Righting the Course for America’s Special Operators
“I have directed the special operations civilian leadership to report directly to me. It will put special operations command on par with the military services for the first time.”
With his momentous statements delivered during a recent event at Fort Bragg, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller significantly progressed a herculean effort some thirty years in the making. Elevating the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict to a position equal to the Defense Department service secretaries might sound like bureaucratic reshuffling, but it will change the shape of American power. This change will greatly increase the impact of special operations on national defense, improve advocacy for special operations personnel and their families, and assert real civilian control and oversight of U.S. Special Operations Command. Regardless of who serves as secretary of defense in the Biden administration, these changes ought to be sustained and institutionalized. The incoming secretary of defense should adopt comprehensive policies to advance these reforms. Further, Congress should enact long-overdue legislative changes to make them permanent.
Why Does This Matter?
The Nunn-Cohen Amendment to the 1987 National Defense Authorization Act, which established both the Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict and U.S. Special Operations Command, intended to create a collaborative relationship between the two organizations. While U.S. Special Operations Command would serve as the functional combatant command with both administrative and operational authorities, the assistant secretary would provide civilian oversight, advocacy, collaboration, and policy direction in a “service-like” secretary role. By consolidating and codifying the command, control, and direction of special operations, Congress sought to provide U.S. special operators the sort of stability and unity of effort they had not enjoyed since the heady days of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II.
However, in practice this relationship has always suffered varying degrees of dysfunction. Particularly since 9/11, U.S. Special Operations Command has possessed an outsized influence and enjoyed widespread support that has allowed it to bypass the assistant secretary for many matters for which the Defense Department office is legally responsible. At a time when special operators were deployed around the world and bravely fighting the war on terror on multiple fronts, few Americans questioned the lack of effective civilian control and oversight. Since at least 2003, however, acquisition issues, proposed changes to headquarters structure, and poor communication with Congress have led to many questions about civilian oversight. In the last few years, as instances of reported misconduct by special operators have made headlines and questions about the precise purpose and conduct of many overseas special operations raised questions, has there been a renewed interest in examining the lack of effective civilian leadership.
Unlike most other combatant commands, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command has enjoyed regular direct access to past secretaries of defense, and with its robust legislative affairs liaison office to congressional lawmakers as well. Given this level of direct access, U.S. Special Operations Command has often disregarded efforts by past assistant secretaries to fulfill their legislatively mandated policy, oversight, collaboration, and advocacy responsibilities for and with the command. In fact, while U.S. Special Operations Command has swelled in size in the last two decades, flush with congressionally appropriated dollars and billets for more staff and operators, the assistant secretary’s office has languished with minimal funding and personnel.
This disparity traces its roots to the original motivation for the establishment of U.S. Special Operations Command, namely the disinterest with which the services (Army, Navy, and Air Force) treated their respective special operations forces. This general neglect contributed to a series of catastrophic special operations failures, most notably the infamous “Operation Eagle Claw” in which eight U.S. special operators perished and four were wounded in an abortive attempt to rescue American hostages held inside Iran in 1980. One of the aims of the Nunn-Cohen amendment was to provide special operators with an overarching administrative and operational chain of command distinct from their service of origin to ensure viable career development and special operations-unique training and equipment.
By comparison, the assistant secretary’s office has received insufficient funding, assigned billets, and, perhaps most importantly, has been subordinated in virtually all matters to the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.
Recognizing this incongruence and growing concern about misconduct and questionable operational activities in the special operations community, bipartisan congressional efforts to strengthen and expand the assistant secretary’s role have increased over the last several years. President Barack Obama signed the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act sent to his desk in December of 2016. In Section 922 of that law, Congress directed that:
Unless otherwise directed by the President, the administrative chain of command to the special operations command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense, from the Secretary of Defense to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, and from the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict to the commander of the special operations command.
Unsurprisingly, past undersecretaries of defense for policy and U.S. Special Operations Command have expressed reservations with this new arrangement as it would erode their own influence. But that is exactly what ought to happen. The lack of discernible progress by the Defense Department in implementing Section 922 caused Congress to include amplifying and specifying language to the section in the 2018 and 2019 versions of the National Defense Authorization Act. Most glaringly, the Defense Department failed to implement the portion of Section 922 making the assistant secretary report directly to the secretary of defense for administrative and acquisition matters related to special operations.
This continuing arrangement by which the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict reports through the undersecretary for policy has severely limited the assistant secretary’s access to the secretary of defense and interagency coordination bodies, such as the National Security Council. In an era in which the U.S. has been increasingly reliant on special operations around the world, it is mind boggling that the secretary of defense’s principal staff advisor for special operations has often had to fight tooth-and-nail to gain a seat in the room, much less at the table. This lack of access resulted in the special operations enterprise, despite the prior passage of Section 922, lacking any meaningful voice during the drafting of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, thereby undermining the interests of both the assistant secretary and U.S. Special Operations Command.
A May 2019 study by the Government Accountability Office found that, while the Defense Department had identified the steps needed to implement the 922 reforms, it lacked timelines for implementing the changes. This move and the failure to implement the law generated a bipartisan letter from the “Big 4” (the chairpersons and ranking members of the defense oversight committees) to then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in October 2019. Among other complaints, the letter noted that “the Department has fallen far short of the mandate provided by Congress.” The outcry from Congress was at least successful in forcing the Defense Department to hire additional staff for the assistant secretary’s office, though the novel coronavirus pandemic has severely slowed these efforts and the office remains woefully understaffed.
At the November 2020 ceremony to commemorate the signing of his policy elevating the assistant secretary to a direct-report to his office, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller fulfilled an important step in the realization of the intent between both the original 1987 Nunn-Cohen Amendment and Section 922 of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. In his statements prior to signing this new policy, Acting Secretary of Defense Miller explained, “This couldn’t come at a more critical moment in time as we bring our nation’s longest conflict to a responsible end and prepare our special operations forces for this new era of great power competition.”
Transformation of the special operations community in the era of renewed “great power competition” with near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia is something that Acting Secretary of Defense Miller knows only too well. Prior to assuming his current position leading the Defense Department, Acting Secretary Miller was performing the duties of the acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. In that role, Acting Secretary Miller directed and oversaw the implementation of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the 2018 National Defense Strategy. The annex, focused on competition for global influence below the threshold of traditional conflict, provided direction to the entire joint force and not just special operations forces. This direction will drive personnel changes, training, and defense acquisitions for years to come as the entire Defense Department contributes in support of the broader “whole of government” campaign to compete with China and Russia. Elevating the assistant secretary to a position that reports directly to the secretary of defense ensures that special operations will have a necessary and influential voice in those decisions that will impact the ability of these operators to support the national defense.
Full implementation of the Nunn-Cohen Amendment and Section 922 will provide special operators with greater stability for personnel management, ensure training is revised to support the National Defense Strategy and Irregular Warfare Annex, and prioritize acquisition of equipment better intended for use in “gray zone” competition against Russia and China. Such implementation will also achieve for U.S. special operations the unity of effort between its civilian leadership and deployed operators unrealized since the Office of Strategic Services was disbanded in 1945. Similar to the interagency resistance to the Office of Strategic Services that led to its own unfortunate demise, establishing the assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict as a direct-report to the secretary of defense will likely face stiff opposition. However, codifying this important step in official Defense Department policy and through congressional legislation will ensure that progress in establishing effective civilian leadership, interagency collaboration, and oversight of U.S. special operations is not reversed in subsequent years.
Since 9/11, U.S. Special Operations Command has been justifiably focused on countering violent extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, leading to criticism that it has allowed its other special operations skillsets developed for competing with nation states to atrophy. As the entire special operations enterprise, both the office of the assistant secretary and U.S. Special Operations Command, refocuses on these historic adversaries, it will be undeniably beneficial to have the assistant secretary directly reporting to the secretary of defense as a “service-like” secretariat on par with the traditional service secretaries from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and now Space Force. In this way, the assistant secretary will be able to effectively advocate for special operations-specific administrative processes, training, and equipment that are relevant for competition and armed conflict with near-peer adversaries, while also executing more robust interagency collaboration and oversight of U.S. Special Operations Command. As the National Defense Strategy calls for greater reliance on special operations conducted in the “gray zone” — the competition space below the threshold of traditional conflict — having the assistant secretary at the table where decisions are made will ensure better alignment of special operations capabilities against those requirements.
Future secretaries of defense might be tempted to reverse this policy and return the assistant secretary to a station requiring that communications pass through the undersecretary of defense for policy. Similarly, U.S. Special Operations Command might seek the route of least resistance by directly accessing the secretary of defense and Congress, thereby undermining the intent in strengthening the assistant secretary’s role in U.S. Special Operations Command’s chain of command. Successful implementation of Section 922 is completely dependent on close collaboration between the assistant secretary and U.S. Special Operations Command in order to ensure that these reforms preserve the strengths of the force while enacting those changes required to address identified weaknesses. This process is already well underway as the Defense Department moves ahead to enact Miller’s recent policy guidance.
Therefore, it is vital that Congress redouble its bipartisan efforts to strengthen civilian oversight and control of U.S. Special Operations Command by amending Title 10 of U.S. Code to legally elevate the assistant secretary to the position of an undersecretary of defense formally equal to the other undersecretaries that directly report to the secretary of defense. Congress should also closely examine and revise the language of Section 167 of Title 10 for activities (e.g., inspector general and acquisition executive) that are more appropriately assigned to the civilian leadership of the special operations enterprise. Even without a legislative move to formally elevate the assistant secretary, continued bipartisan interest from Congress in the implementation of Section 922 will help ensure that the Defense Department pursues greater stability for special operators and their families, equipment and capabilities specifically intended for operations in the “gray zone,” and better alignment of U.S. Special Operations Command’s efforts against the requirements of the National Defense Strategy.
Correspondingly, Congress should empower the assistant secretary to fulfill oversight roles by conducting direct liaison only through that his or her office’s legislative affairs department. This would put the assistant secretariat on par with the congressional liaison conducted by the military services, which is, by law, under the exclusive control of the service secretaries. Already, the assistant secretary’s office provides regular and timely reports to the congressional defense committees while also remaining vigilant to immediately reply to emerging oversight requirements from those committees. An empowered and adequately staffed office would ensure that the assistant secretary is able to provide that “service-like” civilian leadership intended by Congress and necessary to provide appropriate oversight, interagency collaboration, and policy guidance to U.S. Special Operations Command.
As U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan comes to a responsible end, the Department of Defense and its special operations forces will continue implementing the 2018 National Defense Strategy and redirect its efforts to competition in the “gray zone” with China and Russia. This is an environment in which special operations historically thrived and succeeded during the Cold War but will require civilian leadership on a scale not experienced in the entire history of the U.S. Special Operations Command. By having such a civilian leader in the assistant secretary, with direct access to the secretary of defense and congressional support to codify that level of engagement and influence, the special operations community will finally have the advocacy essential to ensure it remains viable and capable of answering the nation’s call to service today, tomorrow, and well into the future.
Mark E. Mitchell is a former senior executive in Defense Department who served most recently as the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. He is a highly decorated U.S. Army infantry and Special Forces combat veteran with extensive experience in the Middle East and South Asia. He has also served on the National Security Council as a director for counterterrorism and worked as a business executive in the private sector.
Doug Livermore works as a contracted operational advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict while continuing his military service as a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army National Guard. Previously, Livermore served for a decade on active duty as first an infantry officer and later a Special Forces officer. Doug is the national director for external communications for the Special Forces Association and the national capital region ambassador for the Green Beret Foundation. He was also recently selected as a 2020–21 fellow to West Point’s Modern War Institute.
The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government. The public release clearance of this publication by the Department of Defense does not imply Department of Defense endorsement or factual accuracy of the material.