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Special Operations Forces (SOF) brings to mind highly-trained soldiers, sailors and airmen of nearly incomparable skill. But some in the defense community as well as in Congress think it’s on shaky ground and needs a new focus.
In a July article he penned for the military news and lifestyle site Task & Purpose, Ret. Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, former commander of Special Operations Africa, described this as a “precarious position.”
“The main problems are the relationship between the assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, known as ASD(SO/LIC), and the special operations command that is the four-star headquarters in Tampa, Florida,” he said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “The turf wars and egos that have been associated with that since 1987, the growth and focus on counterterrorism missions so SOF has almost become synonymous with counterterrorism and not what 90 percent of its forces does and that’s other missions and roles and special warfare.”
Bolduc said that U.S. Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) transactional relationships in Washington, D.C., and the larger interagency, and between combatant commands, have caused friction. He also said senior leader selection for special operations has been counterterrorism leader-focused and the full depth of available talent has not been examined.
“Therefore, SOCOM has become more of an operational headquarters in its own mind than a Title 10-type headquarters where it has more of a responsibility for organizing training, equipping, identifying requirements, fighting for resources for its SOF forces and focus more on operations,” Bolduc said.
In order to operate more effectively, he called for SOF’s leadership structure to change. For example, in the late 1980s establishing SOCOM and an assistant secretary of defense, which is below the undersecretary in the hierarchy, may have been sensible. But since Sept. 11, 2001, soft roles have increased along with their budgets and missions. Theater special operations commands that support and are operational to the combatant commanders are now “co-com” under SOCOM, he said.
As a result, SOCOM is now in a larger oversight role for what its theater special operations command are doing.
“Assistant secretary — that position is just not high enough in the [Defense Department] structure for SOCOM to really pay attention to an ASD buried up underneath another undersecretary inside a policy, and a combatant commander who’s reporting directly to secretary of Defense,” Bolduc said. “There’s a mismatch in the civilian oversight and nothing is more important than civilian oversight of the military, and SOCOM has kind of outgrew its civilian oversight.”
In summary, Bolduc agreed with the idea that Special Operations need to refocus their activities and return to their original purpose, with the Pentagon also re-evaluating how it oversees things from a civilian standpoint.
“It’s been articulated by our leadership that 90 percent of what SOF does are SOF missions and activities other than counterterrorism,” he said. “Counterterrorism is necessary … but that’s not going to seal the deal. That’s not going to get you to your long-term objectives that the combatant commanders need SOF to get to inside of their theater campaign plans.”