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Internal study highlights struggle for control of US special operations forces

The study asks a series of questions, including why SOCOM was not initially created as its own service and what “recurring justifications” have been put forward for its status. The deadline that the JSOU team has imposed on itself to complete the effort is June 30.

Past and current officials see the study as an elaborate straw man argument intended to minimize civilian oversight. Mark Mitchell, formerly Best Actor civilian overseeing special operations forces at the Pentagon during the last administration, told POLITICO that in his opinion, the study is designed to conclude that SOCOM should not be its own service and therefore civilian decision-makers should not not have more power over the command. .

Leaders in the command have long resisted efforts by civilians to assert control over its budget and provide more aggressive oversight, said Mitchell, who received the military’s second-highest award for combat bravery in Afghanistan and also worked on the staff of the National Security Council during Obama. administration.

Increasing this civilian control is vital, he continued, especially as special operations have increased in size and reach since the September 11 attacks. Discipline issues at SOCOM became so severe that the Commander in 2019 led a comprehensive review of the community’s culture and ethics. The review ultimately found no “systematic” ethics failures, but underscored the need for stronger leadership at all levels.

“There are issues in the culture, and the highest civilian position needs to be empowered on a wide variety of fronts,” Mitchell said.

The Joint Special Operations University study came about after former Pentagon leaders decided to hold civilian leaders in the community accountable late last year, and after “cyclically recurring” discussions about creating a separate service for the special operations community, said Col. Curtis Kellogg, a spokesperson for the command.

Former Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller in November elevated the civilian official overseeing special operations, removing the post from the Pentagon’s political workshop and reporting directly to the Defense Secretary. This put the position on a par with military service secretaries for the first time.

Former officials said Miller made the switch, which ultimately executed a Congressional mandate to increase civilian control over special operations forces in the 2017 Defense Policy Bill, primarily to stem disciplinary and cultural issues in the community.

Generalized problems

Discussions on strengthening civilian control come after a series of scandals in the community. In 2019, Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher was convicted of posing for a photo with the body of a dead fighter. Trump intervened to prevent him from being demoted for the offense. During the trial, another doctor from the SEAL team took responsibility for the teenager’s murder. Gallagher recently appeared on a podcast where he said the Navy SEALs were performing medical procedures on a dying inmate.

“The kernel of truth in all of this is that this IS fighter was killed by us and no one at the time had a problem with it,” he said on The Line podcast. ‘Apple.

Earlier this year, another Navy SEAL pleaded guilty to killing an Army Staff Sergeant in what he described as a hazing gone wrong. And a recent CAS investigation highlighted rampant cultural issues – including drug abuse – in the community.

Meanwhile, a detailed Rolling Stone report from April revealed that at least 44 active-duty soldiers died while stationed at Fort Bragg – which includes SOCOM’s headquarters – last year. . It is not known how many of the 44 were special operators. A spokesperson for the base told Rolling Stone that illegal drug use was linked to all the killings involving soldiers stationed there. A former Green Beret wrote a letter to the author of the article from prison – where he is serving a sentence for drug trafficking on military planes – which described a culture of impunity.

“Elite soldiers have access to whatever they want: hookers, guns, drugs, etc.,” he wrote.

In January, the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office said it was assessing whether SOCOM and the U.S. Central Command were following Pentagon policy when reporting potential violations of the laws of war.

A separate service?

New Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced on Wednesday that after reviewing Miller’s decision to elevate the civilian special operations post, he decided to partially reverse the change, relocating the post to the policy workshop for most issues. The role will always maintain a direct line of command in Austin on administrative matters such as force staffing, training and equipping.

Miller’s initial decision to empower the civilian position came as a nasty surprise to military leaders, prompting SOCOM chief Gen. Richard Clarke and his team to take action, former officials said. In March, retired Lieutenant-General John Mulholland, former chief of the Army Special Operations Command, wrote a warning that the move could lead to a call for separate service.

Despite Austin’s overthrow, Clarke is likely still on the defensive on the issue of civilian control, former officials have said.

DoD officials and experts see little or no support within the military and on the Hill for creating a separate service for special operations forces, which they say would add logistical hurdles and bureaucratic unnecessary to a community that prides itself on stealth and agility.

Additionally, they say, the status quo benefits SOCOM commander Clarke, who in the absence of a fully empowered civilian leader has been the decision maker over budget priorities, strategy and force structure. The establishment of a new service would require an act of Congress.

Clarke is not in favor of making SOCOM a separate service, said Kellogg, a spokesperson for SOCOM.

“Congress wanted USSOCOM to be an organization that brings together the best service capabilities to meet the needs of the nation,” Kellogg said. “USSOCOM is inherently better suited to fulfill this role as a Joint Combat Command that works with and relies on services to help it accomplish its mission.”

So why study the question? The college began the effort after talks were held late last year over Miller’s change. He will analyze the history of the creation of SOCOM “as a functional fighter command with limited service type authorities and not a separate service,” Kellogg said.

News of the study was not made public, but it has made the rounds in defense circles. Some find this disturbing and see it as part of an elaborate lobbying effort to reduce the oversight of SOCOM.

“It is a total abuse of JSOU, who is supposed to do ongoing training for special operators and other DoD employees, to use them in a SOCOM lobbying campaign,” said a former senior Pentagon official, who asked anonymity to express oneself frankly. “It’s ridiculous.”

Kellogg defended the university, saying the organization embarked on the “purely academic” study because it determined “that it would be useful for an academic institution to conduct an independent and in-depth study” of the question.

Former officials and sources close to the talks also noted SOCOM’s unusual attraction to Congress. SOCOM has a massive legislative affairs team compared to other Fighter Commands, with more than a dozen people who frequently lobby Congress on funding and other issues, they said.

While lawmakers have backed the move to empower key civilians responsible for overseeing special operations forces, Congress seems reluctant to create a separate service.

“Based on my experience in the field and in the Pentagon, I don’t see the need for special operations forces to be a separate branch,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican who sits in the sub -Committee of the strategic forces of the armed forces of the Chamber. He said the command already had “unique service-type powers and funding.”

Defense officials say creating a separate unit for special operations forces would create unnecessary bureaucracy and logistical hurdles. In particular, this decision would pose a challenge for the SOF recruitment process, as the community relies on all military services as well as the civilian population, one of the officials said. For example, while most Navy SEALs are recruited “from the street” rather than the Navy, Army Green Berets typically come to Army SOCOM, the official mentionned.

In addition, the creation of a new service would require more funding and staff. During the debate over whether to create a separate service for the space, one of the main arguments against the move was the cost – at least $ 13 billion, by some initial estimates.

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