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Senators push to have AFRICOM in Virginia

Virginia's two U.S. senators are reviving a push to relocate U.S. Africa Command from Germany to Hampton Roads after a new government study said moving it stateside could save as much as $70 milllion a year and create up to 4,300 jobs.

A Government Accountability Office report released Monday questioned a January decision by then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to permanently house the command, known as AFRICOM, in Stuttgart, Germany, saying there is insufficient evidence that the benefits of the European location outweigh the costs.

Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, sent a letter Tuesday to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urging him to re-examine Panetta's decision and to consider the Tidewater area instead. The senators asked for a Pentagon briefing on the issue.

"Hampton Roads represents one of the largest concentrations of joint and service-unique military commands in the United States," they wrote. "The region offers joint installations, command-and-control resources, training and education facilities that could superbly support AFRICOM's mission."

AFRICOM, which was created in 2008, is one of the Pentagon's six geographic combatant commands and oversees most military dealings on the continent. It is not located in Africa because of high costs and political sensitivities.

The command has about 1,600 staff members - roughly half military and half civilian - accompanied by about 3,900 dependents.

When the Pentagon was deciding in recent years where to locate the command - at first temporarily housing it in Stuttgart - some lawmakers, including Warner and then-Sen. Jim Webb, urged defense officials to consider southeast Virginia.

In 2011, when the Tidewater-based U.S. Joint Forces Command was dismantled, the senators and others argued that AFRICOM could easily move into the facilities left empty by JFCOM's departure.

Warner and Kaine said Tuesday that the Defense Department spent $373 million to construct buildings and communication infrastructure intended for JFCOM that could be used by AFRICOM.

Federal legislators from other states, including South Carolina and Georgia, have lobbied to have the command moved to their home turf.

The GAO report noted that a 2012 Defense Department study calculated that relocating AFRICOM stateside would save up to $70 million a year after recovering one-time moving costs.

AFRICOM would create up to 4,300 jobs and add as much as $450 million to the regional economy, the DoD study said.

But Army Gen. Carter Ham, then AFRICOM's commander, said in the same report that it was critical to stay close to the U.S. European Command - also in Stuttgart - and have easier access to Africa.

GAO officials wrote that they could not find any material to adequately explain why Ham's concerns outweighed the financial savings.

"Until the costs and benefits of maintaining AFRICOM in Germany are specified and weighed against the cost and benefits of relocating the command, the department may be missing an opportunity to accomplish its missions successfully at a lower cost," the report states.

It noted that U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, is headquartered in Tampa, Fla., and the U.S. Southern Command, which handles South America, is in Miami.

Given that 70 percent of AFRICOM's staff rarely travels, they "could be relocated to the United States without effect," the GAO states.

Army Lt. Gen. Robert Lennox, a deputy Defense Department director, said in an Aug. 27 letter attached to the GAO report that the decision not to put AFRICOM's headquarters in the U.S. was based on the combatant commanders' "military judgment which is not easily qualifiable."

It's up to Hagel, Lennox wrote, to decide whether the AFRICOM decision needs to be reviewed.
 

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