Unified Combatant Command

Unified Combatant Command
Areas of Responsibility
President George W. Bush and Secretary Robert Gates meeting with the joint chiefs and combatant commanders.

A Unified Combatant Command (UCC) is a United States Department of Defense command that is composed of forces from at least two Military Departments and has a broad and continuing mission.[1] These commands are established to provide effective command and control of U.S. military forces, regardless of branch of service, in peace and war.[2] They are organized either on a geographical basis (known as "Area of Responsibility", AOR) or on a functional basis. UCCs are "joint" commands with specific badges denoting their affiliation.

The Unified Command Plan (UCP) is updated annually in conjunction with the DoD Fiscal Year and can modify areas of responsibility or combatant command alignments or assignments.[3] As of September 2011, there are nine Unified Combatant Commands as specified in Title 10 and the latest annual UCP. Six have regional responsibilities, and three have functional responsibilities.

Each unified command is led by a Combatant Commander (CCDR),[4] who is a four-star general or admiral. CCDRs exercise combatant command (COCOM), a specific type of nontransferable command authority over assigned forces, regardless of branch of service, that is vested only in the CCDRs by federal law in 10 U.S.C. § 164.[5] The Chain of Command for operational purposes (as per the Goldwater–Nichols Act) goes from the President through the Secretary of Defense to the Combatant Commanders.



The current system of unified commands in the US military emerged during World War II with the establishment of geographic theaters of operation composed of forces from multiple service branches that reported to a single commander who was supported by a joint staff.[6] A unified command structure also existed to coordinate British and American military forces operating under the Combined Chiefs of Staff, which was composed the British Chiefs of Staff Committee and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff.[7] In the European Theater, Allied military forces fell under the command of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). After SHAEF was dissolved at the end of the war, the American forces were unified under a single command, the US Forces, European Theater (USFET), commanded by General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower. Unified commands in the Pacific Theater proved more difficult to organize as neither General of the Army Douglas MacArthur nor Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz were willing to become subordinate to the other. Nevertheless, the Joint Chiefs of Staff continued to advocate in favor of establishing permanent unified commands, and President Harry S. Truman approved the first plan on 14 December 1946.[8] Known as the "Outline Command Plan," it would become the first in a series of Unified Command Plans.

Although not part of the original plan, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) also created specified commands that had broad and continuing missions but were composed of forces from only one service.[9] Examples include the U.S. Naval Forces, Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean and the US Air Force's Strategic Air Command. Like the unified commands, the specified commands reported directly to the JCS instead of their respective service chiefs.[10] Although these commands have not existed since the Strategic Air Command was disestablished in 1992, federal law still contains a provision authorizing the President to establish a new specified command.[11]

Under the original plan, each of the unified commands operated with one of the service chiefs (the Chief of Staff of the Army or Air Force, or the Chief of Naval Operations) serving as an executive agent representing the Joint Chiefs of Staff.[12] This arrangement was formalized on 21 April 1948 as part of a policy paper titled the "Function of the Armed Forces and the Joint Chiefs of Staff" (informally known as the "Key West Agreement").[13] The responsibilities of the unified commands were further expanded on 7 September 1948 when the commanders' authority was extended to include the coordination of the administrative and logistical functions in addition to their combat responsibilities.[14]

The Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 clarified and codified responsibilities that commanders-in-chief (CINCs) and their predecessors (theater or area commanders) had undertaken since World War II, and which were first given legal status in 1947.

The U.S. Atlantic Command became the Joint Forces Command in the 1990s after the Soviet threat to the North Atlantic had disappeared and the need rose for an integrating and experimentation command for forces in the continental United States. The Joint Forces Command was disbanded on August 3, 2011 and its components placed under the Joint Staff and other Combatant Commands.

Regional CINCs were created in order to have a local supreme commander who could exercise unified command and control across service boundaries, ideally eliminating or diminishing interservice rivalries. CINCs reported directly to the United States Secretary of Defense, and through him to the President of the United States. One of the best known CINCs was Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) during Operation Desert Storm.

On 24 October 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced that in accordance with Title 10 of the US Code (USC), the title of "Commander-in-Chief" would thereafter be reserved for the President, consistent with the terms of Article II of the United States Constitution. Thereafter, the military CINCs would be known as "combatant commanders", as heads of the Unified Combatant Commands.

The sixth geographical combatant command for Africa (USAFRICOM) was approved and established in 2007. It operated under U.S. European Command during its first year. It transitioned to independent Unified Command Status October 2008. In 2009, it focused on synchronizing hundreds of activities inherited from three regional commands that previously coordinated U.S. military relations in Africa.[15]

Unified Combatant Commands


Emblem Command Acronym Role Established Headquarters
Africom emblem 2.svg United States Africa Command USAFRICOM Geographic 2007-10-01 Kelley Barracks, Germany
USCENTCOM.jpg United States Central Command USCENTCOM Geographic 1983-01-01 MacDill Air Force Base, Florida
USEUCOM.svg United States European Command USEUCOM Geographic 1947-03-15 Patch Barracks, Germany
United States Northern Command emblem.png United States Northern Command USNORTHCOM Geographic 2002-10-01 Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado
United States Pacific Command.png United States Pacific Command USPACOM Geographic 1947-01-01 Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii
USSOUTHCOM emblem.jpg United States Southern Command USSOUTHCOM Geographic 1963-06-06 Miami, Florida
Special Operations Specops Army.svg United States Special Operations Command USSOCOM Functional 1987-04-16 MacDill Air Force Base, Florida
USSTRATCOM.svg United States Strategic Command USSTRATCOM Functional 1992-06-01 Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska
US-TRANSCOM-Emblem.svg United States Transportation Command USTRANSCOM Functional 1987-07-01 Scott Air Force Base, Illinois


Since the first Unified Command Plan was approved on 14 December 1946, several unified and specific combatant commands have been established and disestablished.[16] Some of the commands existed before they were officially established as unified or specified commands, or continued to exist after they were disestablished.

Emblem Command Acronym Type Established Disestablished Comments
SAC Shield.svg Strategic Air Command SAC Specified 1946-12-14 1992-05-31 Duties assumed by USSTRATCOM
ALCOM.gif Alaska Command ALCOM Unified 1947-01-01 1975-06-30 Became part of USPACOM
Far East Command FECOM Unified 1947-01-01 1957-07-01 Became part of USPACOM
United States Southern Command Logo.svg Caribbean Command CARIBCOM Unified 1947-11-01 1963-06-06 Replaced by USSOUTHCOM
Group logo.gif U.S. Naval Forces, Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean NELM Specified 1947-11-01 1963-12-01 Became part of USEUCOM
Atlantic Command LANTCOM Unified 1947-12-01 1999-09-31 Replaced by USJFCOM
US Northeast Command USNEC Unified 1950-10-01 1956-09-01
United States Air Forces in Europe.svg US Air Forces, Europe USAFE Specified 1951-01-22 1956-07-01 Became part of USEUCOM
Continental Air Defense Command CONAD Unified 1954-09-01 1975-06-30 Replaced by ADCOM
US Strike Command USSTRICCOM Unified 1962-01-01 1971-12-31 Reorganized as USREDCOM
USAF - Aerospace Defense Command.png Aerospace Defense Command ADCOM Specified 1975-07-01 1979-10-01 Duties assumed by Air Defense, Tactical Air Command (ADTAC)
US Readiness Command USREDCOM Unified 1972-01-01 1987-04-15 Replaced by USSOCOM
USAF - Military Airlift Command.png Military Airlift Command MAC Specified 1977-02-01 1987-07-01 Duties as a specified command assumed by USTRANSCOM; later replaced by Air Mobility Command in 1992
United States Space Command emblem.gif US Space Command USSPACECOM Unified 1985-09-23 2002-10-01 Duties assumed by USSTRATCOM
JFCOM Logo.jpg United States Joint Forces Command USJFCOM Unified 1999-10-01 2011-09-03 Duties assumed by the Joint Staff and various other Combatant Commands

Combatant Commanders

Each combatant command is headed by a four-star general or admiral recommended by the Secretary of Defense, nominated by the President, confirmed by Congress and appointed by the President. The Goldwater-Nichols Act and its subsequent implementation legislation also resulted in specific Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) requirements for officers before they could attain flag or general officer rank thereby preparing them for duty in Joint assignments such as UCC staff or Joint Chiefs of Staff assignments, which are strictly controlled tour length rotations of duty. However, in the decades following enactment of Goldwater-Nichols, these JPME requirements have yet to come to overall fruition. This is particularly true in the case of senior naval officers, where sea duty/shore duty rotations and the culture of the naval service has often discounted PME and JPME as a measure of professional development for success. Although slowly changing, the JPME requirement still continues to be frequently waived in the case of senior admirals nominated for these positions.[17]

The operational chain of command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commanders of the Combatant Commands. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may transmit communications to the Commanders of the Combatant Commands from the President and Secretary of Defense and advises both on potential courses of action, but the Chairman does not exercise military command over any combatant forces. Under Goldwater-Nichols, the service chiefs (also four stars in rank) are charged with the responsibility of the "strategic direction, unified operation of combatant commands, and the integration of all land, naval, and air forces in an efficient "unified combatant command" force. Furthermore, the Secretaries of the Military Departments (i.e. Secretary of the Army, Secretary of the Navy, and the Secretary of the Air Force) are legally responsible to "organize, train and equip" combatant forces and, as directed by the Secretary of Defense, assign their forces for use by the combatant commands. The Secretaries of the Military Departments also do not exercise any operational control over their forces.

Each combatant command can be led by a general or flag officer from any of the military services. Most commands have traditional service affiliations, but in recent years, non-traditional appointments have become more common. EUCOM was traditionally an Army command with USAF generals on occasion, but was held by a Marine from 2003 through 2006. CENTCOM was traditionally an Army and Marine command but William J. Fallon, commander from 2007 through 2008, was a Navy admiral. PACOM has always been commanded by a Navy admiral due to the wide expanse of ocean, although Air Force generals have been nominated for the post. U.S. Atlantic Command (USACOM) was also a traditional Navy assignment until it was successively commanded by Marine, Army, and Air Force generals, thereby becoming the first to have had commanders from all four services (USACOM was redesignated as JFCOM in 1999).[18] CENTCOM and SOUTHCOM were traditionally Army general positions until the Marines received their first CinC assignments. This led the way for General Pace to become the first Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and ultimately Chairman from the Marine Corps. CCDRs are strong candidates for either position.

Other changes and proposals

At some points, there have been proposals to create some sort of Reserve Affairs Worldwide Support command for the Reserve and National Guard of the United States. Also considered was the United States Medical Command which was proposed but then abandoned.


  1. ^ Joint Pub 1, p. GL-11.
  2. ^ Story, p. 2
  3. ^ DefenseLINK - Unified Command Plan
  4. ^ Joint Pub 1-02, p. 61.
  5. ^ Joint Pub 1, p. IV-4.
  6. ^ JCS (1985), p. 1
  7. ^ JCS (1977), p. 1
  8. ^ JCS (1977), p. 2
  9. ^ Naval Advancement
  10. ^ JCS (1977), p. 4
  11. ^ 10 U.S.C. 161
  12. ^ JCS (1977), p. 3.
  13. ^ JCS (1977), p. 5.
  14. ^ JCS (1977), p. 6.
  15. ^ AFRICOM FAQs
  16. ^ JCS (1977), p. 38
  17. ^ Holder and Murray, p. 86.
  18. ^ Joint Warfighting Center History


External links

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