Editor’s Note: After the 9/11 attacks, the special operations community played a major, and often leading, role in the pursuit of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups around the world, as well as in counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the United States shifts toward near-peer competitors like China and Russia, however, the role of special operations forces is unclear. Alice Friend and Shannon Culbertson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies examine the role of civilian leadership and the challenges it faces in managing the special operations world.
The past few years have been hard on America’s special operations forces. Just as they were beginning to take stock of the exhausting impacts of 20 years of continuous counterterrorism operations and grapple with growing concerns about their health and ethical shortcomings, their role in national strategy was demoted. Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, where special operations forces led the military’s post-9/11 efforts, are no longer the Defense Department’s top priority. The department now considers so-called great power competition to be preeminent. The shift has set special operations forces “adrift” and prompted soul searching in both military and civilian circles about their place in the new international security environment.
Perhaps because of these struggles, calls for improved civilian leadership and oversight have accelerated in recent months, including from former assistant secretaries of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict (SOLIC). Many of these longtime special operations policymakers and practitioners have proposed dramatic changes, such as making the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) its own military service with a service secretary and a chief who would become a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Others have sought to elevate the assistant secretary for SOLIC to an under secretary reporting directly to the secretary of defense, arguing that the civilian overseeing a four-star command should be a four-star equivalent. Congress has weighed in as well: The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Defense Department to move personnel and administrative power into SOLIC in a bid to improve civilian oversight.
To be sure, the bureaucratic structures for special operations are unique and pose challenges for governance. SOCOM is part service, with special budgetary and acquisition authorities, and part combatant command, conducting operations—while still dependent on the services for its personnel and some of its equipping. The assistant secretary for SOLIC has service secretary-like responsibilities without the heft of a secretariat’s rank or staff. In a department that cherishes hierarchy as a way of making sense of bureaucratic authority, the desire for the civilian at the top of the special operations oversight organization to match or outrank the commander of SOCOM is an understandable one.
But structural changes to civilian oversight of special operations will not solve the problem. The issue is not one of quantity but of quality, and not of structure but of stature. Special operations isn’t adrift because of bureaucracy. It is adrift because civilian leadership at the Pentagon has less political influence—inside the Pentagon, with the White House and with Congress—than the military organizations it is intended to oversee.
Flawed by Design
Today’s dearth of civilian leadership of special operations has a long pedigree, dating back to the 1987 establishment of SOCOM and the assistant secretary for SOLIC. Although authorized by law at the same time, SOCOM stood up institutionally a full year before SOLIC, with the commander for SOCOM in place long before his civilian counterpart was even nominated by the Reagan administration. The delay on the administration’s side was a direct result of its opposition to the creation of SOCOM and SOLIC in the first place. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, his assistant secretary for international security affairs, Richard Armitage, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. William Crowe had all testified against the proposal to give special operations forces their own separate organizational element, arguing that separating special operations from the services would harm special operations capabilities. Congress, impatient with the administration’s slowness to act, finally assigned the responsibilities of the new assistant secretary for SOLIC to Secretary of the Army John Marsh until a suitable nominee could be confirmed. The problem of special operations control started not with an uneven rank structure but with neglect of the civilian institution designed to help guide the new command.
This neglect of SOLIC during SOCOM’s formative years not only immediately weakened the assistant secretary bureaucratically inside the Pentagon, it also gave special operations forces an incentive to focus on Congress for budgetary support and authorization. The legacy of SOCOM’s congressional parentage includes direct channels to the Hill that are more robust than SOLIC’s or even the other services. This relationship, as well as more recently developed relationships with parts of the executive branch, has meant that SOCOM and the wider special operations community have had comparatively little use for the civilians inside the Defense Department with formal oversight and advocacy roles.
Illustrating this imbalance, recent reforms—including adjustments to authorities and expressions of insufficient civilian oversight—have been largely at congressional initiative. That Congress plays a proactive role in SOCOM’s budgeting and structure is not problematic, but day-to-day oversight, strategy and policy guidance should come from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. And in an ideal world, Congress and the assistant secretary would work together to provide authority, direction and control to the nation’s special operators. But that Defense Department partner for Congress—and for special operations forces—has been absent.
Resourcefulness, Not Rank
The conceit of proposals to elevate the assistant secretary is that if SOLIC more clearly matched or outranked SOCOM, the civilians in the Pentagon could reassert control over the disconnected, struggling command. It supposes there is a will but no way. Yet there is nothing stopping the secretary and his policy component from doing that today—except, critically, for the absence of a politically empowered, confirmed civilian in the assistant secretary role. Even if there was an under secretary for special operations, if that position remained vacant or was filled by an ineffective appointee, the same disconnect between civilian leadership and SOCOM that exists today would simply repeat itself.
A civilian hoping to exercise competent control over a component of the military, particularly one as nimble as special operators, has to bring considerable political legitimacy and defense expertise into the role of assistant secretary. But most importantly, that appointee needs the backing of the other civilians charged with providing guidance to the military. In practice, this means the assistant secretary needs to have the ear of the secretary of defense, and officers in SOCOM need to know it. In turn, the secretary must have the support of the president, and both must share a vision for appropriate civil-military relations that includes strong and consistent control of the military. Though Congress has been the source of efforts to improve SOLIC’s ability to provide oversight of special operations forces, it may need to reach for its most potent tools of influence to truly make headway: its appropriations and confirmation processes. Only through the alignment of these powerful actors can a civilian head of SOLIC be effective.
To test the soundness of this argument, consider the history of assistant secretaries for SOLIC. Those with the right mix of experience, expertise, credibility and political backing should be most effective. Michael Vickers is perhaps the best example of this. During his tenure as assistant secretary for SOLIC from 2007 to 2011, Vickers had the confidence of his superiors, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, worked well with Congress, and had the respect of the uniformed special forces leadership as a bureaucratic peer. In contrast, the first assistant secretary, Amb. Charles Whitehouse—whose long experience as a decorated Marine combat veteran of World War II, an official with the CIA in its earliest years, and a foreign service officer in Vietnam should have equipped him to be an effective assistant secretary—arrived on the scene so late and into an administration so disinterested in special operations that he was unable to influence special operations activities much.
It is important to admit that Vickers provides only a partial illustration of our argument, because he and his civilian bosses were largely in agreement with special operations forces leaders and presided over a period of dramatic special operations expansion. Whether or not he could or would have restrained special operations forces is unknown. Still, he was able to gain the confidence of both his civilian colleagues and the special operations community, making himself critical to some of the biggest decisions of the post-9/11 period, including the operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
The Bigger Picture
The Pentagon’s struggles in exerting civilian oversight are not unique to special operations forces. For years, observers both inside and outside the Pentagon have pointed to waning civilian dominance of the policy, strategy and budgeting processes. A shrinking, less experienced civilian cadre has been outmatched by military institutions and hobbled by vacancies in senior leadership positions. As Loren DeJonge Schulman wrote last year, civil servants across the national security enterprise are “entering a perfect storm shaped by workforce demographic trends, short-sighted leadership, slow adaptation to modern challenges, and inflexible talent acquisition and management.” Meanwhile, a culture of deference to military advice and judgment means that those civilian personnel who stay have little credibility to challenge their uniformed colleagues.
Indeed, part of the solution for more competent oversight of special operations forces lies in improving both the independence and standing of the civilian leadership and workforce across the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Part of the reason for this is today’s strategic reality: Special operations are now more likely to take place in the context of strategic competition, and their oversight will naturally extend beyond SOLIC to include those who develop and implement the campaigns to compete with China and Russia. What’s more, there is no special track for developing civilian expertise in special operations policy in the Pentagon; civil servants in SOLIC are part of a larger pool in the policy shop. To strengthen the civil servants who rotate through SOLIC, attention must be paid to shoring up the beleaguered cadre that once retained members at such a high rate that it was likened to a priesthood.
The hobbling of civilian oversight of special operations forces is likely a pronounced example of weakened civilian oversight of the military in general. There is much in recent history and the organizational culture of the special operations community that has accelerated this trend and made it visible to observers. But if the Pentagon cannot be relevant to special operations forces, then the problems with civilian power over military strategy will not end with SOCOM.