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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Unified Command Plan and Combatant Commands: Background and Issues for Congress

Andrew Feickert
Specialist in Military Ground Forces

The Unified Command Plan (UCP) and associated Combatant Commands (COCOMs) provide operational instructions and command and control to the Armed Forces and have a significant impact on how they are organized, trained, and resourced—areas over which Congress has constitutional authority. The UCP is a classified executive branch document prepared by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) and reviewed and updated every two years that assigns missions; planning, training, and operational responsibilities; and geographic areas of responsibilities to COCOMs. Functional COCOMs operate world-wide across geographic boundaries and provide unique capabilities to geographic combatant commands and the Services while Geographic COCOMs operate in clearly delineated areas of operation and have a distinctive regional military focus. There are currently nine COCOMs:

  • USSOCOM: U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base, FL. 
  • USSTRATCOM: U.S. Strategic Command, Offutt Air Force Base, NE. 
  • USTRANSCOM: U.S. Transportation Command, Scott Air Force Base, IL. 
  • USAFRICOM: U.S. Africa Command, Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany. 
  • USCENTCOM: U.S. Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, FL. 
  • USEUCOM: U.S. European Command, Patch Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany. 
  • USNORTHCOM: U.S. Northern Command, Peterson Air Force Base, CO. 
  • USPACOM: U.S. Pacific Command, Camp H.M. Smith, HI. 
  • USSOUTHCOM: U.S. Southern Command, Miami, FL. 

This report provides information on the history, mission, and operational considerations for each of these organizations as well as a brief discussion of current issues associated with the UCP and these commands.

The origins of the UCP and COCOMs are rooted in World War II. After the war, U.S. leaders, taking advantage of the lessons learned in both theaters, initiated a series of legislative changes that resulted in the current UCP process and COCOM construct.

The UCP and COCOMs are covered under Title 10 - Armed Forces; Subtitle A - General Military Law; Part I–Organization and General Military Powers; Chapter 6–Combatant Commands. These provisions detail the responsibilities and authorities of COCOMs as well as legal requirements related to the UCP.

Potential issues for Congress include the implications of a strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region. Another issue is whether there is a need for greater interagency involvement in the UCP development process. A possible area for congressional concern is if Geographical COCOMs have made U.S. foreign policy “too militarized.” Some have also suggested there might be a need for separate COCOMs apart from the current nine to better address emerging regional and ethnic alignments as well as emerging threats such as cyber warfare. Finally, if Congress believes the current COCOM construct does not meet contemporary or future security requirements, there are proposals for alternative organizational structures that might prove more effective.

Date of Report: January 3, 2013
Number of Pages: 72
Order Number: R42077
Price: $29.95

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