  • Here’s a fact:  The Navy’s primary objective is to maintain or expand their budget share.

  • Here’s a fact:  The Navy’s resources and assets are fixed and finite.

Well, that’s not a lot to work with but let’s see what we can come up with.

Requests.  A reasonable person would assume that the CC’s only request those assets that are absolutely vital to meeting their responsibilities and our national security interests.  A reasonable person would be wrong.  The CC’s have no incentive to reign in their requests.  For example, we can request a policeman on every corner but we cannot afford to pay the taxes to make that happen.  Therefore, we don’t make the request.  The CC’s, however, simply make requests and do not have to directly deal with budget or resource issues.  If a CC wants a ship to patrol his area, he does not have to pay to build it and operate it.  Therefore, from the CC’s perspective, why not request a policeman on every corner? 

In fact, there is a perverse, reverse incentive to ask for more than you need.  The more you request, the more likely you are to get at least something.  If you really only need one ship, why not request ten?  Who knows, you might get two which is one more than you really need!

What’s the penalty for requesting, and receiving, more assets than you need?  There is none.  Again, there’s a perverse, reverse incentive.  The more assets you get, the more stability your region should have and the more “presence” you can demonstrate (presence accomplishes nothing but it is the Navy’s coin of the realm, currently).  The more stable the region, the better the CC looks.  So, it is in the best interest of the CC to request as many assets as he possibly can.

We noted that only a single region has any combat occurring and that is only a limited, sporadic combat.  So, why are the CC’s even requesting any assets?  Presumably, they want them for presence which we have repeatedly shown is a worthless mission and deterrence which is a questionable mission, at best.

As I noted, I have no access to the annual lists of CC requests so I can’t analyze their worth.  However, here is a list of “major” deployments as cited in a 2017 Bipartisan Policy Center report (1).

  • The war in Afghanistan
  • The continuing U.S. presence in Iraq
  • The fight against ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups
  • Various movements and operations in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jordan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Liberia, Libya, Niger, Poland, Senegal, Somalia, South Korea, South Sudan, Ukraine, and Uganda
  • The Ebola epidemic
  • Various disaster-relief missions
  • New force presence in Australia

Note that of the listed deployments, only two involve any degree of actual combat (Afghanistan and ISIS).  Two are 100% non-combat related (Ebola epidemic and disaster relief).  The remainder are presence missions which we’ve already established are worthless.  So, of the 7 listed deployments, 2 are completely non-combat and should not even be military missions.  Thus, right off the top, around 30% of the deployments shouldn’t be done!  This is an example of how many CC requests may be militarily worthless and accomplish nothing militarily other than to artificially and needlessly increase OpTempo and decrease maintenance and readiness.

Budget.  The Navy tells us that they just don’t have the assets to fulfill all the CC requests.  A reasonable person would assume, then, that the Navy must prioritize the CC requests and balance them against the maintenance, training, and readiness needs of the Navy when determining which CC requests to fill and which to ignore.  A reasonable person would be wrong.

The Navy views the CC requests as a godsend because every request is viewed as justification for more budget, more ships, and more aircraft.  It doesn’t matter to the Navy whether the requests are worthwhile or trivial.  All requests are equal when it comes to justifying budget.

In fact, the perverse, reverse incentive rears its ugly head, yet again, when it comes to requests.  The more requests the Navy fills, the faster the ships and aircraft wear out which means more budget, sooner, for new construction.  Thus, the Navy would rather fill CC requests, no matter how worthless, by extending deployments and deferring maintenance in order to be able to retire ships earlier due to lack of maintenance, thereby strengthening their case to Congress for increased funding.

The entire Combatant Commander setup is geared towards inflated requests, reverse incentives, and leads to premature wear and tear on the military.  There is nothing wrong with having a CC as a regional subject matter expert but having them divorced from the budgetary, maintenance, and readiness ramifications of their asset requests is a flawed system.


(1)Bipartisan Policy Center, “The Building Blocks of a Ready Military: People, Funding, Tempo”, Jan 2017,


  1. If our Navy magically had a 600 ship fleet this year, the FY2018 budget would demand more, citing shortages and demands from the combatant commanders. I remember once when our Navy complained that due to shortages, it was unable to keep sending nuclear attack subs on counter drug ops.

  2. From what I can see, a large chunk of CC requests are for TSC / partnership exercises such as Balikatan, Cobra Gold, and Bright Star. There is value in this training, but it takes up a lot of forces in the idea that we are building a relationship with the partner country. We have a very tight relationship with Canadians and British but we don't do these large scale exercises and prefer staff exchanges and school exchanges. If we are looking to cut the demands on the fleet, can we follow a similar route of schooling and staff exchanges instead of exercises with Live Fire units?

  3. One should not forget the anti drug operations performed by SOUTHCOM. Someone would say they are not war operations, but they do affect American people wellness directly.

    SOUTHCOM requires 23 ships according to

    Maybe that is a mission that could be performed by some of the Freedom-class LCS (The rest should replace the PCs at CENTCOM area of operations.)


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