5 Questions on Special Ops & Scotch with Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Lumpkin

March 24, 2014

This is the latest edition of our Five Questions series.  Each week, we feature an expert, practitioner, or leader answering five questions on a topic of current relevance in the world of defense, security, and foreign policy.  Well, four of the questions are topical.  The fifth is about booze. We are War on the Rocks, after all.

This week, we are joined by Michael D. Lumpkin, currently the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict (SO/LIC). He is also performing the duties of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Mr. Lumpkin has more than 20 years of active duty military service as a US Navy SEAL where he held every leadership position from platoon commander to Team commanding officer.

1.       Assistant Secretary Lumpkin, thanks so much for joining us.  The conventional wisdom holds that we are in the midst of a golden age for U.S special operations forces (SOF). American SOF have never been so big and widely deployed. What are some of the upsides and downsides of this development for the SOF community and for U.S. policy?

Across the board SOF have grown in size and more importantly capability since 2001.  SOCOM has doubled in size, and quadrupled the level of deployed forces – averaging about 10,000 deployed SOF worldwide every day over the past several years.  At the unit level, some SOF elements have been continuously deployed in combat since the start of combat operations in Afghanistan in October 2001.  Many operators have more than 10 combat tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Our deployed task forces conduct multiple operations on a nightly basis that before the war required a national effort to do just one.  I believe there were more than 12 other SOF raids in Afghanistan the same night the Bin Laden raid was conducted – a staggering fact if you think about where we were in the 80’s and 90’s.    Our force is highly regarded and respected by the public, our partners, and our Combatant Commanders – who for perhaps the first time in our history view SOF as a valuable component of their operations across the spectrum of engagement – and not just an emergency force used for limited objectives.  Overall, these are very positive developments, and I think we’ve sold the skeptics on the value of SOF.

As far as a downside, the one thing that comes to mind is the high level of media attention we draw today.  Movies, books, TV shows, and of course the Internet are flooded with SOF material, and although the message is largely positive it comes at a cost of overexposing our operators, our capabilities, and in some cases operational techniques we would prefer to keep out of the public eye.  As much as I’m pleased to see our operators get the recognition they deserve for their tremendous sacrifices, I am concerned that too much exposure over time undercuts the “shadow warrior” mystique that helps put fear in the hearts of our adversaries.

2.      We are downsizing America’s military forces.  Given the present security environment, do you think that the SOF should shrink in proportion to the rest of the force, take deeper cuts or shallower ones?  And are you concerned that SOF will be overstretched in an age of budget austerity or that it will not receive the support it needs?

We have in the Defense Department a very well developed process for assessing force structure on a continuing cycle.  Every 4 years we do a compressive review of our strategy and forces to ensure we’re aligned to threats and resources – culminating with a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which we just released last week. SOF grew significantly in the 2005 and 2010 QDRs, and for 2014 we leveled SOF at just under 70,000.  This will allow us to sustain a robust deployed capability while maintaining significant contingency forces to respond to Combatant Commander requirements.  The decision factors for sizing SOF are a bit different than they are for the Services.  When looking at the size of SOCOM, it’s worth remembering that proportionally most SOF are in the Active force – different than what you see in the Services where a substantial amount is in the Reserve component.  Also of relevance to the resourcing and sizing question, SOF are less than 2% of the total Defense outlay – in both spending and force structure – and I would argue the return on this investment far exceeds the expense.  Lastly, you have to think about the time and effort it takes to create SOF, both operators and capabilities.  A SOF volunteer has most likely completed an initial assignment in one of the Services, and from there it takes us about two years to produce a qualified entry level operator.

3.      You recently discussed how SOF is in a period of transition and that it would no longer be business as usual. What did you mean by this? What is changing? What does the SOF community still have to adapt to? And what are some of the most consequential lessons learned that you can share with us from the past decade?

I was referring to the transition from 13 years of war, where the majority of our forces have been engaged in combat operations, to a period where wartime funding and authorities will be phased out.  Across the board these changes are already happening.  As you know we’re in the final stages of planning the transition in Afghanistan, where we will cease combat operations at the end of this year.  Our funding for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) is scheduled to end in FY15, and we’re not sure what will come next.  Just this week I was engaged by Congress to explain the President’s policy on revising and ultimately repealing our lethal authorities against al-Qa’ida.  So these are major changes that will affect many future SOF deployments.

We’re already starting to reallocate SOF into other theaters, and expect this to continue.  As we do, the type of operations will diversify.  We will still conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qa’ida and its affiliates where necessary, working closely with our partners and building their capabilities to take a more leading role in security in their territories.  At the same time we will see an increase in operations we did more extensively in the 80’s and 90’s – such as peacekeeping, small-scale stability operations, humanitarian assistance, counter narcotics, and counter proliferation.  We’ll adapt to the new operating environment with the full benefit of our wartime experiences – applying a network-approach and maximizing on the use of small scale, distributed operations, fully integrated into Combatant Commander plans and operations via reinforced Theater Special Operations Commands and specially constructed forward command nodes as the situation warrants.  We know we need the support of the Services to provide enablers, logistics, maintenance, and other capabilities not organic to SOF, and we know that our operations outside theaters of war must be closely coordinated with our Chiefs of Mission.

4.      You were charged by Secretary Hagel to be the MIA point man. More specifically, he has told you to write a plan “to increase to the maximum extent possible the numbers of missing service personnel accounted for annually, while ensuring timely and accurate information is provided their families.” Could you discuss how this plan is shaping up and what we can expect to change in how the United States approaches this sacred responsibility?

I want to start by saying the organizations and people that make up our Accounting Community are by and large doing fantastic work on an incredibly complex mission.   What’s needed is a better organizing construct that establishes a single chain of command, eliminates redundancy, maximizes efficiency, and ensures our families receive the best information in the most timely manner.  The organization we have has been in place since 2003, and much has changed since then – the mission has expanded, technology has improved, and identification methods have evolved.  So it’s time to look at a more efficient and effective way of doing business.  I owe Secretary Hagel a plan in the near term, and I anticipate we will implement a series of steps to implement change across the community.

At the same time we will be working closely with Congress to get the legislative support we need to implement elements of the plan, and with the families and Veteran’s/Military Organizations to ensure their concerns are being addressed.

5.      If you were allowed to choose special operators only the basis of what they drink, what particular alcoholic beverage would you be looking for?

Single malt scotch, neat (sorry, no rocks here). No frill, high quality, years of commitment, can go high end or done without fanfare, and good on any occasion (although breakfast can be debated!).


Image: USMC, Cpl. Tyler Main

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