Small Wars Journal

Why Special Operations Oversight Should Matter to Every American

Mon, 03/29/2021 - 3:33pm

Why Special Operations Oversight Should Matter to Every American

by Clay Fuller

            Everyday Americans are on the frontlines of the irregular warfare campaigns in the era of Great Power Competition—and these hardworking Americans may not even know it.  Every community, from coastal cities to Appalachian small towns, is a grey zone attack away from an adversary and losing critical systems for law enforcement, public utilities, or healthcare.  The future is here where one stroke of the keyboard of a foreign adversary like China or other revisionist and rogue powers could send our criminal justice systems into chaos by erasing systems that store evidence or case information.  One key stroke could hold the water supply of a community hostage.  One key stroke could condemn a critically ill patient in a hospital to death.  Not only would this act edge the United States closer to war, it would devastate the American community that it was perpetrated upon.  It is not an exaggeration that our foreign adversaries have a gun to the head of municipal and local governments in the United States—who would have no power or ability to respond.  So who is best positioned to contribute an element of deterrence and address the huge challenges of Great Power Competition?  How do we make them more effective at this monumental task?

            When it comes to irregular warfare (IW), an adversary will look to use indirect and asymmetric approaches in order to erode their opponent’s power, influence, and will.  IW is where the majority of the competition with our Great Power competitors is occurring.  Most of the IW competition is occurring in the “grey zone” which is defined by U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as the “intense political, economic, informational, and military competition more fervent in nature than normal steady-state diplomacy, yet short of conventional war.”  To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s not jaw jaw but it’s not quite war war either.  The entity well suited to step into this contested arena is our Special Operations Forces (SOF).  As the American public begins to ask SOF to focus on IW in the grey zone, it is important to remind ourselves that since 9/11 SOF has had to focus on counterterrorism and other capabilities rather than the other aspects of IW.  It is sobering to remember that for twenty years SOF, and our nation’s ground forces in the army and Marine Corps, have been doing the lion’s share of the fighting and dying in the wars against terrorism.  An unintended consequence of those wars has been the atrophying of the full spectrum of SOF’s IW capabilities.  How can national leaders reverse this trend?   

            First, our national leaders need to help the American public understand the scope of the challenges we face in the era of Great Power Competition.  Our near peer adversaries are not looking to just be regional players, but rather seek and already have accomplished influence around the globe.  Consider our major competitor’s strategy: China seeks to export its authoritarian political system around the world in order to dominate regions, co-opt or coerce international organizations, create economic conditions favorable to China alone, and displace democratic institutions.  They are also looking to supplant the United States as the global leader.  And because they know they cannot match our conventional military capabilities (but they are working on that), they operate in the grey zone without the restrictions and outdated laws that limit our own capabilities there.  Second, we need to admit that if SOF walks, talks, and looks like a separate service—then we should treat it as such.  This can be done without making it a separate service but providing the correct service authorities.  Currently, SOF’s civilian leadership in the Pentagon is not at a senior enough level.  SOF needs the civilian equivalent of a service secretary.  For twenty years we have asked more and more of SOF and that is not about to change as we require them to conduct IW to contribute to protecting and advancing US national interests in great power competition.  Thus, in order to get the proper authorities, budget, and resources that SOF needs to operate in great power competition, they need an advocate at the appropriate level.  The uniformed chain, through SOCOM, would report directly to that civilian leader making a more seamless chain of command for SOF.  In the last days of the Trump administration, some of these changes to the civilian oversight structure of SOF were enacted by then Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller in order to meet Congressional intent for SOF civilian oversight in Section 922 of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.  These changes should be kept.  Partisan politics or bureaucratic infighting should not stand in the way of a good idea that will help America protect its national security interests.


About the Author(s)

Clay Fuller is an experienced federal, military, and local prosecutor as well as a reserve military officer with a decade of national security experience.  From 2018-2019 he was one of 14 Americans selected for the White House Fellows program, the nation’s most prestigious fellowship for leadership and public service.  As a Fellow he served at the Department of Defense assigned to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict.