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America’s avengers deserve an advocate

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With the successful raid of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s compound, we are reminded yet again of the critical importance of special operations forces (SOF) to U.S. national security. And although al-Baghdadi’s demise is not a death knell for the Islamic State, it is still a huge blow to the organization and exemplifies how SOF is uniquely capable of achieving strategic effects with tactical efforts. America’s special operators – on the ground, in the air, on or under the sea, and their supporting enablers – are true American superheroes. 

Also striking in the last week was the release of a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper from the so-called “Big Four:” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). In the letter, the leaders of both Armed Services Committees detailed their concern that SOF does not have sufficient civilian oversight and advocacy in the Department of Defense (DoD). They are not satisfied with the department’s implementation of mandatory reforms of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (ASD SO/LIC) as first laid out in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Amazingly, the SO/LIC office responsible for implementing the key NDAA reforms was just recently moved out of the Pentagon to the remote Mark Center in Alexandria. Adding insult to injury, the acting ASD SO/LIC resigned the same day as the release of the congressional letter.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the number of SOF military personnel has nearly doubled to 70,000. The USSOCOM budget has more than quadrupled to $13.8 billion. This growth in SOF manpower and money is noteworthy, but it is SOF’s growing criticality to U.S. national security that demands real attention. SOF soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines regularly operate at “the tip of the spear” in over 100 countries. SOF are not only capturing and killing terrorists, but they are also forging relationships with and supporting partners, gathering intelligence, and leading efforts in information warfare, to name just a few mission sets. And although policymakers are talking about a shift to great-power competition, make no mistake: Our near-peer adversaries do not plan to meet us face-to-face on conventional battlefields. Russia and China are already waging irregular warfare via surrogates, misinformation, artificial intelligence and asymmetric tactics. These threats are most assuredly in the SOF wheelhouse.

Has the DoD kept pace with these developments and the evolution of special operations? Congress certainly doesn’t think so. The 2017 NDAA mandated that the ASD SO/LIC report directly to the secretary of Defense on the ASD’s Service Secretary-like functions and authorized an increase in the number of personnel in the ASD’s office — measures necessary fulfill its responsibilities for sufficient civilian oversight and advocacy for special operators. These congressional mandates are not about increasing bureaucracy. There are real questions as to how SOF capabilities should evolve and complement conventional forces, whether the force can recruit and sustain the right personnel given the changing nature of conflict, and whether SOF has sufficient funding and appropriate offset-strategy weapon systems. In addition, the toll taken on the force and their families due to almost two decades of high operational tempo cannot be ignored. The recent uptick in criminal and unethical behaviors among SOF are evidence of this toll.

Despite their wisdom and insight, the recent congressional mandates do not go far enough. In order for the SO/LIC office to truly perform its Service Secretary-like responsibilities, the position should be elevated to an under secretary of Defense for Special Operations. The historic reforms championed in 1986 by Sens. Bill Cohen (R-Maine) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) — mandating the creation of USSOCOM and office of ASD SO/LIC — have been so successful that they need to be updated. The United States cannot afford to have SOF capabilities relegated to a back burner while the Services focus on fighting the next great conventional war. And though SOF need not be established as a separate service, there is a compelling need for “Service-like” oversight. Accordingly, Congress should insist that the civilian oversight of special operations reflect the reality of modern warfare and SOF’s place in it by elevating the ASD SO/LIC to an under secretary position.

Ms. Meaghan Keeler-Pettigrew is the Chief Operating Officer of the Global Special Operations Forces (SOF) Foundation. The Hon. James R. Locher III was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and a Professional Staff Member for the Senate Armed Services Committee. Lt Gen (Ret.) Thomas Trask was the Vice Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and is now Director of the Advisory Council for the Global SOF Foundation.

Tags Adam Smith Bill Clinton Jack Reed Jim Inhofe Mac Thornberry Mark Esper

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