Will Lloyd Austin stand up to the generals?
© Greg Nash

In January, when Congress was considering whether to grant the waiver needed for recently retired General Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinFive questions about Biden withdrawal from Afghanistan Secret Facebook groups of special operations officers include racist comments, QAnon posts: report New US sanctions further chill Biden-Putin relations MORE to become secretary of Defense, politicians and policy wonks on both sides of the aisle expressed concern and reservations about undermining “civilian control of the military.” In his preconfirmation correspondence with Congress, Austin's testimony and public comments repeatedly committed to robust civilian control. In fact, during his confirmation hearing, Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "The safety and security of our democracy demand competent civilian control of our armed forces, the subordination of military power to the civil.”

Now, only weeks into his tenure, Secretary Austin is considering the reversal of some, or possibly all, of the reforms intended to reaffirm and bolster civilian control of the Tampa, Fla.-based United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and our nation's elite special operation forces (SOF). Concern about this potential about-face has caused some members of the defense committees to write directly to Austin.

These essential reforms were long overdue and reversing them would send the wrong signal about accountability to civilian leadership. Moreover, this reversal could not come at a worse time. Our elite SOF are currently at a particularly critical juncture after 20 years of continuous conflict. Highly skilled in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, these forces must sustain those skills while also adapting to changes in our defense strategy and increasing threats from China and Russia. Moreover, they must cope with potential budget cuts and address cultural and behavioral issues that have — in USSOCOM’s own words — allowed for "misconduct and unethical behavior."

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These are the types of strategic challenges that demand strong civilian leadership. They are distinct from warfighting challenges and rest on the authorities explicitly entrusted to civilians: to set strategy, policy and strategic priorities; to control expenditure of appropriated funds; to speak authoritatively with Congress and the American people about all of the above and more. Despite these demands, Austin faces pressure to wrest power from the senior civilian official charged with these responsibilities and return it to the uniformed leadership at USSOCOM headquarters in Tampa.

The reforms in question, implemented by then Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller in the final months of the Trump administration, actually originated from a bipartisan consensus reflected in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Signed into law by President Obama, the law mandated changes within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The changes sought to rebalance the relationship between the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (ASD/SOLIC) and the USSOCOM Commander — the senior civilian and military leaders in the special operations enterprise, respectively. A substantial bipartisan majority recognized that their relationship had slowly but unmistakably transformed as USSOCOM, especially since 9/11. In the three decades since Congress created these organizations (against the Pentagon's will), the uniformed commander gained extraordinary control and independence while ASD/SOLIC endured increasing marginalization and decreasing influence.

Miller's reforms implemented the law. They reinforced the “administrative chain of command” that runs from the Secretary of Defense to ASD/SOLIC to Commander, USSOCOM. Consistent with congressional intent, this firmly established the ASD/SOLIC as the "service secretary" for SOF, responsible to the secretary of Defense and the president for issues beyond warfighting such as strategy, policy, the prioritization of resources, legal accountability, and communication with Congress and the public. These functions' nature and performance are inherently vested in civilian leaders; it flows naturally from the president, the commander-in-chief, to the secretary of Defense and the civilian service secretaries — not uniformed military leadership. While uniformed leadership's advice should inform these decisions, the authoritative direction is ultimately the exclusive province of the politically accountable civilian leadership in the executive and legislative branches of our government.

Former officials, including past USSOCOM commanders, have objected to the reforms on grounds that they were hasty or ill-considered. Others have voiced concerns about policy coordination now that ASD/SOLIC reports directly to the secretary rather than the undersecretary for policy. These concerns are unfounded. The changes needed to conform to the law have been under consideration for years, stymied by a mixture of myopia and hubris in the E-Ring, bureaucratic lethargy, and near irrational deference to our heroic special operators. Moreover, policy development is not isolated in a single office. It is developed and meticulously coordinated across multiple offices and organizations that do not report to the undersecretary for policy. There is no reason why the Miller reforms should impact this process.

Regardless of the causes, Miller knew the statutorily mandated civilian oversight and control had been ignored or severely circumscribed for too long. Informed by his decades of experience as an Army Special Forces officer, a senior official on the NSC, and a stint as Acting ASD(SO/LIC), Miller was determined to follow the law. He had seen the not-so-shiny underside of USSOCOM, which is shrouded in secrecy, and knew these reforms were necessary and overdue.

Now, Secretary Austin faces a clear choice: eliminate the legally mandated Miller reforms and eviscerate civilian control of USSOCOM or stand up to his erstwhile colleagues in the general officer ranks. Will he have the independence and wisdom to reject proposals to weaken civilian oversight of SOF? Will he keep his commitment to Congress to strengthen civilian control of the military and, more importantly, abide by his oath to "support and defend the Constitution" by implementing the law? Or will he abandon his promises and revert to reversing all things Trump, even reforms initiated under President Obama, and cave to the generals? History will be the judge.

Mark E. Mitchell is a former senior executive in DOD who served most recently as Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (ASD(SO/LIC)). He has lectured at Harvard Business School, the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Joint Special Operations University, the U.S. Army War College, the National Defense University, and the United States Military Academy.