Fixing Oversight of Special Operations Forces

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U.S. special operations forces have leapt out of the shadows during the last 20 years of war. They have become the best known and most acclaimed part of the U.S. military, and their capabilities will remain crucial in an era of great-power competition and strategic uncertainty. Yet their growth in prestige, size, and importance has come at a cost. As we’ve written, a growing range of disciplinary and entitlement issues have marred the reputation of these elite warriors, prompting widespread concerns and a recent comprehensive review of the culture and ethics of the force. Defense analysts, former special operations leaders, and even Congress have all concluded that civilian oversight of special operators needs to improve, but recent efforts to do so have not gone far enough. In order to fix this problem, we suggest a novel solution: give the secretary of the Army responsibility for overseeing special operations forces.

U.S. Special Operations Command was established by Congress in 1986 to strengthen the role of special operations, and it was deliberately designed to have many of the characteristics of a standalone military service. It is the only combatant command with its own budget and acquisition authority, which helps to protect special operations forces from the type of parochial attacks by the military services that have decimated special operations capabilities in the past, especially in times of declining budgets. Though special operators today join and serve in one of the four traditional military services, Special Operations Command nevertheless acts like a service by organizing, training, and equipping special operations forces for their unique missions. Yet Special Operations Command and the forces that it commands routinely operate with far less civilian oversight than the services do.



Each U.S. military service is overseen by one of three civilian secretaries, who lead the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The secretary of the Army oversees the Army; the secretary of the Navy oversees the Navy and the Marine Corps; and the secretary of the Air Force oversees the Air Force and the Space Force. They are the most senior official for each service and report directly to the secretary and deputy secretary of defense. By contrast, special operations forces are overseen by the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict. That official is one of 13 assistant secretaries, of whom all but one report to one of six undersecretaries, who then report to the secretary and deputy secretary of defense. The assistant secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict simply lacks the seniority and authority to exercise effective oversight over all of special operations. That official holds little institutional power within the Defense Department bureaucracy, and has long been seen by both civilian and military observers as lacking both the authority and the direct access to the secretary of defense needed to exert adequate civilian control over the four-star combatant commander.

During the final weeks of the Trump administration, acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller — who had previously served as assistant secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict — made that office report directly to him, as called for by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. That ostensibly placed the assistant secretary on par with the civilian service secretaries. In May, current Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reversed key parts of this change. He placed the position once again under the under secretary of defense for policy, though it still reports directly to the secretary on administrative issues related to special operations forces, including training, equipping, sexual assault, and diversity.

But even fully restoring Miller’s realignment of the position would still not provide enough civilian oversight of special operations. Entrenched bureaucratic realities inside the Department of Defense mean that effective oversight of a uniquely powerful four-star command requires not only access to the department’s senior leadership, but also the bureaucratic power that comes with an established and fully resourced staff inside the Pentagon, combined with forceful civilian leadership. As a retired Green Beret officer observed last year, any attempt to make the assistant secretary equivalent to a service secretary “without the resources and authorities necessary to effectively execute service responsibilities” is doomed to fail. No assistant secretary of defense can overcome the inherent lack of staffing, authority, and prestige that will inevitably keep that office from providing sufficient oversight to such an important part of the U.S. military.

Instead of trying to fix this problem through endless tinkering with the wiring diagram and responsibilities of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, we propose an entirely different solution. Since special operations forces largely behave like a service, they should be overseen like a service. We recommend giving that oversight authority to the secretary of the Army, for at least three important reasons.

The Army secretary has the influence and resources to do the job effectively. The service secretariats provide a level of depth, institutional power, and bureaucratic influence that cannot be replicated by any assistant secretary of defense, even one with purported direct access to the secretary of defense. And since the Army provides about half of the current special operations forces, it makes sense for the Department of the Army to gain this new oversight responsibility, and its staff would only need to grow by a small amount to execute that responsibility effectively. Moreover, the secretaries of the Navy and Air Force each already oversee two services, as noted above. Putting special operations forces under the Army secretary would round out this logical symmetry, giving the Army secretary the same oversight responsibilities as her counterparts.

Special operations forces are far more closely associated with land warfare than any other domain. Current special operations missions like counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and foreign internal defense disproportionately involve land combat. And so do special operations missions that support major power conflict, such as countering weapons of mass destruction, political warfare, and unconventional warfare. This is one of the reasons why nine of the 12 commanders of Special Operations Command have been Army generals. Special operations forces also focus intensively on their people — selecting them, ensuring they are highly fit, honing their close combat training, and equipping them with the most advanced light weaponry and kit to perform their arduous tasks. These priorities in people and equipment mirror many of those that the Army already invests substantial time, energy and effort in developing. Since land is not the only domain where special operations forces operate, the other service elements (such as the Navy SEALs) would continue to retain links to their respective services for non-special operations related issues such as personnel management and acquiring equipment that is not special operations-specific, exactly as they do today.

The Department of the Army bears primary responsibility for preserving the capabilities and lessons of irregular warfare for the future. As the Department of Defense shifts ever-greater attention to great-power competition and especially China as the “pacing threat,” it should also remain prepared for irregular warfare. The Departments of the Navy and Air Force do not have a core commitment to such missions, and shifting special operations forces under the Department of the Army’s umbrella would ensure that the military maintains this vital capability and focus. As the Army contorts itself to justify a major landpower role in the Pacific, there is a real risk that the hard-won lessons of the last 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan will be lost once again, as they were after Vietnam. Aligning special operations forces within the Department of the Army will help to ensure that the U.S. military retains the skills and capabilities required to fight these unconventional conflicts, which could occur either as part of or independently from a major conventional war.

Under this proposal, the assistant secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict would retain responsibility for guiding policy on special operations and irregular warfare. And it would be far better able to execute those responsibilities, since it would no longer have to dissipate its limited resources and time trying to effectively supervise Special Operations Command.

We anticipate that there will be two main arguments against this proposal. First, some will counter that special operations forces should simply become their own separate service. Indeed, Special Operations Command recently directed its educational establishment, the Joint Special Operations University, to study this idea and report back by the end of June. But Special Operations Command benefits greatly from drawing upon the expertise in the land, sea, and air domains that its personnel brings from the existing services, which it would struggle to replicate as an independent service. Furthermore, encumbering Special Operations Command with all of a service’s institution-building and administrative functions would significantly degrade its rightly extolled operational agility, and make it harder for it to provide combat-ready forces to the other combatant commands. As former deputy commander of Special Operations Command Lt. Gen. (Ret.) John Mulholland wrote in May, compelling that organization “into its own formal Service would force it to behave in a way intrinsically opposed to its purpose for existence.”

Second, there will undoubtedly be concerns that giving oversight responsibility to any service secretary would undermine the unique jointness of the special operations community, and would force all special operators to eventually absorb Army standards, norms, and culture. Without question, any effort to improve civilian oversight of special operations should preserve its critical qualities of agility, jointness, and mission focus. But the U.S. Marine Corps may serve as a good example of how this could work. The Marines have been part of the Department of the Navy since the latter was founded in 1798 — but few would suggest that this arrangement has eroded the distinctive Marine Corps culture or diminished its incomparable pride and high standards. Similarly, the four special operations tribes already have strong individual cultures that they will fiercely guard, and each will remain connected to their parent service.

Serious cracks have emerged in the ethics and discipline of U.S. special operations forces as they have grown in size and importance. Yet the demands on this small part of the military will only increase, as special operations forces remain engaged in many of their current missions while also preparing for the possibility of great-power conflict. Maintaining the health and sustainability of this critical piece of the force is essential, and demands far stronger civilian oversight than the current structure can provide. Giving the secretary of the Army responsibility for overseeing Special Operations Command will help ensure that special operations forces remain strong and effective for the wars of today and tomorrow.



Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and senior fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.

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Image: U.S. Army (Photo by SPC. Brendan Nunez)