What’s Wrong With SOCOM?
Part I: JSOC Winning the War Against White SOF and the Problems Massive Bureaucracy Gets You in the Conduct of Irregular Warfare
Sadcom via Happycom
What’s wrong with SOCOM? This perhaps seems like the wrong question. On the one hand, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM, or “SOCOM,” for short), is enjoying perhaps its greatest time ever. The country loves it. Hollywood can’t get enough of “operators’” accounts in the form of TV shows and movies. Books about Special Operations individuals and actions overwhelm the war sections of book stores. Even politicians love SOCOM, preferring special operations forces (SOF) strikes if drone strikes are not an option.
On the other hand, SOCOM’s current popular status has made it many enemies. Starting with the services, namely “Big Army,” the rest of the Department of Defense (DoD) cannot stand SOF. For starters, SOF fight just like any other service for a share of the budget pie. Second, SOF jockey for influence on the Hill and within the White House for how to go about conducting military operations and foreign policy. SOF, naturally, would like to apply SOF to every problem. Other agencies also have issues with SOCOM. The State Department, especially under President Obama, naturally distrusts SOF, preferring instead to view them as “cowboys” bent only on killing and violating human rights. The CIA sees SOCOM as continuously impeding on their territory. Even elements within Congress and other areas of the government do not trust SOCOM and constantly call the command to answer for its transgressions.
There is a greater issue, however, with SOCOM other than jealous government agencies. In short, SOCOM has ceased to be “special,” if it ever was. SOCOM, now a full-fledged bureaucracy since 1987, rivals the red-tape, bureaucratic infighting, and goal misalignment of the worst conventional armed forces commands. Now, this is not to say that the hard-working NCOs and junior officers which comprise SOF at the “team” level are not special, far from it. But, above the team level, SOF units look much like any conventional unit does (and we’re not talking SEAL “team”- we’re talking about the smallest organizational unit in SOF- a group of about 10 or so people). Above the team level, SOF thinks like, is populated by, and is organized much like their conventional counterparts are.
What’s wrong with that, you say? Well, for starters, SOCOM now influences foreign policy and high-level military decision making like never before. Thus, if all SOCOM offers is “more of the same,” but with different names and faces, then there is little reason to fund all of that duplicative effort. Second, SOCOM has grown massively since 1987, but especially since 9/11. This growth has mainly resulted in multiple and massive headquarters, offering more career opportunities for officers and senior NCOs, not only while on active duty, but especially after retirement. This growth means that those SOF teams, the only ones really “special” any more, have an even harder time remaining special, due to the constant nitpicking and micromanagement from the huge and multi-leveled headquarters put in place by an ever-expanding bureaucracy. Finally, SOF are niche players, valuable when they are focused on a certain problem set. The “conventionalization” of SOF has led to SOF becoming little better than simply another force that seeks to apply the same methods to every problem. Whereas the U.S. military was once known for ignoring its doctrine, U.S. SOF were known for constantly questioning the conventional wisdom and being ultra-innovative. Today U.S. SOF are just as doctrinaire, if not more so, than their conventional brethren. Where innovative thought is needed more than ever, SOF (above the team level) within the U.S. are less capable of it than the average conventional forces unit.
There are also other troubling issues within SOCOM’s subordinate commands. The Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, largely controls SOCOM and, currently, much of U.S. foreign policy. This means that U.S. foreign policy and SOCOM are largely only focused on killing terrorists. The SOCOM headquarters itself, the center of the bureaucracy, is plagued by internal rivalries, deep-seated civilian bureaucrats and personalities, and miles of red tape. U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), the largest subordinate within SOCOM, is largely a non-player within the command, its top-ranking officers rarely making it past colonel and not having commanded SOCOM since 1997 (excepting GEN Brown in 2004 whose “special” bona fides were with Special Operations Aviation, which is known more as a JSOC type unit as opposed to a USASOC unit). Marine Special Operations (MARSOC), a unit forced onto SOCOM (or vice versa, depending on whom you ask), struggles to find relevancy and with the “special” moniker itself. The SEALs, originally set up for short-duration, ship-to-ship and close-to-shore interdiction missions, has lobbied just like the rest of SOCOM for more missions. They have found much success of late in land-locked Afghanistan, as Army SOF elements pushed for the higher profile Iraq mission and the powers that be decided the SEALs needed to do something. Finally, most Air Force Special Operations are special in name only, as most of their personnel rotate back and forth within the U.S. Air Force and are only special while in SOCOM because of the airframes and missions they fly and support.
Some recommended solutions, although complex to implement, would center around focusing standing SOF on mainly regionally-aligned Foreign Internal Defense (FID) missions (training others and building relationships) and only a small cadre on countering terrorism. Most, if not all, of the SOF headquarters above 2-star level could go away, half of their strength sent back to the force and the other half disposed of. The FID forces would need to be controlled by the embassies themselves and not military regional commands (although the regional commands should go away as well). If a war breaks out and SOF are needed for special, context-dependent missions, then ad-hoc units should be built for those specific missions and then disbanded afterwards. Finally, if Unconventional Warfare (overthrowing a country, also known as “UW”) is to be a valid option, a special agency should be stood up for each country or region in which the U.S. would like to conduct or prepare to conduct UW, and forces cut to that agency. All of these forces should be managed differently than whatever service they belong to, as they require very different experiences, education, and career paths.
This is the first in a 4-part series on USSOCOM. This part details JSOC’s control of SOCOM and foreign policy, SOCOM’s rivalries between the other services and agencies, and its suffocating bureaucracy. Much of the ultimate cause of these issues is the Department of Defense (DoD) itself, SOCOM reacting to DoD’s rules (many of them Congressionally mandated) to survive. Thus, this first article will also cover how DoD’s rules affect SOCOM as well. The second part of this series will describe USASOC’s weaknesses. The third will cover the rest of SOCOM: the SEALs, MARSOC, and AFSOC. Finally, the fourth part will identify recommendations to mitigate the negative effects of the causes of SOCOM’s problems. The intent is not to denigrate certain people or the NCOs and junior officers who make up the bulk of why SOF are special. The intent is simply to explain the negative effects of the SOCOM bureaucracy and JSOC’s control of it and offer some solutions to make our nation more secure. Surely some of the failures in the Middle East since 9/11 can be laid at the feet of SOCOM.
JSOC: Firmly in Control at USSOCOM
It is a fact that JSOC, the command responsible for hunting and killing terrorists, controls SOCOM. The first way JSOC controls SOCOM is directly from the commander. The last three SOCOM commanders have commanded JSOC (and since 1990 every SOCOM commander has served in some form with JSOC). But, more inherently, JSOC’s mission set fits the current political and military culture of decisive, short-term, and easily-measured results. One example: GEN Stanley McChrystal rose to fame by establishing a very efficient and effective “kill chain” in Iraq. His success did not come through directly managing thousands of personnel and accomplishing long-term and strategic effects, instead his success came through flattening an already small organization, building networks within the U.S. military, and producing short-term results. It didn’t hurt that his organization’s success paralleled the Surge, the coming of Petraeus “the savior general”, and the Sunni Awakening. Ultimately, however, all of the killing that his kill chain accomplished would not lead to anything resilient being built in Iraq. Juxtapose this with his record in Afghanistan. There his mission was much less explicit, having to deal with a long-term denial of sanctuary for Al-Qaeda and the building of a nation’s security forces and institutions.
The point, however, is that McChrystal was seen as a success because of his results in Iraq, which gained him the respect of the military and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Short-term and easily-measured results are all that DoD and the government value. Because of this, JSOC, whose mission is short-term and easily measured, is the preferred command within SOCOM and, increasingly, within the military as a whole. Terrorists who are actively planning attacks against the U.S. are a clear threat. Finding where those terrorists are and killing them is a very concrete activity. There is a finality to the killing event and the activities leading up to the terrorists dying directly support the conclusion. Contrasting to JSOC’s mission set are the more long-term and more difficult to measure activities of much of the rest of SOCOM’s forces. These forces’ activities, however, are not synchronized with any military or political timelines, and are thus undervalued. These efforts, difficult to measure or attribute directly to any long-term success, outlast military tours, political terms, official evaluations, and even military conventional wisdom, which asserts that proximate efforts are useful indicators of long-term objectives.
The issue of JSOC’s mission meshing well with DoD’s and politicians’ preferences and timelines means that long-term, nuanced, and complex mission sets like counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense, stability operations, and unconventional warfare are given short shrift. There is no patience nor intellectual rigor applied to those other, more difficult-to-gauge, operations. Perhaps best thought of as the opposite of JSOC’s short-term and explicit focus of killing terrorists, much of the rest of SOCOM considers building the capacity of partners to be a more resilient and long-term solution to national security issues. Whether these partners are revolutionaries or standing government forces, working with locals and building relationships takes time, patience, and nuance. It isn’t just that JSOC’s control of SOCOM has made SOCOM, and thus largely DoD, incapable of successful Irregular Warfare (IW) efforts, it is that the rest of SOCOM is just as incapable. The supposed masters of IW, elements like U.S. Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets, have been corrupted by, among other things, SOCOM’s preference for body counts. Likewise, units that should play a more outsize role within IW, units like Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations, are treated worse than unwanted stepchildren.
Thus, JSOC’s captivation of SOCOM, DoD, and American foreign policy, all with a preference for obvious and easy to measure effects, has negatively influenced those whom one might expect to best provide an alternative in today’s irregular environment. From Russia’s “Little Green Men” to China’s building islands and hacking our systems, to Iran’s proxy war in the Middle East and the rise of the Islamic State, America’s response has gone from nation building to body counts. What has been missing have been feasible and valid alternatives from those whose expertise should be all things irregular. Instead, Green Berets run around in Afghanistan and Iraq attempting to out-kill JSOC’s numbers, Civil Affairs has been booted to the Conventional Army, and Psychological operations was renamed “MISO,” (perhaps the worst military acronym since “OAKOC”) Military Information Support Operations, and ignored more than they have been in the recent past.
The perhaps surprising thing, however, is that these problems are not unknown at SOCOM. Many efforts have been started to attempt to correct these deficiencies. Even JSOC acknowledges on occasion that they can’t kill their way to stability in the Middle East. So why can’t SOCOM fix itself? Part of the problem is that SOCOM is one vast, and continuously growing, bureaucracy.
SOCOM, “Out-Bureaucratizing” the Conventional Forces
There’s one thing you’ll often hear implied around SOF if you listen carefully enough. They take pride in taking the bad things that the conventional forces do and doing them “better.” That is, if the conventional forces have an overly bureaucratic process that results in questionable resources in 5 years (the Joint Capabilities and Integration Development System- JCIDS), then SOF will come up with the same kind of useless system, but will get their questionable resources in only 2 years (the SOF Capabilities and Integration Development System- SOFCIDS). If the conventional forces focus on the destruction of the enemy to the detriment of winning irregular warfare, SOF will focus on killing the enemy more surgically and faster, and end up being less able to “win” at irregular warfare than conventional forces.
SOCOM was overly bureaucratic prior to 9/11. When SOCOM was first created, in the late 80s, it was as a reaction to the failed rescue of American hostages in Iran in 1980. The lesson the SOF community took from that failure was that forces needed to work together prior to coming together for a mission. SOF pushed hard for a separate command with its own line for budgeting, since the conventional forces had long only handed special operations scraps. With a four-star command, subordinate commands with three and two stars, its own budget, and forces fenced from the conventional forces’ control, SOCOM started to see a renaissance beginning in the Nineties. Better gear, more special operations career paths, and general officer billets came at a price: more staff, processes, and bureaucracy.
This solution, however, a four-star joint command that focused on mainly securing and managing resources, was from the get-go a battlefield within which the special operations of the different services vied for both power and position. The SEALs have long enjoyed a power imbalance in the headquarters, as has the Air Force. This is because the Air Force special operations, at least the pilot side, differs very little from its conventional side. Thus, it is easy for high ranking AF pilots who have SOF experience, to climb the chain through career experiences relevant to both the Air Force and SOCOM. In a different way, the Navy has secured positions within SOCOM because their officers have a clear path through the Navy that is not contingent upon success in the conventional fleet. This makes sense: a Navy SEAL commander doesn’t need to command a ship to enjoy success. The Army, however, has the worst of both worlds. Army SOF officers have to hold the same types of positions as the conventional officers do for promotion purposes, but this does nothing for them when competing for positions at SOCOM. In short, Army SOF are grounded in tactical excellence (mainly referring to SF, CA, and Psyop as “ARSOF,” since Special Operations aviation manage their personnel more like JSOC and AFSOC than ARSOF and the Rangers are mainly an infantry unit. The other branches are viewed as imbuing their officers with strategic experience. MARSOC, as young as it is, remains to be seen whether they will suffer from the same fate as the Army Special Operations, but as they are allowed to go back and forth between the conventional and the special side, they most likely will mirror the Air Force.
JSOC, however, has the best of three worlds. JSOC officers go back and forth between their regular branch and JSOC, much like the Air Force. At JSOC they are viewed as “strategic,” due to their argument that their operations, targeting dangerous terrorists, results in “strategic effects.” Lastly, as mentioned previously, JSOC’s proximate mission effects mesh nicely with SOCOM’s priorities, DoD reporting preferences, and all the service’s personnel evaluation systems. This largely makes sense, of course, since SOCOM was originally set up to solve a JSOC-like problem: how to best train and equip a joint force to conduct hostage rescue operations. The rest of SOF, arguably assigned to SOCOM for arbitrary reasons, have never really fit in with the JSOC propensity of the command. This is because SOCOM, focused as it is on training and resources, does not empower forces that specialize in long-term objectives. Additionally, as mentioned before, these forces start to chase the resource prize as well and become more JSOC-like. This undermines the very essence of the majority of SOF. Worse, the commands that should keep this from happening, the Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs) have largely become beholden to SOCOM, as their senior leaders owe their allegiance to SOCOM and SOCOM has recently gotten formal authority over the commands.
The focus of SOCOM on resources and the inherent bureaucracy of a four-star headquarters, along with SOF’s propensity to take pride in out-conventionalizing the conventional units has resulted in an organization in which petty squabbles between sections and senior civilians jockeying for position and influence characterize most interactions. AFSOC and WARCOM rarely agree with ARSOF, since their respective services are constantly locked in resource battles. MARSOC normally wins either way, as they belong to the Navy, but will inevitably get resources if ground combat branches “win” a resource fight.
One example of the bureaucracy is SOCOM’s “SOFWERX.” Originally hailed as an idea to fast track innovation, SOFWERX has come to represent a threat to multiple sections. The resourcing section of SOCOM views SOFWERX as a threat, naturally, since projects within SOFWERX do not have to go through the same checks and balances as normal concepts do. Other areas of SOCOM, hoping to extend SOFWERX innovative ideas to other areas besides material solutions have found an unwillingness from senior leaders, especially civilian ones, to allow subordinates to work with SOFWERX or adopt their methods. There are even entire sections that are not allowed to visit SOFWERX, much less work with them. One joke making the rounds in select areas not long ago went something like this: “When Stanley McChrystal recommended that special ops units flatten themselves and trust subordinates like JSOC did, everyone knew he wasn’t thinking of SOCOM’s headquarters.”
Another example is the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU). Filled largely with civilians who constantly jockey for position within the organization, innovation is the last thing associated with the school. Officers who are bound for command make life hell for those attempting innovation and those close to retirement coast through their tours working on what they will do after they get out. Recently, when the SOCOM commander asked how the Design concept would be applied to operations in the “Gray Zone,” and JSOU’s leadership asked the rank and file how Design could be applied to Unconventional Warfare (UW), the UW gray beards lined up against Design and the “designistas” lined up against them. The Vietnam-era UW experts were firmly entrenched against Design, as they commented, “We did UW without Design in Vietnam and it worked quite well.” The designistas came back with, “What’s UW?” The UW experts came back with, “What’s Design?” The point here is not that Design should be adopted nor that the UW experts are naturally wrong about UW. The point is that in a so-called university, especially one associated with SOF, one might expect to find innovation, cutting-edge research, and a willingness to question the conventional wisdom. Instead, as mentioned before, a SOF organization prides itself in being more bureaucratic and stuck in its ways than conventional units are known for, ultimately protecting the status quo. Innovators are seen as threats and any thinking outside of the box is quickly cut-down.
Finally, the way in which strategy is formulated within SOCOM is the result of personalities, mainly senior civilians, and processes that are corrupted by the resource justification and allocation system. Of course it doesn’t help that each time a new commander comes in the strategy can change 180 degrees. Instead of the staff helping a new commander, however, what he normally sees is bickering, weak logic and concepts, and a fixation on resources and jockeying for position. Actual ideas to make SOCOM better are difficult, if not impossible, to come by. Problems, of course, are readily identified, but, unfortunately the solutions are predictable: more SOCOM control, more SOF, more interagency coordination (led by SOCOM, or, more likely, JSOC), and a demand for better strategic objectives from the politicians. Unfortunately, we will never hear arguments for less SOCOM control, less SOF, more interagency coordination with the State Department being in the lead, or an acceptance of less strategic guidance from the politicians and the need for the military to operate in the absence of detailed direction.
In conclusion, SOCOM was originally established to solve a problem with hostage rescue operations. The solution, giving special operations their own budget and multiple general officer headquarters, has resulted in bureaucratic bloat and a corruption of non-hostage rescue units into units trying to out-compete the terrorist hunters. This has resulted in America’s armed forces being less capable of counterinsurgency, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, and stability operations as they might if SOCOM had never been established or JSOC was a separate unit. The differences between the various services, the misalignment of organizational systems and national security, and civilian infighting for influence and position has rendered SOCOM more bureaucratic and ineffective than any comparable military four-star command, SOFWERX and SOFCIDS notwithstanding. In the final analysis, the United States has utterly failed to conduct counterinsurgency campaigns, assist in stabilizing areas that are strategic priorities, or question the conventional wisdom with respect to Irregular Warfare. These failures are partly, if not wholly, within the SOCOM purview. Worse, since its founding and increasingly worse since 9/11, SOCOM has been unable to break free from the chase for resources that DoD is so well known for. If anything, SOCOM has, with JSOC in the lead, only improved upon their ability to secure resources.
The negative implications of SOCOM focusing on material resources and money cannot be over-emphasized: SOF’s value is not in its material resources or money. Its value is in securing national interests in ways in which the conventional forces cannot. This usually means thinking differently, executing innovatively, and questioning the conventional wisdom. Today the least likely entity within the U.S. government to question the conventional wisdom is, paradoxically, the U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters and its subordinate headquarters. And these headquarters increasingly get in the way of the SOF teams of junior NCOs and officers, the only truly remaining “special” parts of SOCOM. This ultimately results in SOF being very impressive at the tactical level and utterly failing at the strategic level.
The Role DoD Plays in SOCOM’s Problems
It is worth showing how DoD adds to SOCOM’s problems. The Department of Defense is currently largely the result of the Cold War. The Joint Chiefs and their chairman make important resourcing decisions and are supposed to be the top advisers to the President and the Secretary of Defense. The real power in terms of foreign policy and military operations, however, resides in the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs). These regionally-aligned four-star headquarters are much like independent fiefdoms, as most of these commanders can expect to retire out of their jobs. Likewise, their staffs are filled with civilians entrenched or jockeying for advancement or various services’ officers having to do their mandatory joint service time, most of them serving a one or two-year tour, never to return.
These commands do not manage worldwide or by country, but, instead, by “region.” Thus, all problems are, by default “regional.” It made some sense to do this during the Cold War. Today it is a disaster. To fix this, every SECDEF since Donald Rumsfeld, has ordered SOCOM to coordinate the worldwide fight against terrorism. Only recently has SOCOM embraced this task, but it still lacks the necessary institutional ability to reign in the Combatant Commands and manage problems on a regional, much less global scale. Even if they were to do so, however, they would still have to deal with the CIA, the State Department, and all the myriad ambassadors that are more or less capable of ignoring anyone below the President. If this weren’t enough, SOCOM arguably lacks the ability to do anything differently than any of the GCCs have done since 9/11, seriously questioning whether anything would change.
DoD also values what they call “decisive results.” This proximate manner of measuring progress is short-term and illusory. It gives the nation metrics like numbers of Afghans trained or numbers of ISIS fighters killed. It does not give us insight into whether or not our efforts are leading towards success, and, if not, why not. The focus of DoD and its lessons learned efforts are geared towards easily-measured and proximate cause and effect relationships. It has no room for situations that call for failure, for the indigenous troops learning on their own, or nations building their own institutions over time. Generals and commanders are promoted on what happens during their 6 month or 1 year assignments, not on what happens the day after they leave. And most of the blame for our failures is placed on the lack of Grand Strategy or similar guidance from our political masters.
DoD also encourages a focus on how to get the most out of Congress in terms of resources. It has enacted, with Congress’ blessing, a system that corrupts experiments and wargames and makes all commands align all of their activities towards proving that they need what they are asking for. This makes organizational learning almost impossible. Worse, concepts written within the DoD are disingenuous and most likely will never fix our problems. The end-state is money, as John Boyd once remarked. DoD and SOCOM are successful if they secure increasing amounts of money and people, just like any bureaucracy. This situation has resulted in the complete misalignment of our national security community’s activities with the interests of our nation.
How to Fix SOCOM
Part four of this series offers a more detailed look at recommendations for fixing SOCOM’s problems. One solution is a complete reorganization of the headquarters along the lines of McChrystal’s flattening and trust of subordinate’s concept. Much work at SOCOM is “make-work,” useful only to bureaucrats and those who like to fill reams of power point slides with information with the hope being that lots of work will be assumed to mean effectiveness. TSOCs have to be empowered, work closer with embassies, and be cut free from SOCOM and, largely, from their GCCs. Much of SOCOM’s headquarters could go away tomorrow and operations would actually improve. As Hy Rothstein has argued, less attention on SOF IW activities means more effective operations. Lots of generals, colonels, and staff officers don’t make IW more effective, they have the opposite result.
Ultimately, however, the question has to be asked whether or not a large, standing special operations command is preferred. Prior to the Cold War America stood up ad-hoc SOF when a need arose. These forces were trained for specific missions and then disbanded. Standing SOF were looked at as worse than a large standing Army by most. Today we have a massive and bloated headquarters with massive and bloated subordinate headquarters that have largely been corrupted by a relatively large command that is focused on killing terrorists. This command, JSOC, controls the culture of SOCOM and has had some part in sidelining units that are supposed to conduct long-term influence operations. The largest of these subordinate units, U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), focuses much of its talk around something called “UW,” or Unconventional Warfare, in short the overthrow of governments. But there is a reason there has not been a “vanilla” ARSOF officer (SF, CA, or Psyop) commander of SOCOM since 1997. USASOC and its issues are the topic of Part II of this series.