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Forecasting Centcom's next commander


The Wall Street Journal's Julian Barnes filed an interesting look at who might take over for Marine Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, what that may mean for the U.S. military future defense strategy, and how Tuesday's election results will affect the appointment.

Barnes suggests the Pentagon will turn to an Air Force general or Navy admiral. It would be only the second time a Navy admiral led CentCom and the first such appointment for an Air Force general since Centcom was stood up in 1983.

Leadership of the Middle East combatant command has traditionally passed back and forth between the Army and Marine Corps. However, Iran in the major variable in the region now that U.S. forces have moved out of Iraq and work to finish their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Leading Centcom is one of the top positions in the military and one the services jockey to attain. An Air Force general taking over CentCom would be a coup, especially considering how far behind the Air Force has fallen behind its sister services in terms of leading regional combatant commands. The Air Force currently commands none of them.

The Israeli military continues to posture toward an attack against Iran as Iran leadership refuses to relent on their nuclear program. An Israeli attack would force the U.S. to defend its staunch ally in the region. Such an engagement would focus heavily on air and sea power.

Defense analysts have said that for this reason it might make more sense to have an Air Force or Navy leader heading CentCom to provide that strategic perspective versus a Marine or Army general.

The analysts Barnes spoke to suggested Air Force Gen. Mike Hostage, head of Air Combat Command, and Navy Adm. Bill Gortney, head of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, led the pack of potential candidates to succeed Mattis. Hostage previously commanded CentCom's air component while Gortney used to command the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

As for an Army nominee, analysts told Barnes that Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the current Vice Chief of Staff and former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is the lead candidate.

Barnes wrote: "Mr. Obama's military strategy, released last January, emphasized the importance of naval and air forces over the use of conventional land forces. But Army Gen. Austin is well known to Mr. Obama, after leading U.S. forces in Iraq and executing the White House's drawdown plan without complaint."

Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has already shown a lean towards the Navy as he's surrounded himself with national security advisers with Navy backgrounds. A Romney win Tuesday could signal a shift toward Gortney taking over for Mattis.

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