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Pentagon shakeup means more civilian oversight for special operations

More than three years after Congress mandated that the Defense Department elevate its civilian head of special operations to the same level as a military service secretary, that order has finally been carried out.

Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller on Wednesday signed a memo realigning the assistant defense secretary for special operations/low-intensity conflict to report directly to him, as the Army, Navy and Air Force secretaries currently do.

“I also want to highlight that this particular change has been analyzed, debated and refined over the course of the past 30 years,” Miller said during a ceremony at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

There’s currently no confirmed official in the role. The current acting ASD SO/LIC, Ezra Cohen-Watnick also became the acting defense under secretary for intelligence on Nov. 10. Joseph Tonon is performing the duties of the principal deputy ASD SO/LIC.

Congress created the ASD/SOLIC with the 1987 National Defense Authorization Act, when it unified the services' special operations elements with their own combatant command, Special Operations Command.

But in the intervening years, officials on both the uniformed and civilian sides of the house lamented that ASD SO/LIC, which is housed within the office of the defense undersecretary for policy, didn’t have enough authority or direct communication with the defense secretary to effectively manage and advocate for special operations forces.

SOCOM, in some ways, operates as both a combatant command and its own service, but without a civilian responsible for its manning, training and equipping.

Retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who commanded SOCOM from August 2014 to March 2016, told Military Times in an email that Miller’s move “is probably good for SOF/SOCOM because it takes it out from under OSD-Policy and it may help with getting action on some of the more important budgetary and conceptual issues that SOCOM will be dealing with.”

That is especially important as the Pentagon’s priorities have shifted, Votel said.

“As SOCOM confronts the dual challenges of continuing to keep pressure on terrorist networks and contribute to Great Power Competition it will confront decisions on maintaining legacy [counterterror] systems versus investing in areas needed for” great power competition, said Votel. “Likewise, as they look at the roles that SOF plays in the GPC — there will be undoubtedly be policy discussions” and “having senior policy oversight will be helpful with all of this.”

In a Twitter thread, Votel’s successor at SOCOM, retired Army Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas, called the move “both not a big deal and an ill timed, understaffed decision.”

The reason, Thomas said, who commanded SOCOM from March 2016 to March 2019, is that such changes are complicated “with profound implications for DOD, ironically, demonstrated with the recent roll out of SPACECOM which is still a work in progress. Decision should not be made/implemented by a bunch of ‘acting’s‘ shooting from the hip.”

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Nagata, a former commander of Special Operations Command Central who served most recently as director of the National Counterterrorism Center’s Directorate of Strategic and Operational Planning, told Military Times that the change is overdue because of how much SOCOM has grown in size and strategic importance since its inception.

“An underlying problem, in my humble opinion, that needs to be addressed, is the inability of an assistant secretary of defense to discharge the larger and larger responsibility of civilian oversight of policy, advocacy and support and the service secretary-like oversight on acquisition and procurement,” Nagata, now a strategic advisor for CACI, said. “SOCOM has not remained the same organization. It has grown not just in size, but in scope of missions and political and strategic importance. SOCOM and the SOF enterprise is not like anything we have seen before and an assistant secretary can’t keep up with that change.”

The 2017 NDAA sought to remedy that by elevating the position and cutting out the bureaucracy between ASD SO/LIC and SECDEF, but it has taken years for DoD to put it into practice.

“We’ve laid out many reasons for this, but essentially it comes down to this: the current structure doesn’t provide sufficient civilian oversight to SOF," retired Col. Stu Bradin, a former Special Forces officer and president of advocacy group Global SOF Foundation, told Military Times on Wednesday. "And given that the reduction in troops in Iraq and Afghanistan means that the ‘residual’ force in those places will be SOF, this is a good time to get it right.”

A senior defense official declined on Tuesday to specify which kinds of troops would stay in Afghanistan after troop levels are reduced to 2,500 next year, between the special operations counter-terrorism and conventional train-advise-assist missions they have been fulfilling.

As recently as May, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper updated lawmakers in writing on the progress of implementing the 2017 NDAA, including exploring options for creating a deputy ASD SO/LIC, and drawing up guidance for widespread distribution on ASD SO/LIC’s roles and responsibilities.

“I agree that empowered civilian leadership is integral to the Department’s success, and I remain committed to institutionalizing the reforms taken under section 922,” he wrote.

Regardless of the intent or timing of the move, the bottom line is that it may not make much difference for long.

While he said he welcomes the change, Nagata, the former SOCCENT commander, said it remains to be seen whether it will last in the incoming Biden administration under a new defense secretary.

“It is easy to imagine people inside and outside the Pentagon not wanting this change to be durable, but want revert back to way it has been, even if does good,” he said.

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