Last week marked the 40th anniversary of Operation Eagle Claw, the failed mission to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran. Despite their patriotism and courage — “the guts to try” — the mission ended in tragedy and cost the lives of eight U.S. servicemen.
Since that fateful day, and especially since the 9/11 attacks, our special operations forces (SOF) have become the world’s preeminent special operations capability. Thanks to congressional foresight and generous support, our SOF enterprise (all of our military organizations, plus the dedicated civilians who support them) is a unique and powerful capability in our arsenal.
The 1987 Nunn-Cohen Act, vehemently opposed by many in the Pentagon, laid the foundation. It created both U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict (ASD(SO/LIC)). Is this the right construct, however, to ensure that our SOF sustains this dominance for the next 30 years?
To overcome a lack of support from the services, the Nunn-Cohen Act vested USSOCOM with dual roles as a “service-like” organization (with “man, train, equip” functions) and also as a combatant command. In continuity with our history and culture, Congress sought to ensure the new “service-like” organization would be under civilian control by simultaneously creating an assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict ASD(SO/LIC). Congress similarly vested ASD(SO/LIC) with dual responsibilities: providing “overall supervision (including oversight of policy and resources) of special operations activities.”
Since 1987, the global environment has changed in myriad ways, including the end of the Cold War, the rise of violent Islamists, the globalization of our economy, and the communications revolution. Today, we face a rising and revisionist China, an assertive Russia, and rogue regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang. The COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly have massive international and domestic consequences, including budgetary pressure on DoD. Regardless of our exceptional special operations capabilities today, it is undeniable that the SOF enterprise will face competing priorities both within DoD and the broader federal budget.
The SOF enterprise will face multiple internal and external challenges as they seek to maintain our competitive edge. This transformative challenge will not spare any aspect of the SOF enterprise: recruiting and retaining the right personnel; shaping and guiding culture and ethics; adapting organizations and training; securing funding; developing strategies and tactics to bolster partners and allies; obtaining the authorities and permissions needed to counter adversaries without the use of lethal force. Tough questions abound: what role should SOF play in the future? How should it be resourced? Are the current force structure, capabilities, and culture of SOF the right mix for this role in great power competition? If not, what changes are necessary?
While answers to these questions are imperative, it is also necessary to ask who is most responsible for providing the solutions and directing the SOF enterprise? Who is responsible for managing risk when considering difficult trade-offs? These critical and difficult decisions cannot be solely at the discretion of the uniformed military leadership. Reflecting on the continuing importance of special operations to U.S. national security, I believe we need an undersecretary for special operations and irregular warfare.
The current 1987 organizational construct served the nation well for decades but is now in need of change. Since 9/11, specifically, U.S. Special Operations Command has grown substantially. Today it boasts an annual budget of $13.6 billion and nearly 75,000 uniformed and civilian personnel. Meanwhile, the size and importance of ASD(SO/LIC) has diminished. Since the secretary of defense and undersecretary for policy must cope with myriad daily crises, they rarely devote even episodic attention to “service-like” issues for USSOCOM. In the absence of an empowered ASD(SO/LIC), the USSOCOM commander often ends up making critical decisions about SOF strategy, capability and force structure that should be made by civilian leaders. The net result is an inverted relationship runs counter to the concept of civilian oversight. It also runs counter to the law and the repeatedly expressed will of Congress.
In 2016, Congress began to recognize that the resources, access, and influence of the USSOCOM commander had significantly outpaced the ability of ASD(SO/LIC). The changes in DoD had deprived the SecDef of fully informed and unadulterated policy advice regarding the employment of SOF and management of associated risks. It had also robbed the USSOCOM commander of the clear strategic guidance he deserves and the advocacy to balance the numerous competing demands. It also significantly reduced top cover for unpopular — but necessary — changes across the SOF enterprise. Consequently, the FY2017 NDAA sought to strengthen the role of ASD(SO/LIC) as a “service secretary” for SOF. Sadly, that effort has met much resistance within DoD, and half-hearted implementation has produced limited effects.
Tellingly, over six months after the leaders of the armed service committees sent a bipartisan letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressing their concern over the department’s failure to implement the law, DoD has not formally replied and has taken only token actions.
To ensure the continued dominance of our SOF enterprise, Congress must take additional action and elevate ASD(SO/LIC) to the undersecretary level. Besides releasing SO/LIC from the perennial OSD(Policy) dungeon, this legislative change would institutionalize the appropriate relationship between civilian and uniformed leadership for the SOF enterprise. It firmly would establish SO/LIC’s authoritative service-secretary relationship with the SOCOM commander in his service-like role. It would also ensure that the SecDef and president have the benefit of unfiltered advice on the employment of SOF and the conduct of irregular warfare. Most importantly, it would help to ensure the continued relevance and dominance of our exceptional special operations forces.
It is time to fulfill the intent of Congress and ensure that the seniority of civilian oversight of our SOF enterprise is reflective of the importance of SOF to our nation’s defense. SOF policy and resources must be subject to vigorous oversight, and represented by civilian special operations expertise at the highest levels of Department of Defense leadership. The surest way to ensure this — and realize Congress’ original intent — is by elevating ASD(SO/LIC) to the undersecretary level.
Retired Army Col. Mark Mitchell, formerly served acting ASD(SO/LIC), and is an adviser to the Global SOF Foundation.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.