The Wall Street Journal reported on January 5th that the current commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), General Joe Votel, was soon to be nominated by President Barack Obama to head one of the U.S. military’s six Unified Combatant Commands, which oversee U.S. military operations around the world. Votel was to be nominated to head U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees all U.S. forces in the Middle East, as well as the nation’s numerous operations in the region.

The nomination would mark the first time that a U.S. special operations officer has been chosen to head one of the nation’s primary combatant commands—among the top war-fighting commands in the U.S. military—and marks a significant evolution in the power of the special operations community within the U.S. military. It signals that special operations forces continue to play a leading role in the nation’s wars, ranging from Afghanistan, to Syria, to Iraq, and beyond.

U.S. military officers rarely ever reach the pinnacle of operational leadership, the combatant commands, without meaningful and sustained involvement in the most important of the nation’s military operations. Special operations forces have been at the center of those military efforts for the last 15 years, thus paving the way for special operations leadership to move higher up in the ranks. Given the current state of global affairs, furthermore, it does not appear likely that the role of U.S. special operations forces will diminish anytime soon, indicating future promotions along these lines are likely to occur, special operations leadership figures taking larger roles within the bigger U.S. military.

Previous SOCOM commanders who have also gone on to hold higher military office include Army General Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the late 1990s and into 2001, and Army General Peter Schoomaker, who served as Army Chief of Staff in the 2000s. Neither general was ever a combatant commander, however, in operational command of the full spectrum of U.S. military assets. Those jobs have always been reserved for commanders of conventional forces—until now.

Shelton had also previously served as commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, before SOCOM, while Schoomaker served as commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

According to some of those familiar with the potential movement of top leadership within the special operations community, the prime candidates to replace Votel as commander of SOCOM might include:

  • Army Lt. General John Mulholland, Jr., currently serving as the associate director for military affairs at the CIA. Mulholland, a Special Forces officer, also previously served as deputy commander of SOCOM, as well as commander of USASOC.
  • Navy Vice Admiral Sean Pybus, a SEAL, and currently deputy commander of SOCOM. Pybus previously commanded all SEALs as commander of Naval Special Warfare Command.
  • Army Lt. General Raymond “Tony” Thomas III, currently commander of JSOC. Thomas, a former Army Ranger in the 75th Ranger Regiment, was mentioned in the January 5th Wall Street Journal article as a top contender for the SOCOM job, though some in the special operations community assess that he has not served long enough at JSOC to promote so soon to SOCOM commander. Thomas also served in the role of associate director for military affairs at the CIA before assuming command at JSOC.