Answering the simple but difficult questions: What is (insert Combatant Command name)?

CJTF-HOA's Birthday GEN Fathi with MG Sattler

The other day I was sitting in a meeting with a partner nation Gendarmerie officer and I observed a single question which I can only imagine is one of the hardest questions to answer correctly for an AFRICA OSC.  What is (insert Combatant Command name)?  What is AFRICOM? What is CENTCOM? What is INDO-PACOM?  Now imagine that question was asked in French and you have to explain it in French.  How do you easily explain the organization of our military in Africa to our partner nations?

No other military in the world has geographical combatant commands, nor do they have component commands in the number and complexity that the United States has. Their militaries and their representatives in the partner nations work directly from their Joint Staff headquarters and Department of States to the Defense Attache in each country.  Some countries have military bases outside of their national borders.  In Africa specifically France, China, the U.S., Italy, Germany, and Japan have military bases and forces projected forward. Of these, only the U.S. forces work through a regional command, the rest report directly to their Joint Staffs or defense ministries.

Therefore, when you say “This is a program supported and approved by CENTCOM/AFRICOM/etc.” think about the context of that for your partner nation representative.  Even saying just combatant command and not CENTCOM/AFRICOM/etc. can still leave them confused. Some may think of it in a colonial context and wonder why the United States has a military command specifically for Africa. Is the United States preparing to invade Africa again as it did in the Second World War? (Note: actual question once asked of me by a partner nation General).  Sometimes this is further perceived from a colonial aspect and the partner nation person may ask: Where is the headquarters for CENTCOM/AFRICOM/etc. and do you want to put it in my country? (Note: this question just will not go away even though the headquarters of our combatant commands have all been stable in their current locations for more than a decade now.) Even more complex is explaining the relationship between the combatant command and its components. One General once asked me what types of units the U.S. Army (insert region) had and where are they stationed? The most complex would be to explain the National Guard State Partnership Program and its reporting chain of command, etc.

Perhaps leaving out the verbiage of combatant command would be easier and you could just say “my department of defense.” However, that would lessen the authority of the combatant commander and their responsibilities to the Secretary of Defense. You could further complicate the situation by saying something like “well this program is sponsored and approved by our Department of State, but executed through my combatant command.” I’ve found it best, especially when speaking in another language, to try to find a simple answer.  For example, saying something like: “CENTCOM/AFRICOM/etc. is the regional command for the United States. It is commanded by a four-star general who is responsible for all U.S. armed forces in (insert region).  He approves all programs that I execute.”

Lastly, the second difficult question you may regularly get is: “When will this be approved and when can we expect to start training?” If you choose to go into a description of the foreign military sales system or the counter-terrorism proposal process and do that in a foreign language, you may lose your partner nation’s representatives ability to comprehend things.  Simply saying something like the following is one way to keep it simple: “It can take up to a year for my combatant command to approve and fund this program, and another year to plan and deliver the training and order and deliver the equipment.”

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