The Special Operations / Low Intensity Conflict (SO/LIC) office within the Department of Defense provides civilian advocacy and oversight over the U.S. special operations community. However, there are some in the SOF community that feel the Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) position should be upgraded to the Under Secretary level. They argue that SOF does not have sufficient civilian advocacy and oversight in the Department of Defense.
The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations / Low Intensity Conflict is the principal civilian advisor to the Secretary of Defense on special operations and low-intensity conflict matters. The ASD SO/LIC has a responsibility for policy and the overall administrative supervision of SOF activities. These core SOF tasks include counterterrorism (CT), unconventional warfare (UW), direct action (DA), special reconnaissance (SR), foreign internal defense (FID), civil affairs (CA), information operations (IO), psychological operations (PSYOP), and counterproliferation of WMD. But the reach of SO/LIC is more than just SOF – it is involved in humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, disaster relief, counternarcotics, and more.
The ASD SO/LIC was mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act (1987). The position was established in January 1988 by Defense Directive 5138.3. The ASD SO/LIC is assisted by three Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Defense:
- DASD, Special Operations and Combating Terrorism
- DASD, Partnership Strategy and Stability Operations
- DASD, Counternarcotics and Global Threats
Growth of SOF Force. Over the past 18 years, since 9/11 and the Global War on Terror began, USSOCOM has increased in size – from 40,000 to about 70,000. The SOF budget has grown significantly – by the billions. The SOF mission set has expanded with constant, persistent presence in many countries and engagement in many more. ASD SO/LIC has not seen a corresponding increase in structure or staffing – this is problematic for conducting the type of oversight needed.
Congressional Action. In recent years Congress has directed that the Department of Defense fill key billets, increase the staff, and consider processes that would give ASD SO/LIC direct access to the Secretary of Defense. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (Section 922) instructed DoD to implement some mandatory reforms – which would expand the role of ASD SO/LIC.
DoD Inaction. The Defense Department – one of the finest examples of a bureaucracy if ever there was one – has been slow to implement the ‘wishes’ of Congress to increase the ‘reach’ of ASD SOLIC. DoD has taken an incremental implementation approach to the requirements of section 922. There has been some resistance on the part of former USD(P)s to SO/LIC exercising more independence. SO/LIC is a significant portion of the overall manpower of OUSD(P).
Future Congressional Action? It is quite possible the Congress will once again decide to provide some pressure to DoD to address this issue. The solution that Congress comes up with may be more than the Department of Defense would want. Possible options include an Under Secretary position for SO/LIC, making ASD SO/LIC an independent ASD (similar to ASD for Public Affairs), or establishing USSOCOM as a separate service. Currently ASD SO/LIC reports to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.
Why Have an Under Secretary for SO/LIC? The DoD is a huge bureaucracy that slowly grinds away with its daily routine. Hot button issues requiring timely responses concerning SOF do not always receive immediate action. The staffing process at the Pentagon is very slow both vertically and horizontally.
U.S. SOF operates in a fast paced world. This has been true over the past two decades in the counterterrorism fight and will continue in the near peer competition short of armed conflict. China and Russia will not confront us in general war; but rather using irregular warfare (IW). More often than not SOF is the appropriate force to meet these hybrid threats.
Resource allocation is an ongoing battle for the different services and programs. SOF needs a seat at the table where the big decisions are made. The hierarchy of the Pentagon has a lot to do with the division of resources. The higher the head of SO/LIC is within the hierarchy the better SOCOM and SOF equities are represented.
And USSOCOM? Former ASD SO/LIC (see “A Seat at the Table” podcast below) and some members of Congress are in favor of strengthening the SO/LIC staff. However, USSOCOM may not be in strong agreement. The commander of SOCOM currently has direct access to the Secretary of Defense – as he should. USSOCOM probably is not too keen to have to answer to or take direction from SO/LIC. The command is probably quite happy with the current level of ‘advocacy’ help they receive from SO/LIC. One challenge is that SOCOM maintains its own Special Operations Legislative Affairs office that directly engages with Congress – bypassing SO/LIC. SOCOMs own network of connective tissue is an impediment to SO/LIC fulfilling the role of a “service like” secretary.
It will be interesting to see where this issue goes in the months or years ahead. Some informative reading (and listening) is provided below under “References” for those who want to learn more.
“A Seat at the Table”, SOFspot, Global SOF Foundation, March 9, 2020. A panel discussion about upgrading the position of ASD SO/LIC. Panel members include three former ASD SO/LICs – Michael Lumpkin, Brian Sheridan, and Mark Mitchell. A 38 minute long podcast.
“Special Obfuscations: The Strategic Uses of Special Operations Forces”, article by Alice Hunt Friend and Shannon Culbertson, Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), March 6, 2020. This article highlights the importance of an effective SO/LIC in the context of balancing CT/COIN and strategic competition.
“America’s Special Operators Will Be Adrift Without Better Civilian Oversight”, article by Mark Mitchell, Zachary Griffiths, and Cole Liveiratos, War on the Rocks, February 18, 2020.
“America’s avengers deserve an advocate”, The Hill, November 5, 2019. Authors Meaghan Keeler-Pettigrew (Global SOF Foundation), James R. Locher III (former ASD SO/LIC), and Thomas Trask (Lt Gen Ret and former Vice Cdr USSOCOM) argue that SOF does not have sufficient civilian oversight and advocacy in the Department of Defense.
Special Operations Forces: Additional Actions Are Needed to Effectively Expand Management Oversight, U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), May 2019, 37 pages.
“A View from the CT Foxhole: Mark Mitchell”, CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, December 2018. Mark Mitchell, the Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations / Low Intensity Conflict is interviewed about SO/LIC and the role of SOF in the counterterrorism fight.
“Senate votes to boost civilian oversight of special ops, reinforcing earlier mandate”, Federal News Network, June 19, 2018. This article provides some detailed information on the measures the Congress expected DoD to take to beef up the staff of SO/LIC.
Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Legislation: Why Was it Passed and Have the Voids Been Filled?, by Colonel William G. Boykin, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, April 1991, 71 pages.