Small Wars Journal

SOCOM at 30 Has Evolved Into a Small Command With a Big Global Impact

Sun, 04/16/2017 - 11:54am

SOCOM at 30 Has Evolved Into a Small Command With a Big Global Impact by Howard Altman, Tampa Bay Times

It was born out of deadly failure and evolved into an organization that other nations seek to emulate, a command that accounts for a fraction of the Pentagon's budget but a large measure of how the world sees the U.S. military.

This week, U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, turns 30.

Created by Congress in the wake of Operation Eagle Claw, the disastrous attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran in 1980, SOCom opened its doors at MacDill on April 16, 1987. It was an attempt to coordinate the work of military services that all did things differently.

Up until the terrorist attacks of 9/11, SOCom was a relatively sleepy, train-and equip organization. In 2001, SOCom had about 43,000 people and a budget of about $3 billion. After 9/11, as the role of special operations forces in the fight against jihadis expanded, the command experienced dramatic growth. Today, it has 70,000 people and a budget of more than $10 billion.

About 8,700 commandos are serving in about 100 countries, with more than half of them — 4,400 — in the MacDill-based region that's the responsibility of MacDill-based U.S. Central Command. This includes Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Seeing the success of U.S. special operations, representatives from foreign militaries are traveling to Tampa to see how they can recreate such a powerful force. One that offers great bang for the buck. SOCom makes up just 2 percent of U.S. defense budget.

The symbol of commando success is the 2011 Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Yet every day, in ways unknown outside their secretive world, commando teams perform missions like building partner capacity and training foreign troops, hostage rescue attempts, humanitarian relief, tracking jihadi financing and coordinating efforts to counter weapons of mass destruction.

Unlike any other military combatant commands, SOCom has the authority to spend billions of dollars each year on equipment and services tailored for commandos — the SEALs, Army Delta Force, Green Berets and Rangers, and Air Force and Marine teams. To help speed things along, the command created SOFWerx, a research and development effort in Ybor City…

Read on.


Given the failure of our "soft power" recently (the appeal of the Western way of life, way of governance, values, etc.), then might we say that THIS is the reason why (a) unconventional warfare, indeed, might be the order of the day going forward and thus why (b) a career Special Forces officer might, indeed, need to command USSOCOM?


First, from Bill M. below:


The communists were more sophisticated in their use of UW. They focused on political organizing (setting conditions before they waged armed conflict) ...


As we know, during the Old Cold War, the Soviets/the communists were, much like the U.S./the West today, engaged in "revolutionary war." That is, a war to transform other states and societies more along one's own, unusual and unique (and thus often alien and profane), political, economic, social and value lines.


Revolutionary warfare is never confined within the bounds of military action. Because its purpose is to destroy an existing society and its institutions and to replace them with a completely new structure, any revolutionary war is a unity of which the constituent parts, in varying importance, are military, political, economic, social, and psychological.

END QUOTE (See Page 6.)

Thus, it was as per their "revolutionary war" requirements (transforming other states and societies more along Soviet/communist lines), that the Soviets/the communists engaged in UW. (I guess the Soviets/the communists then, unlike the U.S./West recently, were not so naive as to believe in such things as "universal values?")

In this regard, let us look at what, in order to achieve their ends (a) the Soviets/the communists actually did and, indeed, (b) what it appears we -- with the obvious U.S./Western changes -- must be prepared to do also?


Among the techniques used to implement revolutionary warfare strategy and to attain their goals, the selection of cadre, organization, deification of the masses and psychological impregnation are the most important. Leaders, speakers, propagandists, activities, organizers, officers, volunteers and others are trained. Revolutionary cells are established to control different circles and organized groups in all sections of society. Parallel communists hierarchies are organized starting with the cell of a local committee to the central communist party. This becomes the party's invisible machine by which unions, sport, and cultural associations, veteran societies and others are controlled. The conflict embraces all segments and groups of society and, in fact, is concerned with every single aspect of social activity. It is and must be a fight for the minds of the people. That side which is victorious in this aspect of the struggle is virtually assured ultimate victory.

END QUOTE (See Page 79.)

Colonel Bjelajac, the author of the quoted item immediately above, thus noted:

"The offensive employment of unconventional warfare to extend political and strategic positions has been almost solely weapon of the Sino-Soviet bloc in the Cold War."

Thus, to suggest that -- should the U.S./the West wish to achieve its "revolutionary war" political and strategic goals today and in the future -- in the "soft power deficit" conflict environment that we appear to be in now -- then we will also:

a. Need to adopt the offensive employment of unconventional warfare --as per COL Bjelajac above? And, thus,

b. As per Bill M. above, better "set the conditions" for the political, economic, social and value "transformations" -- of other states and societies -- that we desire? All this suggesting that:

1. Unconventional warfare will play a much larger role in our strategic future and that, accordingly,

2. A career Special Forces officer may come to command USSOCOM?


Wed, 04/19/2017 - 8:21am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Is it their priorities, or is it just a that when it's been the Army's turn (FWIW I think it should always be the Army's turn for SOCOM) the direct action folks from JSOC just have the better looking resume?


Thu, 01/13/2022 - 11:12am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw 09

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 12:56pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Answer remains the there has been no Army 18 series GO that could make it to a 4 star since the late 80s?

And again Army SF has always been the largest SF force within why does Army always apparently lose out?

Dave Maxwell

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 12:50pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw 09 - so no one is confused that GO was commander of the Army's 1st SOCOM and was not a four star. 1st SOCOM existed before USSOCOM and was not a joint command as it was only for Army forces.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 12:42pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

An interesting sentence stands out.....

It is the Army decision making process and where it places its priorities which are decidedly not on nominating a career SF officer to be commander of USSOCOM.

Looks like the deep dislike by Big Army of SF continues onward and upward....

Big Army arrested a highly qualified SF COL for his role in the killing of a triple agent responsible for the deaths of 8 highly qualified MCSOG personnel in VN...and their total dislike of SF ties to CIA and their stated desire in reducing SF after VN was clear then just as it is clear today..........

Remember it took a certain President who awarded the Green Beret over the desires of Big Army....and who had a version of UW/IW.....

So from those early formative years to 4/18/2017 Big Army could not find a qualified Cross Arrow General Officer???? How really strange is that?

I can remember with pride when Army SOCOM had their first Cross Arrow highly qualified SF Army SOCOM Commander.

Army SF has been the largest unit inside SOF since the 50/60s and should based on largeness lead USSOCOM....

Any other excuse by Big Army in not filling the positon with an Army GO is just excuses out of VN days...which has never really changed...regardless of how they formulate their answers...

I can remember with pride when a highly qualified Cross Arrow experienced Army GO became the first SOCOM Commander

Dave Maxwell

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 11:08am

In reply to by Luddite4Change

Luddite4Change: SF has been a branch for 30 years. There have been a sufficient number of career SF officers who have achieved 3 star rank (at least six that I can immediately name) and dozens who have achieved two stars and who could have continued to progress in their career had the Army determined they should. The problem is not the age of SF branch. It is the Army decision making process and where it places its priorities which are decidedly not on nominating a career SF officer to be commander of USSOCOM.


Tue, 04/18/2017 - 10:20am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

SF has only been a discrete branch since the late 80's, your only just getting the first cohort of career 18 series officers into the junior and mid level Go ranks. OTOH, I believe even if we see a career SF branch officer command SOCOM, he will likely be a product of the JSOC community rather than white side SOF and the FID/UW missions.

Dave Maxwell

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 9:44am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill M: As you know COCOMs are nominated by the services which is why we are unlikely to see a career SF officer command USSOCOM. The Navy and Air Force have so few special operators from which to choose (the Navy will always nominate a SEAL if one is qualified) but the Army has such a wide variety of special operators to choose from that it will likely never nominate a career SF officer when you have such notable Army officers as Downing, Brown, Votel,and Thomas to name just a few.

As you also know it is Congress that really looks out for special operations. We would not have a USSOCOM if it were not for the Nunn-Cohen Amendment to Goldwater Nichols.

What is interesting is that there could be some changes to how SOF is organized, trained, and equipped and perhaps educated (but not operationally employed) because of Section 922 in the 2017 NDAA (excerpted below). It appears Congress is establishing some service like oversight with the insertion of the ASD SO/LIC in the ADCON chain of command (President, SECDEF, ASD SO/LIC, CDR USSOCOM). Note also in the section is the formal establishment of the Special OperationsPolicy and Oversight Council.

Depending on who the next ASD SO/LIC is there could be some significant changes to how SOF is managed. The next ASD SO/LIC has the potential to be influential and have authorities and power previous ASD SO/LICs have had.

In addition, it is Congress that recognized the importance of unconventional warfare. In the 2016 NDAA Section 1097 it directed DOD (along with other agencies) to develop a counter-UW strategy as Congress recognizes that adversaries around the world are conduct modern UW with their own characteristics and we need to be able to counter them (See Section 1097 below).

NDAA Sec 922 Excerpt: (

(1) Unless otherwise directed by the President, the administrative chain of command to the special operations command runs—
‘‘(A) from the President to the Secretary of Defense;
‘‘(B) from the Secretary of Defense to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict; and
‘‘(C) from the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict to the commander of the special operations command.
‘‘(2) For purposes of this subsection, administrative chain of command refers to the exercise of authority, direction and control with respect to the special operations peculiar administration and support of the special operations command, including the readiness and organization of special operations forces, resources and equipment, and civilian personnel. It does not refer to the exercise of authority, direction, and control of operational matters that are subject to the operational chain of command of the commanders of combatant commands or the exercise of authority, direction, and control of personnel, resources, equipment, and other matters that are not special operations-peculiar that are the purview of the armed forces.’’.

Sec. 1097.Department of Defense strategy for countering unconventional warfare (
(a)Strategy required
The Secretary of Defense shall, in consultation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the heads of other appropriate departments and agencies of the United States Government, develop a strategy for the Department of Defense to counter unconventional warfare threats posed by adversarial state and non-state actors.

The strategy required under subsection (a) shall include each of the following:

(1)An articulation of the activities that constitute unconventional warfare threats to the United States and allies.
(2)A clarification of the roles and responsibilities of the Department of Defense in providing indications and warning of, and protection against, acts of unconventional warfare.
(3)An analysis of the adequacy of current authorities and command structures necessary for countering unconventional warfare.
(4)An articulation of the goals and objectives of the Department of Defense with respect to countering unconventional warfare threats.
(5)An articulation of related or required interagency capabilities and whole-of-Government activities required by the Department of Defense to support a counter-unconventional warfare strategy.
(6)Recommendations for improving the counter-unconventional warfare capabilities, authorities, and command structures of the Department of Defense.
(7)Recommendations for improving interagency coordination and support mechanisms with respect to countering unconventional warfare threats.
(8)Recommendations for the establishment of joint doctrine to support counter-unconventional warfare capabilities within the Department of Defense.
(9)Any other matters the Secretary of Defense considers appropriate.
(c)Submittal to Congress
Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense shall submit to the congressional defense committees the strategy required by subsection (a). The strategy shall be submitted in unclassified form, but may include a classified annex.

(d)Unconventional warfare defined
In this section, the term unconventional warfare means activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area.

Bill C.

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 11:51am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M:

Thanks very much. This is great -- a real eye-opener.

I would ask that the SWJ editor somehow enshrine this and keep it available for easy access and review by all our readers, now and in the future.

I would hate to see this information and effort simply fall away from our view and ready access -- this, because new articles push it into the background.

As for myself, I intend to look back to/consult this often.

Again, much thanks.

Bill M.

Sun, 04/16/2017 - 10:23pm

In reply to by Bill C.

I found your question interesting. What would we use UW for today? Maybe it is useful to quickly review the past first from a U.S. perspective.

The American Colonies embraced a war of posts (mostly guerrilla warfare like) to impose costs upon the British and convince the French we were still in the fight until the American Army was prepared to wage decisive conventional battles that convinced the British that clinging to the colonies wasn't worth the cost compared to other interests they needed to defend closer to home. Guerrilla warfare was essential to victory, even if it wasn't decisive. A lot things generally happen before decisive battles that are under appreciated.

During WWII, the U.S. and UK (and many other nations) waged UW to open additional fronts against the Germans and Japanese to erode their capacity, and to keep their forces tied down in different locations, which made them vulnerable to decisive military strikes elsewhere. Concurrently, the USSR waged UW in many of the same locations in Europe, but with a longer goal in mind, which was the establishment of communist and pro-Soviet governments after Hitler was defeated.

The USSR use of UW is instructive, the U.S. viewed UW as an operational and tactical level enabler, while the USSR viewed it more in strategic terms. The USSR also provided support to Mao in China, but they didn't want to see Mao win, they preferred to see China stay in a condition of civil war to prevent a unified China from posing a threat to their eastern flank. Just like other countries, the USSR learned you can't always control outcomes in conventional or unconventional warfare.

Enter the nuclear age shortly after WWII, when the U.S. and the USSR both had the bomb, UW (proxy wars) became the preferred method for the East and West to wage their war in the shadows globally. The proxy wars were plenty bloody and destructive, but for the most part they stayed below the level where the U.S. and USSR committed conventional forces and they never employed nuclear weapons. Korea, Vietnam, and the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan were obvious exceptions to the norm, and two of the three were failures, and even the outcome of the Korea War was hardly ideal.

The communists were more sophisticated in their use of UW. They focused on political organizing (setting conditions before they waged armed conflict), but at the end of the day it was apparent to everyone who wasn't blind or indoctrinated to the point of being blind, that the communist system was oppressive and economically unsustainable. Their cruelty, lack of vision, and backwardness ultimately failed them as much as our efforts to oppose them. Most of us in SF at the time very much believed in our motto, De Oppresso Liber, because in fact a good portion of what we supported that objective. Contrary to your frequent assertions, most people in the world preferred the U.S. system to the Soviet system, and that is still true today. Even the Islamists in the Middle East during the 70's and 80's complimented the U.S. Information Agency's efforts to expose the USSR for what they really stood for. The point is that Soft Power does matter, it matters a lot. We should never deviate from what we stand for as a nation, it has strategic implications over time. That doesn't mean we can foolishly intervene in every conflict.

After the Cold War, we used SOF and the Joint Force writ large to shape the emerging security environment. We focused on Peace Operations, Counter Drug missions, and continued to deter North Korea. Of course we also removed Saddam's forces from Kuwait, which had broader implications than most think. It confirmed America's way of war (when it shouldn't have), and convinced our adversaries to develop new doctrines to oppose us. Special Forces played a role in all of these activities, and while it wasn't UW, it leveraged the mindset and skills that UW training bestowed on the force.

Post 9/11 until 2014ish, SF initially worked with the CIA to facilitate guerrilla warfare against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and combined with Joint Force Fires this quickly caused the Taliban to collapse and lose power. For reasons unclear we then shifted to a conventional strategy in Afghanistan, and the Taliban supported by Pakistan shifted back to a UW strategy. They have frustrated our efforts there until today. In Iraq there was limited U.S. sponsored UW in the North with the Kurds that achieved limited objectives, but again the character of the operations after that initial phase shifted to conventional warfare, where find, fix, and finish became the order of the day. We need to realize UW doesn't stop when conventional forces declare victory, but that is another story for another day.

In Iraq, we foolishly imposed democracy on country in the midst of chaos where the people weren't ready for it. This resulted in mob rule, and forfeited Iraq to Iran. All that blood and treasure largely wasted unless we can pull a rabbit out of our hat during the current operation and reverse course. We learned the conventional warfare approach was wrong in some cases, but we didn't employ conventional warfare where we should have because of that. Our decision to rely on UW in Syria as our supported effort, simply dragged the conflict on, seemingly indefinitely, which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, a deeply destabilized region, and hugely negative effects on Western Europe. A conventional strike to destroy Assad's air power, and much support to the resistance to ensure Assad fell before Russia and Iran could decisively intervene would have resulted in different outcome. What we don't know, but could it be worse than what we have now?

Clearly a track record that isn't impressive at first glance; however, at the tactical level UW worked. As a nation, we don't know how to leverage UW, or warfare as a whole, to achieve enduring political goals. The shortfalls illuminated so far are largely policy shortfalls, not tactical execution.

Looking over the next ridgeline, as our national power ebbs relatively as we enter a multipolar world, what will be the future utility of UW and irregular warfare (IW)? First, I think it is important we consider UW in the context of IW as a whole, because if we do use UW to overthrow a government (not the sole purpose of UW), then clearly we need to be prepared to support stability activities and FID in the aftermath, hopefully not as an afterthought. Second, UW in the future may more closely align to the purpose of UW during WWII than its purpose during the Cold War. We may need to use UW to open additional fronts and erode the capabilities of a peer adversary to support conventional forces. On the other hand, we may wage UW/IW to compete with adversaries short of traditional armed conflict (Gray Zone). What is clear, is the purpose of UW will need to align with the problem at hand, not with doctrine or history. Both are important, but they should inform, not limit.

To your point about SF personnel being used in more traditional ways, such as direct action. Perhaps, but with an unconventional flavor, otherwise just send the Rangers. There are broadly two schools of thought in the UW community, those in the doctrinal world who seek to employ "traditional" UW to solve modern security challenges, and those who seek to move UW into the 21st Century to make it more relevant to the challenge at hand. Neither school of thought believes UW has lost its utility, we just disagree on how it should be employed.

To your point about opening Pandora's Box, that is a fair criticism, but few Presidents in our history have been as hubristic as President Bush. Skillfully employing IW is a way to achieve objectives without opening the box. Second, if war is going to happen or a state is going to collapse anyway, somebody needs to deal with all the non-conventional threats that will emerge from the open box, and SOF is uniquely qualified to do that. UW training will enable skilled responses tailored to the problem at hand.

Finally, to the topic at hand, it isn't the person's background who commands SOCOM that is the issue so much as the ability of that person to appreciate the whole and have a vision for the future. Generally speaking, SF officers that have joint time are more exposed to the whole than those coming from other organizations. The next commander would be an ideal time for the right SF officer to take the helm of SOCOM.

Bill C.

Sun, 04/16/2017 - 4:35pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

This is probably a dumb observation/question -- with significant gross errors -- so I am prepared to take the hit.

But -- for the U.S./the West at least -- is unconventional warfare really no longer considered to be of much value/use anymore; this, given that we now know that such things as "universal western values;" "the overwhelming appeal of our way of life, way of governance, etc.;" and "the end of history" -- these were, and still are, wrong/dis-proven/erroneous concepts. Thus:

a. If we successfully overthrow a government today, then, as we all certainly know now: (1) we will own the country and all its problems and (2) we will not have sufficient forces of our own, nor will we sufficient local forces, nor will we have sufficient "by-in" from the indigenous populations, to handle -- much less fix -- these problems. Therefore, we understand now, that (a) by intervening in this fashion (UW), (b) only negative outcomes are likely to be realized.

b. Herein, because not only we ourselves but, more importantly, our opponent leaders, our opponent governments and our opponent populations ALL likewise know this, then this such knowledge (see "a" immediately above) would seem to fatally compromise our ability to successfully coerce our opponent leaders/governments/populations -- via the threat and/or actual use of UW -- and, thereby, avoid these negative results.

(Opponent leader/government/population's counter-threat -- the calling of our UW bluff so-to-speak: "If you want my job/our country, etc., you can have it, and all the problems that come with it. Do you really want to get rid of me/us and, thereby, yet again, get rid of the folks who have -- primarily with our own money and primarily with our own citizens/soldiers/policemen/intelligence assets, etc. -- "kept the lid on" yet another "Pandora's Box?")

This such reality, and this understanding by all parties and all sides involved, thus seeming to take much -- if not all -- of the wind out of UW's sails?

Thus might it be as per this such understanding (the loss of usefulness/utility of UW and, thus, of UW-oriented Special Forces personnel today; this, due primarily to the weakness/non-existence of U.S./Western "soft power") that we are witnessing such things as (a) Special Forces personnel being used more in less traditional ways and roles (ex: as per direct action) and, accordingly, (b) USSOCOM being routinely commanded by non-UW-oriented/non- Special Forces officers?

Bill M.

Sun, 04/16/2017 - 3:36pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

To be fair, USSOCOM was formed to address he shortfalls identified after Operation EAGLE CLAW failed, and SOCOM fixed that problem. I recall the debates after SOCOM was formed about the excessive focus on CT, and SOCOM leadership pointed out that hostage rescue was no fail, because this is what Congress told them to fix. Clearly UW, FID, and COIN have never been regarded as no fail missions throughout our modern history. They are part of statecraft and applied to shape outcomes, not force outcomes. Syria is an example where UW as a primary shaping tool failed, but in other locations it worked.

The question for Congress and SOF today is irregular warfare now important enough at the strategic level to balance SOCOM's focus to equally focus on UW, FID, and stability activities along with CT? I think it the current and projected strategic environment points to a resounding yes, but until our political leadership sees it that way, and uses their power of the budget to force chsnge, we'll be unlikely to see any change.

Dave Maxwell

Sun, 04/16/2017 - 2:21pm

Just as an aside a part of the history that is not reported is that in 2015 some 28 years after the establishment of USSOCOM the first unconventional warfare doctrine was published (which the Joint Staff promptly made it For Official Use Only (FOUO)). And of course there has never been a career Special Forces officer who has commanded USSOCOM. I only mention this since special operations evolved from the foundational mission of psychological warfare and unconventional warfare and Special Forces is the largest operational element in special operations. Just saying.