As the command responsible of overseeing two wars, U.S. Central Command saw huge increases in personnel and budget at its MacDill Air Force Base headquarters after 9/11.
Since 2001, the command’s Tampa-based contingent of military and civilian personnel jumped 70 percent by 2013, to nearly 2,730, with another 1,300 positions allocated to its subordinate commands. Funding rose to almost a billion dollars the previous year, according to a recently released report by the Government Accountability Office mandated by Congress.
But with the war in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan drawing to a close, Centcom poses a vexing challenge for the Pentagon, according to the GAO.
On the one hand, it is responsible for one of the world’s most dangerous regions, including Syria, Iran and Egypt and isn’t about to close up shop just because one major ground war is over and the other will end in December. On the other hand, Centcom draws the bulk of its funds from money allotted for war — called overseas contingency funds — and the Pentagon has yet to figure out how to pay for future operations out of its base budget.
And therein lies the rub.
The House of Representatives recently passed a defense spending budget calling for nearly $500 billion in base budget and nearly $80 billion in war funding, which is, details aside, on par with what President Barack Obama requested. And the Senate is taking up the spending plan. But there is no guarantee, moving forward, that with all the downward spending pressures on the military and the reduction of forces in Afghanistan, that level of war funding will remain constant. Especially as Centcom is set to move from a war footing to a steady state of operations and reexamine its priorities.
Absent instructions from the Pentagon on how to pay for “enduring headquarters costs funded by overseas contingency operations appropriations” and a time frame to transition these costs to the Pentagon’s base budget, the Pentagon “may not be able to fully resource these activities once the funding decreases or ceases,” according to the GAO report. The report was compiled before Obama announced his decision to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan next year should, as expected, the winner of that nation’s presidential run-off sign a mutual security agreement with the United States.
And all this comes at a time when the command is preparing to cut its overall staff by 20 percent, as ordered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last fall in his Strategic Choice and Management Review plan. The plan lays out Hagel’s vision for how the Pentagon can cut as much as a trillion dollars from its budget over the next decade.
Officials from the Pentagon and Centcom did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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More than $800 million flowed into Centcom headquarters in the fiscal year ending last September. The bulk of that — nearly $600 million — was war funding, according to the GAO. And that represents a drop from the previous year — the peak of spending over a six-year period examined by the GAO — when Centcom headquarters received nearly a billion dollars, nearly $680 million of which was war funding. The war funding figures do not include what the Army and Air Force components spent, according to the GAO.
The bulk of the growth in personnel at the command was in authorized civilian positions, the GAO found, increasing six-fold since 2001 to about 1,120 by last year. By comparison, military personnel only increased 15 percent, to 1,610 positions over the same period. Overall, the percentage of civilians working at Centcom quadrupled, to 40 percent.
The Pentagon, according to the report, attributed that growth to “attempts to rebalance workload and become a cost-efficient workforce, namely by converting positions filled my military personnel or in-sourcing services performed by contractors to civilian positions.”
But authorized positions are only part of the picture, according to the GAO, which found that Centcom “relies heavily on temporary personnel and contractors to fulfill its mission requirements.”
The GAO says that there were about 550 temporary personnel at the command last year, most assigned to its headquarters directorates.
“According to Centcom officials, these temporary personnel do not fill any permanent authorized positions and are primarily responsible for supporting the command’s contingency operations in Afghanistan,” the report states.
The command also relies heavily on contractors, according to the report.
Centcom “reported having about 1,100 contractor personnel on hand” last year, the report states, adding that it has recommended for the past decade that the Pentagon “obtain better data on its contracted services and personnel to enable it to make more-informed management decisions, ensure department-wide goals and objectives are achieved and have the resources to achieve the desired outcomes.”
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Aside from its headquarters staff in Tampa, Centcom is made up of smaller commands from the services called component commands. And currently, it also has control of the Theater Special Operations Command called Special Operations Command Central, which will revert to control of U.S. Special Operations Command by 2016.
All told, there are nearly 6,000 personnel, with about 5,000 in Tampa.
Centcom, which oversees U.S. military operations in most of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, already planned to trim about 1,500 jobs by the end of the year, when the bulk of U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan. The cuts were planned largely through attrition, Centcom officials said at the time.
To address Defense Secretary Hagel’s calls to reduce headquarters spending by 20 percent, the command will trim about 1,200 positions, according to the GAO report.
There will be 353 positions cut at Centcom, for a 13 percent reduction from the current force of 2,729, by 2019. There will be 47 civilian and 80 management positions and 226 intelligence directorate positions cut, according to the GAO. The rest of the cuts will come from the Air Force, Army, Marine and Navy component commands.
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Answering the GAO’s concerns about developing a plan to meld war funding into the base budget, the Pentagon said that it agrees that guidelines need to be developed and that the future of war funding has been a focus of program and budget reviews for the past three budget cycles.
However, because of enduring threats in the Centcom region and spending limits imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, the Pentagon said determining the future of war funding is not a “single point-in-time event.”
“This will be a multi-year event as the Department get a clearer picture of Centcom’s enduring mission(s) as well as the criteria and scope of future Overseas Contingency Operations,” the Pentagon said in its response to the GAO.
The Pentagon says that by the end of next month, it will offer guidance on how to transition enduring requirements from war funding to the base budget for the fiscal year beginning October 2015.