Africa Command chief would advise Panetta against moving headquarters

The general in charge of U.S. Africa Command (AfriCom) said Wednesday that shrinking Pentagon budgets would lead him to advise Defense Secretary Leon Panetta against moving its European headquarters.

Since AfriCom was formally established in October 2008, Pentagon officials and lawmakers have floated the idea of shifting its main hub from Stuttgart, Germany, to Africa or the United States.

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But U.S. officials are hesitant to have a permanent and high-profile U.S. military presence on African soil due to indigenous skepticism about such an arrangement, which has left no clear candidates for its permanent home.

Now, it looks as if the Pentagon’s shrinking budget — not political worries — might keep it in Stuttgart for longer than anticipated when the George W. Bush administration set up the organization.

“The money piece is perhaps more relevant,” Army Gen. Carter Ham, AfriCom commander, said Wednesday during a breakfast with reporters in Washington sponsored by the Center for Media and Security. “I’d have a pretty tough time in this fiscal environment going to Secretary Panetta and saying, ‘Hey, we oughtta spend a bunch of money to move the headquarters any place’ even if doing so might have some other benefits.

“Right now, in this environment, it’d really have to be a compelling reason to go back to the secretary and say, ‘We oughta spend a bunch of money to do this.’”

Still, Pentagon officials are getting ready to look into the matter.

The House-approved 2012 Pentagon authorization act would require the Defense Department to conduct a sweeping study of just where might be the best permanent location for the AfriCom hub.

The legislation calls for the Pentagon to deliver lawmakers a study by April 1 examining the “cost-benefit associated with moving the U.S. Africa Command headquarters from its current location to the United States,” according to a report that accompanied that legislation.

The House-ordered study also would require the department report back on the “strategic risk” associated with each possible headquarters home.

The House Armed Services Committee, which crafted the provision, “believes the headquarters of U.S. Africa Command should be located at an installation that provides the maximum military value to the realigned command and at the minimum cost required to implement the relocation,” according to the report.

While that provision is not yet law, Ham said the Office of the Secretary of Defense is “getting energized to do a real, no-kidding Africa Command basing study in anticipation of that [legislative] requirement.”

With both the Bush and Obama administrations reluctant to establish a permanent U.S. military presence on African soil, lawmakers have at times seized the opportunity to publicly push for the headquarters to be placed in their districts or states.

For instance, House Armed Services Committee members Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) used Ham’s appearance before the panel in April to deliver sales pitches for Charleston, S.C., and Atlanta, respectively.

Any time a major military facility such as a regional command organization’s headquarters comes to an area, it provides jobs and an economic boost.

Such an arrangement would not be unprecedented. U.S. Central Command, for instance, is headquartered in Tampa, Fla.

In its report, the HASC noted other basing arrangements also provide models that could be copied.

“The committee notes that a viable model exists to locate a geographic combatant command headquarters outside the respective area of responsibility and in the United States, as demonstrated by U.S. Central Command, U.S. Southern Command, and U.S. Pacific Command,” it stated. “The committee believes that this type of basing model is particularly relevant for U.S. Africa Command because of the sensitivities that many African nations may have with regard to a permanent U.S. combatant command on the African continent.”