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Effort to trim four-star commanders to have no impact at MacDill AFB

To improve military efficiency in the face of budget cuts and nimble adversaries, a congressional committee is taking aim at the number of generals and admirals.

But for the most part, the proposals won’t affect the commands headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

MacDill has plenty of top commanders — 23 among the 886 general and flag officers across the U.S. military — but only two are at the highest, four-star level that Congress has in the crosshairs. These are all full generals and admirals.

And even here, MacDill is seen as safe because its two four-stars head up four-star commands, known as unified combatant commands — U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. MacDill, in fact, is the only base in the continental U.S. with two of them.

The positions under the gun are the four-stars in smaller headquarters, called component commands.

Their ranks may undergo cuts as part of a $610 billion defense spending package proposed by the House Armed Services Committee. The committee recommends cutting five of them out of concern about “a top-heavy chain of command within the combatant commands,” according to the defense spending plan introduced by Texas Republican Mac Thornberry, committee chairman.

The current system adds unnecessary headquarters staff, creates distance between commanders and troops, and slows decisionmaking, according to Thornberry’s plan.

The full plan passed the Armed Services Committee this week by a vote of 60-2.

The move follows previous efforts to streamline military headquarters organizations, including reducing the size of staffs and eliminating tiers of management.

The number of general and flag officers has been growing faster than the enlisted population since 2001, according to a 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office.

There is no specific timeline in the legislation, which must go before the full House then to a conference committee to work it differences with the Senate’s defense spending plan.

After the Senate pass its version of the defense spending plan.

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At Centcom, which oversees U.S. military efforts in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, the four-star commander is Army Gen. Joseph Votel. At Socom, responsible for providing trained and equipped commandos, the four-star is Army Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas.

General and flag officers at lower ranks number 11 at Centcom and seven at Socom, including one stationed in Washington, D.C.

Also at MacDill, there are three general or flag officers with Special Operations Command Central, which oversees command operations in the Centcom region, and one at Marine Corps Forces Central Command or Marcent, the Centcom Marine component command and the only component command headquartered at MacDill.

Like all other Centcom component commands across the globe, Marcent is led by a three-star officer, currently Marine Lt. Gen. William Beydler.

Centcom’s Air Force component commander Lt. Gen. Charles Brown is stationed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar and has been nominated to take over for retired Vice Adm. Mark Fox as Centcom’s deputy commander at MacDill.

There are two additional commands reporting to Centcom that oversee current military operations.

They are the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, a four star command run by Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., and Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the so-called Islamic State jihadi group, a three star command, run by Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland.

Socom’s Air Force and Army component commands are led by three-star officers, while its Navy and Marine components are two-star commands. Joint Special Operations Command, also under Socom and headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, is a three-star command run by Army. Lt. Gen. Scott Miller.

There are also 11 foreign military general and flag officers stationed at MacDill, assigned to the Centcom international coalition.

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Across the U.S. military, four-star commanders head each of six geographic combatant commands, like Centcom, as well as three functional combatant commands like Socom.

U.S. Pacific Command has three four-star component commanders, U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command share two and U.S. Strategic Command has one.

The House committee spending plan includes language that would make U.S. Cyber Command its own combatant command. It is currently a four-star component command of Stratcom.

Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Ash Carter, declined comment on the proposed cuts, citing the Pentagon’s policy against discussing pending legislation.

The committee’s efforts to trim the number of four-star commanders, a reduction of about 13 percent, have support from groups as disparate as the Project on Government Oversight and the Heritage Foundation.

“We share Congress’s concerns with a top-heavy military reducing military effectiveness and are glad to see Congress acting on this issue,” said Mandy Smithberger with the Project on Government Oversight.

“There may be a good reason” for the effort to reduce the number of general and flag officers, as well as the military’s civilian workforce, said the Heritage Foundation’s Justin Johnson.

“But don’t let the budget drive the situation,” Johnson said. “It is not about saving dollars, instead, it is about mission effectiveness. If getting rid of some of the general officers increases mission effectiveness, we are all for it. But if it is just an attempt to save money, let’s be careful.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story had the wrong line of authority for Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

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