By BROCK VERGAKIS
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) -- Virginia's U.S. senators hope a recent federal report will reopen the possibility of moving the military's Africa Command from Germany to the United States, a move that could save the Defense Department tens of millions of dollars and provide an economic boost to any state that lands it headquarters
Africa Command covers the entire continent, with the exception of Egypt. When the Defense Department created AFRICOM in 2007, it temporarily located its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, with the goal of eventually setting up a permanent location in Africa. But those plans were scuttled primarily because of infrastructure costs and some nations' objection to a permanent U.S. military headquarters on African soil.
For years, officials in Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia have lobbied for the command and its 1,600 employees to move to their states. But this year, the Defense Department said it intended to keep AFRICOM in Germany. The department said it would be more effective there because of its proximity to Africa and shared resources with the U.S. European Command, also located in Stuttgart.
But a Government Accountability Office report released Monday says that decision wasn't supported by a comprehensive, well-documented analysis balancing the operational and cost benefits of various options available to DOD for AFRICOM's headquarters.
"I've been one of the biggest defenders of the Defense Department in terms of trying to mitigate sequestration," U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a telephone interview Thursday, referencing automatic budget cuts that took effect earlier this year. "But you know, this kind of lack of a smart fiscal decision really undermines my ability to defend DOD as being good fiscal stewards when they are not looking at these options."
Warner and the GAO report also noted that U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, and U.S. Southern Command, which oversees South America, are both located in Florida and overcame distance issues through an operational presence abroad and use of technology.
The GAO report also points to a 2012 DOD study that found that moving AFRICOM's headquarters to the United States would save $60 million to $70 million a year, and one-time relocation costs would be recouped in two to six years. Warner said that's money that could be put toward Navy ship repairs, much of which occurs in Virginia. He said choosing to keep AFRICOM in Europe shows a business as usual mentality that the nation can't afford in the financial circumstances it finds itself in.
That study also estimated that relocating to the U.S. could create up to 4,300 jobs, with a local economic impact of $350 million to $450 million.
"In sum, neither the analysis nor the letter announcing the decision to retain AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart explains why these operational factors outweighed the cost savings and economic benefits associated with moving the headquarters to the United States," the GAO report says. "Until the costs and benefits of maintaining AFRICOM in Germany are specified and weighed against the costs and benefits of relocating the command, the department may be missing an opportunity to accomplish its missions successfully at a lower cost."
Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., seized on the GAO report to urge a re-evaluation of the Defense Department decision, which was approved by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
"The reductions in housing and cost of living allowances, which add up to about $80 million for AFRICOM, would go a long way toward saving DoD resources at a critical time," their letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says.
Kaine and Warner requested a briefing from the Defense Department on the issue, while also touting the Hampton Roads region in southeast Virginia as a suitable site for AFRICOM's headquarters.
"What we had before was a logical business case, but I didn't have great data. Now, I've got the GAO with real data and I expect to get answers," Warner said.
The Hampton Roads region is already home to several major military commands, including the Navy's Fleet Forces Command, the Air Force's Air Combat Command and the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. The region also is host to NATO's Allied Command Transformation and was the home of U.S. Joint Forces Command before it was disestablished in 2011 as a cost-cutting move. Virginia officials have said the former JFCOM headquarters in Suffolk is already largely move-in ready for AFRICOM.
"Hampton Roads represents one of the largest concentrations of joint and service-unique military commands in the United States. The region offers joint installations, command-and-control resources, training and education facilities that could superbly support AFRICOM's mission," Warner and Kaine wrote.
In its response to the GAO report, the Defense Department said its 2012 study wasn't meant to be a comprehensive analysis to determine AFRICOM's optimal location. It said Panetta's decision was based largely on his commander's judgment, which the letter says is "not easily quantifiable."
The Defense Department response says it will conduct additional analysis on relocating AFRICOM's headquarters if Hagel orders it.