DoD’s 9 Combatant Commands explained

A U.S. Air Force loadmaster assigned to the 15th Special Operations Squadron watches the sunset from the back of an MC-130H Combat Talon II during Exercise Emerald Warrior 16, May 12, 2016, at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Emerald Warrior is a U.S. Special Operations Command sponsored mission rehearsal exercise during which joint special operations forces train to respond to real and emerging worldwide threats. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew B. Fredericks)
A U.S. Air Force loadmaster assigned to the 15th Special Operations Squadron watches the sunset from the back of an MC-130H Combat Talon II during Exercise Emerald Warrior 16, May 12, 2016, at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Emerald Warrior is a U.S. Special Operations Command sponsored mission rehearsal exercise during which joint special operations forces train to respond to real and emerging worldwide threats. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew B. Fredericks.

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

If you’re in the military, you know what the “COCOMs,” or combatant commands, are. But for those who might be new to the Defense Department or who work outside of it, you might not.

There are nine combatant commands, six of which have geographic areas of responsibility (AOR). Each COCOM has a particular mission, and each may be involved in various operations or exercises (operations are various phases of a war or military engagement; exercises are routine or non-routine training that tests strategies and explores the effects of warfare without actual combat).

So what exactly do these COCOMs do? Here’s a quick explainer for each.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM):

CENTCOM’s AOR includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Syria and 15 other Middle East nations located in the central area of the world map.

The turmoil and conflict that continue to build in that region – ISIL, the Syrian civil war, Afghanistan – have made CENTCOM’s mission a challenging one. So the command is focused on using its global partnerships to build cooperation, respond to crises and deter and defeat all types of threats. It also supports regional development and the rebuilding of local security forces in areas that need to reestablish stability and prosperity.

The major missions for CENTCOM right now are the ones we hear about most: Operation Inherent Resolve, which aims to eliminate the ISIL threat; and Resolute Support, which supports the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.

U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM):

PACOM covers 36 nations in the Asia-Pacific and is home to more than 50 percent of the world’s population. It covers more of the globe than any other combatant command, includes the world’s busiest international sea lanes and is home to seven of the world’s largest standing militaries, as well as five declared nuclear nations. So, as you can imagine, keeping stability and prosperity there can be complex. PACOM’s mission is to promote security in those vitals areas (like in the South China Sea), yet encourage peaceful development, deter threats and respond to contingencies, such as disaster relief after the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.

Between the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Asia-Pacific rebalance, Pacific Command is getting a lot of attention.

Two of PACOM’s major biennial exercises are Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, and Talisman Saber/Sabre (depending on who hosts it). Taking place in and around Hawaii and the California coastline, RIMPAC is the world’s largest multinational maritime exercise (it included 26 nations this year) that promotes cooperative relationships critical to making sure the world’s sea lanes and oceans remain safe and secure. Talisman Sabre is a chance for our troops to get land, sea and air training across six locations in Australia, the Coral Sea and in Honolulu, Denver and Suffolk, Va., while giving them the valuable opportunity of working together on anything from combat missions to humanitarian efforts.

U.S. European Command (EUCOM):

You guessed it – this covers all of Europe, as well as part of the Middle East and Eurasia. EUCOM was created in the years after World War II, and it’s been an ever-changing environment since then. With the current refugee crisis and the continued battles in Afghanistan and against ISIL, EUCOM’s troops play the role of buffer and teacher.

EUCOM builds military relationships with our European allies to better support combat and counterinsurgency operations, cybersecurity and logistics. The more we help train the forces of partner nations, the more those troops can share the burden in worldwide conflicts.

EUCOM also provides humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and it’s ready for deployment during contingency operations – something the U.S. is obligated to do as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

A major focus of EUCOM right now is Operation Atlantic Resolve. Its goal is to demonstrate our continued commitment to peace and stability in the region and to the collective security of NATO, specifically in light of Russian intervention in Ukraine. It has helped augment the air, ground and naval presence in the region and enhanced previously scheduled military exercises.

U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM):

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led to NORTHCOM’s creation, and its mission seems pretty simple – to defend the homeland. However, its AOR also includes Mexico, Canada and the area extending about 500 nautical miles from the U.S. coast, which includes the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Aside from defending the U.S., the command supports civil missions, which include disaster relief, counter-drug operations and managing the aftermath of some terrorist actions. Surprisingly, it has few permanently assigned forces.

Red Flag is a series of Air Force field training exercises for U.S. forces that provide joint advanced aerial combat training, which includes bombing exercises. They take place at bases in Nevada and Alaska. On a completely different note, NORTHCOM is also in charge of NORAD’s Santa tracker, which started as a fluke but became a huge Christmas operation over the past 60 years.

U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM):

SOUTHCOM covers all of South America, Latin America (below Mexico) and countries in the waters surrounding those areas, including most of the Caribbean.

SOUTHCOM’s priorities are much like those of the others above – building relationships with partnering militaries, counterterrorism, disaster aid and contingency operations like evacuating U.S. citizens abroad and supporting mass migration operations. Another priority for SOUTHCOM, however, is the care and custody of detainees through Joint Task Force Guantanamo, as well as working to counter the illicit drug trade and other trafficking networks that are threats to U.S. security and basic human rights.

Panamax, which just concluded, is one of SOUTHCOM’s major annual exercises. It involves several countries focusing their efforts on ensuring the defense of the Panama Canal, which is critical to the free flow of trade throughout the world. There’s also Tradewinds, a multinational exercise that focuses on helping Caribbean nations better respond to natural disasters and thwart the drug trade.

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM):

Like EUCOM, AFRICOM is headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, not the U.S. It covers every country in Africa except Egypt (that’s part of CENTCOM), and it’s the newest command, having been established in October 2008.

AFRICOM’s core mission is to help African nations, the African Union and regional security organizations prevent and mitigate conflicts, neutralize threats and strengthen their own defense capabilities. That way, they’re better able to address their own security threats, which reduce threats to U.S. interests.

AFRICOM tends to play a supporting role in most operations, like Operation Onward Liberty, which supports U.S. security sector reform by mentoring and advising Liberia’s armed forces. But it also supports joint exercises like Cutlass Express, a maritime exercise focused on information-sharing and coordinating operations to counter piracy, narcotics trafficking and illegal fishing in East Africa.

The three other commands that don’t have a specific AOR are:

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM):

In short, this command is responsible for planning and conducting special operations like small-scale offensives, unconventional warfare, counterinsurgency operations and any specific activities directed by the presidents or defense secretary.

Emerald Warrior is an annual DoD exercise that allows U.S. special operations forces to train with several partner-nation militaries to strengthen their relationships, all while honing their air and ground combat skills that are focused on irregular warfare. This year’s event was in May and took place throughout the southeastern U.S.

U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM):

STRATCOM is responsible for command of U.S. nuclear capabilities, space and cyberspace operations, joint electronic warfare, global surveillance and reconnaissance, intelligence, global missile defense and combatting weapons of mass destruction.

Exercise Global Thunder is an annual STRATCOM training event that trains U.S. forces, assesses joint operational readiness, and verifies their ability to identify and mitigate attacks, specifically those pertaining to cyber, space, missile defense and nuclear readiness.

U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM):

TRANSCOM enables joint mobility missions, providing the DoD with a combination of transportation capabilities and assets, including trucks, trains, aircraft, ships and infrastructure.

Exercise Turbo Challenge tests TRANSCOM’s ability to respond to multiple simultaneous crises around the world. The exercise shares scenarios with other combatant command exercises, challenging TRANSCOM’s ability to balance the global priorities of sustaining U.S. forces, supporting other nations and evacuating Americans when needed – even when there’s civil unrest, equipment failure, port closures or other issues.