On Wednesday, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller ordered the top civilian overseeing the military’s special operations command to report directly to him. This long-overdue effectively brings the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) on par with military departments per authority from the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.

Miller made this announcement when visiting Fort Bragg, NC, the home of the Army’s Special Operations. It was his first official visit as the acting secretary since taking over the office on November 9 after President Trump fired Secretary Mark Esper. 

This announcement is the first step toward making the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict [ASD (SO/LIC)], a service secretary-like position responsible for the oversight and advocacy of the military’s special operations forces, said Miller.

“This reform will immediately improve agility to the department and the command and will enable us to streamline the information flow, enhance decision-making, and more adaptively and adeptly support our commanders and their superb soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines,” Miller added. 

Miller said he hopes that in the future Congress will elevate the ASD (SO/LIC) position to an undersecretary of defense level. He specified that he lacks the authority to do so. Before his announcement, the ASD (SO/LIC) reported to the defense secretary through the undersecretary of defense for policy, the de facto number three civilian in the Pentagon.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick is currently the ASD (SO/LIC) role on an acting basis. Miller had briefly served in that position on a temporary basis earlier this year, as well.

“I also want to highlight that this particular change has been analyzed, debated and refined over the course of the past 30 years,
Miller said.

Miller’s announcement on Wednesday finally aligns the Pentagon with what Congress had ordered in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) during the Obama administration. Congress’s intent was for the ASD (SO/LIC) position to be a service secretary-like job and report directly to the defense secretary “for issues impacting the readiness and organization of special operations forces, special operations-peculiar resources and equipment, and civilian personnel management.”

However, SOCOM and the Pentagon had made little, if any, progress on the order since it was given for the FY2017 NDAA. In late October 2019, this prompted members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to write to then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper calling out the Pentagon’s feet dragging on this matter. Specifically mentioned in the letter was the need for “civilian oversight and advocacy for Special Operations Forces. “A copy of that letter can be read here. 

In the letter, members of Congress urged Esper and the Pentagon to speed up the elevation of the position in its fiscal year 2020 NDAA. Esper replied last year to Congress saying that the Defense Department was making progress on the ordered changes.

Miller is a career veteran of the special operations community who retired from the Army in 2014 as a Green Beret colonel. Miller had commanded a company and a battalion in “The Legion,” the 5th Special Forces Group, fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. He participated in the initial invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively.

Miller may only have the job for two months but he’s not sitting idly by. After finally announcing the overdue policy change for SOF civilian oversight, he also announced the acceleration of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

In his announcement on Tuesday, he said that the United States would remove about half its troops from Afghanistan and about 500 from Iraq by January 15, just five days before Joe Biden is to be sworn into office. The Biden administration will begin its term with 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and as many in Iraq.

Miller said the drawdown will allow SOF to refocus on battling potential near-peer adversaries such as China or Russia.

“Right now we start the transition to provide greater civilian oversight of, and critically, advocacy for our special operators,” Miller said. “This couldn’t come at a more critical moment in time, as we bring our nation’s longest conflicts to a responsible end and prepare special operations forces for this new era of great-power competition.”

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Back in March, SOFREP had interviewed retired Special Forces Colonel Stu Bradin, who is the President and CEO of the Global SOF Foundation. We had discussed the topics that the acting secretary announced this week, especially, the elevation of the ASD (SO/LIC) to a service secretary post and the overdue civilian oversight at SOCOM.

SOFREP reached out to Colonel Bradin on Wednesday for a quote on Secretary Miller’s recent announcements:

The change announced today is a more complete implementation of Section 922 of the 2017 NDAA, which mandated a direct reporting line from the Secretary of Defense to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. SOF are not looking to be a separate Service, but this change does reflect the fact that special operations have greatly increased in significance to our national security since 9/11. 

The U.S. has not undertaken any meaningful national security reform in decades, despite the very real changes to warfare. Obviously, counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency have been primary missions for SOF over the last 19 years. But the shift in focus to great power competition does not mean that SOF will be or should be relegated to the back burner. 

On the contrary, our enemies are not looking to fight us on the conventional battlefield. We must recognize the importance of irregular warfare in this next set of threats. And, in our opinion, the civilian oversight of special operations should be increased and elevated accordingly. 

Since the ASD (SO/LIC) will no longer have to go through the layers of the Pentagon’s DoD Policy office, DoD Policy had been against the move from the start. On the other hand, proponents of Special Operations, like Colonel Bradin’s Global SOF Foundation, have long advocated that the ASD (SO/LIC) needs to be treated more like a service secretary.

Pentagon spokeswoman Cmdr. Candice Tresch told Breaking Defense that the assistant secretary has 30 days to submit a plan to Acting Secretary Miller outlining how the changes might be carried out.  

This timeline will give the department about a month before the Biden administration assumes office, which will then accept or reject the plan. 

Not only will Secretary Miller’s move put SOCOM and the ASD (SO/LIC) on an equal footing with the service chiefs as opposed to being buried under the DoD Policy office, but it will also provide better civilian oversight for the SOCOM community.