The United States possesses the world’s premier Special Operations forces. Since SOCOM’s beginnings with the 1987 Nunn-Cohen Act, which got very strong opposition by many in the Pentagon, including then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William J. Crowe Jr., SOCOM has grown exponentially and today numbers more than 70,000 troops and civilians. The Nunn-Cohen Act created both U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and the position of assistant secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict (ASD(SO/LIC)).
By creating the ASD(SO/LIC) position Congress ensured that the new “service-like” organization (SOCOM) would be under civilian control and oversight. ASD(SO/LIC)’s responsibilities included providing “overall supervision (including oversight of policy and resources) of special operations activities.”
However, the ASD(SO/LIC) has not had equal footing with other service secretaries and has to report through several layers of bureaucracy, beginning with the Pentagon’s DoD Policy office, basically the third-highest office in the Pentagon. From the start, the DoD had been against the move to elevate the ASD(SO/LIC).
In 2017, during the Obama administration, Congress had ordered in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), that the ASD(SO/LIC) position was to be elevated 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.”
The Pentagon had dragged its feet for several years, doing nothing until the leaders of the armed service committees sent a bipartisan letter to then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressing their concern over the department’s failure to implement the law. DoD did not reply and had no intentions of complying.
Finally, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller implemented the change in November 2020 as his first official act in office after President Trump had fired Secretary Esper. Miller ordered the top civilian overseeing the military’s special operations command to report directly to him. This fell in line with the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
“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 had said at the time.
Since he did not have the authority to do so, Miller said he hoped that Congress would elevate the ASD(SO/LIC) position to an undersecretary of defense level.
Now, the Biden administration’s Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is said to “be considering” lowering the ASD(SO/LIC) back to the bowels of the Pentagon. That consideration needs to be scrapped because it goes against the law.
SOCOM needs the ASD(SO/LIC) to be at the undersecretary level. Only then will SOF have the appropriate level of influence and oversight in the Department of Defense (DoD) as was Congress’s intent four years ago.