The Defense Secretary Closes a Command


Yes, we're in a recession and all, and yes, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has a mandate to cut at least 10 percent from the non-contingency defense budget over ten years. But the news that Gates has asked Gen. Ray Odierno to stand down on one of the Pentagon's major organizational groupings is a sign that Gates wants deeper changes. In the military, you're not supposed to shut down an entire command.

Officially the Joint Forces Command, JFCOM has nine directorates and 6,000 dedicated employees, and claims under its umbrella more than 1 million soldiers and civilians. Its HQ budget exceeds $240 million. Based in and around Norfolk, Virginia, it is known, primarily, for two major war-fighting-related tasks: it administers the Joint Personnel Recovery Office, or JPRA, which, in turn, administers the Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) program, which was reversed engineered during the Bush administration to help interrogators treat detainees more harshly. It also oversees the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command, which runs ad hoc task forces like Joint Task Force 425, which administers detainee operations at Parwan in Afghanistan, and the very important Joint IED Defeat Organization, which saves lives of soldiers and helps make sure that warfighters get IED countermeasures very quickly.

The Special Operations Command is a likely candidate to draw in JPRA, mainly because its soldiers use their SERE training more than those in other commands. The capacity to run task forces might be absorbed by the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs.

But to save money, JFCOM's functions need to be cut. And that means, probably, that the Pentagon will streamline a large number of professional development mini-colleges that officers attend in the latter stages of their careers. JFCOM is known for PowerPoints and studies; there will be fewer of those. It has served as sort of an in-house think tank for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No longer.

"Jointness" is a PowerPoint phrase, but it is ubiquitous in the Defense Department of today. It's hard for colonels and captains to advance without having served in some "Joint" role. Recently, the commander's post has been a stepping stone to some of the top jobs in the whole of the military. The departing commander, Gen. James Mattis, is now the head of the U.S. Central Command. In May, Gen. Odierno, then the commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq, was chosen to head JFCOM. Closing a command is not a small assignment, and Odierno's star will continue to rise if he's successful.

Congress will fight the Pentagon over the loss of thousands of jobs, particularly Virginia military jobs. Already, state and local elected officials are banding together to press the Pentagon to reconsider.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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