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Defense > 12. Combatant Command Headquarters Costs

The Department of Defense could potentially achieve tens of millions or more in cost savings annually if it (1) more systematically evaluates the sizing and resourcing of its combatant commands and (2) conducts a more comprehensive analysis of options for the location of U.S. Africa Command's headquarters.

Why This Area Is Important

To perform a variety of missions around the world, the Department of Defense (DOD) operates six geographic combatant commands that have thousands of headquarters personnel who assist in coordinating the department’s military operations in combating transnational terrorism, building foreign partner nations’ military capabilities, and conducting international disaster-relief efforts and noncombatant evacuations.[1]  Each geographic combatant command has military service component commands assigned to it and may include subordinate unified commands and joint task forces.  Each of the units assigned to the combatant commands also has staff to support the combatant commands in conducting their operational missions. By fiscal year 2012, mission and headquarters-support costs[2] at five of DOD’s geographic commands[3] and their supporting components had grown to almost $1.7 billion:  $1.1 billion for the combatant commands’ headquarters and about $604 million for the service component command headquarters that support the combatant commands.[4]  

[1]DOD has nine combatant commands, each with an assigned geographic region or assigned function.  The six geographic commands, which have defined areas of operation and have a distinct regional military focus, are U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Central Command, U.S. European Command, U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Pacific Command, and U.S. Southern Command. The three functional commands, which have unique capabilities and operate worldwide, are U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. Strategic Command, and U.S. Transportation Command.

[2]Mission and headquarters-support costs reflect the costs for civilian personnel and contract services, among other costs for operations and maintenance. This does not include the costs associated with military personnel basic pay and allowances and other military personnel costs.

[3]GAO did not include U.S. Central Command and its service component commands in its May 2013 review due to their responsibilities to support military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past several years.

[4]Mission and headquarters-support costs in this report section are in constant fiscal year 2012 dollars. Costs were adjusted for inflation using the deflator for DOD total obligation authority by appropriation title-operation and maintenance, excluding the defense health program.

What GAO Found

In May and September of 2013, GAO published reports that identified ways in which DOD could save millions of dollars by appropriately sizing and resourcing its combatant commands and by relocating one of the combatant commands’ headquarters to the United States.  GAO also made several recommendations suggesting ways in which DOD could improve the data it collects to enable DOD to make better management decisions and fully justify decisions to better ensure that resources are properly matched to the department’s priorities.

In May 2013, GAO found that the number of authorized military and civilian positions and the cost of mission and headquarters-support had grown considerably over the past decade at the five DOD regional combatant commands GAO reviewed.[1]  This growth was driven by the establishment of U.S. Northern Command in fiscal year 2003 to focus on homeland defense and U.S. Africa Command in fiscal year 2008 to focus on the African continent. GAO’s analysis of the five commands found that authorized military and civilian positions increased by about 50 percent from fiscal years 2001 through 2012, from 6,800 to more than 10,100.  From fiscal years 2008 through 2012, the number of positions at the separate Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy component commands that support each combatant command had also increased by more than 30 percent.[2]  Mission and headquarters-support costs for the five geographic commands more than doubled from fiscal years 2007 through 2012, to about $1.7 billion:  $1.1 billion for the geographic commands and another $604 million for the supporting commands in fiscal year 2012.  

DOD has taken some steps to manage the combatant commands’ resources, such as establishing baselines for the number of major DOD headquarters activity positions[3] at each geographic and functional combatant command and reducing personnel and consolidating joint task forces at several commands to better align available resources with current missions. However, GAO found four primary weaknesses in DOD’s management of combatant command resources that challenge the department’s ability to make informed decisions.  As a result, DOD cannot be assured that the commands are properly sized to meet their assigned missions or that the commands can identify opportunities to carry out those missions more efficiently.

  • First, DOD has not periodically evaluated the commands’ authorized positions to ensure that they are still needed to meet the commands’ assigned missions.  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 1001.01A, Joint Manpower and Personnel Program, outlines a process for determining and validating joint manpower requirements at the commands, but focuses on requests for additional positions or nominal changes in authorized positions rather than a review of the commands’ existing size and structure.[4]
  • Second, the combatant commands are inconsistent in their use of the existing personnel management systems to identify and track their total assigned personnel.[5] DOD identified the Electronic Joint Manpower and Personnel System as the system of record to manage manpower and personnel; however, GAO found differences across the commands in how they use the system to manage assigned personnel.
  • Third, DOD lacks visibility and oversight over the size and structure of the service component commands’ authorized manpower and number of assigned personnel that would enable it to determine whether some functions at the combatant commands duplicate functions performed by service component command personnel. Joint Publication 1-0, Joint Personnel Support, identifies the importance of having reliable data on all personnel within a geographic combatant command’s area of responsibility for visibility of personnel and for effective planning.[6] Further, GAO’s previous work on human capital management has highlighted the need for agencies to have valid, reliable data and be aware of the size of their workforce; its deployment across the organization; and the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for the agency to pursue its mission.[7]
  • Fourth, DOD’s annual budget documents do not provide transparency into the resources directed to each combatant command to enable congressional oversight. Volume 2A, chapter 1 of DOD’s Financial Management Regulation 7000.14-R, states that the military departments must ensure adequate visibility over the resources of combatant command-directed missions and other costs for each operation and maintenance-funded command.[8] Further, according to Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government, reliable financial reporting, including reports on budget execution, financial statements, and other reports for internal and external use, is important for determining whether agencies’ objectives are achieved.[9] The military departments’ budget documents identify the overall authorized military positions, civilian and contractor full-time equivalents, and mission and headquarters-support funding to support the combatant commands but do not provide these details by command.

In a second report, published in September 2013, GAO found that DOD’s decision to maintain the headquarters for the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in Germany was not well-supported by DOD’s analysis.  When AFRICOM was created in October 2007, DOD temporarily located its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, with the intent of selecting a permanent location at a later date.  However, in 2013, DOD decided to keep AFRICOM headquarters in Germany because the commander had determined that the operational benefits of staying in Stuttgart, which is closer to Africa, outweighed the benefits of moving to the United States. 

GAO’s review found that this decision was not supported by a comprehensive and well-documented analysis that balanced the operational benefits and costs of the options available to DOD.  DOD’s 2012 study that accompanied the decision did not fully explain the decisions that were made to forego a savings of between $60 million and $70 million annually that would result from moving the headquarters to the United States. For example, DOD’s 2012 study of potential locations listed several factors to be considered when determining where to place a combatant command headquarters, ranking two of these factors—access to the area of responsibility and access to service components—as critical.  However, little support exists showing how these factors were weighted relative to each other or to the other factors.  Moreover, the study described how a small headquarters element deployed in AFRICOM’s area of responsibility might mitigate operational concerns about AFRICOM’s headquarters being further from Africa if it were moved to the United States, but the study was silent about why this mitigation plan was not deemed a satisfactory option. 

In discussions with GAO, officials from the U.S. Central and Southern Commands—both of which are located in Florida—stated that they had successfully overcome any negative effects of having a headquarters in the United States by maintaining a presence in their areas of operation.  However, neither the analysis nor the letter announcing the decision to retain AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart explains why operational factors outweighed the possibility of saving about $60 million to $70 million annually by moving the headquarters to the United States. Moreover, the study estimated that such a move may create up to 4,300 jobs, with several hundred million dollars a year in local economic impacts, but, according to DOD officials, this was not factored into the decision. 

Since GAO issued its September 2013 report, DOD has begun taking actions to increase the efficiency at its combatant commands while enabling them to continue to meet their missions.  In July 2013, the Deputy Secretary of Defense announced in a memorandum[10] to DOD components, including the combatant commands, that the Secretary of Defense had directed a 20 percent cut in management headquarters spending throughout DOD to include the combatant commands and service component commands.  The memorandum stated that, while the 20 percent cut applies to budget dollars, organizations would also strive for a goal of 20 percent reduction in the number of authorized civilian positions.  The memorandum stated that senior managers should ensure that cuts are made aggressively and as soon as possible, both to eliminate uncertainty for DOD employees and contractors and to maximize savings. 

The Deputy Secretary indicated that, generally, these cuts should be roughly proportional by year—with about one-fifth of the 20 percent cut in fiscal year 2015, another fifth in fiscal year 2016, and so on until fiscal year 2019.  In addition, the memorandum called on DOD organizations to strive for a 20 percent reduction in authorized military positions within headquarters staffs. In December 2013, DOD announced that the military services, combatant commands, and other headquarters organizations within the department were finalizing their reviews and plan to meet these reductions and that the department would submit the results of these reviews as part of the fiscal year 2015 President’s budget request. Released in March 2014, the budget stated that DOD’s efforts to reduce management headquarters staffs will result in savings of $5.3 billion through fiscal year 2019.

[1]For purposes of this report section, authorized positions refer to military and civilian positions that have been approved by DOD components for funding for a specific fiscal year. 

[2]The increases in authorized military and civilian positions do not include contractor personnel. Because the availability of data on the number of contractor personnel varied across the combatant commands and their corresponding service components, data were not available to calculate changes in contractor personnel over time.  According to DOD officials, the combatant commands were not required by DOD to maintain historical data on the number of contractor personnel. DOD has outlined its approach to account for contractors, but does not expect to fully account for contractors’ manpower until fiscal year 2016.

[3]DOD identifies major headquarters activities as those headquarters (and the direct support integral to their operation) whose primary mission is to manage or command the programs and operations of DOD and its components, and their major military units, organizations, or agencies. See Department of Defense, Instruction 5100.73, Major DOD Headquarters Activities (Dec. 1, 2007)(incorporating change of June 12, 2012). GAO’s prior work has found that DOD’s major headquarters activity data are not always complete and reliable; see GAO, Defense Headquarters: Further Efforts to Examine Resource Needs and Improve Data Could Provide Additional Opportunities for Cost Savings, GAO‑12‑345 (Washington, D.C.: March 21, 2012).

[4]See Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 1001.01A, Joint Manpower and Personnel Program (Oct. 1, 2010).

[5]For purposes of this report section, assigned personnel refers to military and civilian personnel assigned to fill authorized or temporary positions and other personnel performing contract services. 

[6]See Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Pub. 1-0, Joint Personnel Support (Oct. 24, 2011).

[7]GAO, A Model of Strategic Human Capital Management, GAO‑02‑373SP (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 15, 2002).

[8]See Department of Defense, Financial Management Regulation 7000.14-R, Volume 2A, Chapter 1, General Information (October 2008).

[9]GAO, Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government, GAO/AIMD‑00‑21.3.1 (Washington, D.C.: November 1999).

[10]Deputy Secretary of Defense Memorandum, 20% Headquarters Reductions (July 31, 2013).

Actions Needed

To help ensure that the geographic combatant commands are properly sized and resourced to meet their assigned missions and to improve the transparency of the commands’ authorized manpower, assigned personnel, and mission and headquarters-support costs, GAO recommended in May 2013 that the Secretary of Defense take the following four actions:

  • conduct a comprehensive, periodic evaluation of whether the combatant commands are sized and structured to efficiently meet assigned missions;
  • require the combatant commands to consistently identify, manage, and track all personnel, including those in the service component commands, in DOD’s personnel management system;
  • develop a process to gather information on authorized positions and assigned personnel at the service component commands; and
  • require information be provided in the budget documents submitted to Congress that detail the resources directed to each combatant command.

To help enable the department to meet its Africa-related missions at substantially reduced costs, GAO recommended in September 2013 that the Secretary of Defense conduct a more comprehensive and well-documented analysis of options for the permanent placement of the headquarters for AFRICOM, including documentation explaining how operational benefits are weighed against the costs. 

DOD may realize potential cost savings and efficiencies by taking the actions GAO recommended to help improve management and oversight of combatant command resources. As noted earlier, in July 2013 the Deputy Secretary of Defense indicated in a memorandum that DOD will be making a 20 percent reduction to management headquarters spending over 5 years. The memorandum also called on DOD organizations to strive for a goal of 20 percent reductions to authorized military and civilian staffs. While the Deputy Secretary of Defense’s memorandum indicated that DOD will seek to reduce headquarters resources by 20 percent, the memorandum did not identify the starting point for the budgetary and staff reductions, which makes it difficult to determine the extent of reductions made. However, based on GAO’s work examining the trends in geographic combatant command resources, GAO estimates that DOD could achieve up to $340 million in savings if the 20 percent reduction was applied to the $1.7 billion DOD used to operate and support the combatant and supporting commands in fiscal year 2012. If DOD also reduced the almost 10,700 authorized military positions GAO found were supporting the combatant and supporting commands’ headquarters, the department could reassign military personnel to other duties or realize additional savings in military personnel costs. In addition, based on GAO’s work examining DOD’s decisions regarding the location of AFRICOM’s headquarters, DOD’s estimates indicate that it could save $60 million to $70 million per year if the headquarters were relocated to the United States. Over 5 years, this would result in savings of $300 million to $350 million.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the reports listed in the related GAO products section.  For its May 2013 report, GAO obtained and analyzed data on combatant command resources, to include authorized positions and mission and headquarters-support costs, for five regional combatant commands and their service component commands, excluding the U.S. Central Command.  GAO also interviewed officials regarding the commands’ staffing and personnel policies and procedures for reported resources.  For its September 2013 report, GAO analyzed documents provided by and interviewed officials from the Office of the Secretary of Defense; the Joint Staff; and AFRICOM and other combatant commands. We calculated the estimated savings for the reductions based on our findings from our previous work, as described above. Table 10 in appendix IV lists the commands GAO identified that might have opportunities for costs savings or revenue enhancement.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on GAO’s May 2013 report on which this analysis is based, DOD agreed with three of GAO’s four recommendations and disagreed with one.  DOD concurred that the Secretary of Defense should track all personnel, implement a formal process to gather information on manpower, and require that more complete data be submitted to Congress on positions and funding for the commands.  DOD disagreed with GAO’s recommendation to require a comprehensive, periodic evaluation of whether the size and structure of the combatant commands efficiently meet assigned missions, stating that the combatant commands had already been reduced during previous budget reviews.  GAO’s May 2013 report acknowledged and described several of the actions DOD has taken to manage growth at its combatant commands.  However, GAO continues to maintain that these actions do not constitute a comprehensive, periodic review because DODs’ actions have not included all authorized positions at the combatant commands. 

In commenting on the September 2013 GAO report on which this analysis is based, DOD partially concurred with GAO’s recommendation, stating that the decision to keep AFRICOM headquarters in Germany was based primarily on military judgment, but that the department will perform additional analysis of the location of the headquarters if the Secretary of Defense deems it necessary.  GAO recognizes that military judgment can be difficult to quantify, but maintains that the department should conduct an analysis to provide a more complete explanation of how operational benefits and costs are weighed in the decision, especially in light of the considerable cost savings and benefits to the U.S. economy DOD could be foregoing.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to DOD for review and comment. DOD reviewed the report section and did not provide comments on this issue.

For additional information about this area, contact John H. Pendleton at (202) 512-3489 or