Congressional Hearing on SOF Culture and Climate – March 2021

Hearing on SOF Culture

A hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations about SOF culture and climate was held on March 26, 2021. The subcommittee heard testimony from four outside experts. The intent was to explore means to shape the force for future demands of great power competition.

The hearing lasted a little over 2 hours and consisted of prepared statements by the ‘experts’ followed by a question and answer session. The topics centered on the impacts of the historic operational tempo and the diversity challenges of US special operations forces. The hearing was held to explore three critical themes: the current state of the force following two decades of countering terrorism and conducting counterinsurgency operations, the comprehensive health of the force, and the future opportunities for the force in support of U.S. national security objectives.

A more honest title for the hearing might have been how to make US special operations forces more diverse and inclusive. That is basically what the subcommittee chairman – Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) – led off with in his opening statement. It also seemed to be what the majority of the subcommittee members appeared to be interested in and asked questions about. Naturally, the ‘experts’ responded to those questions.

Panel Participants. The four outside ‘experts’ certainly were stellar witnesses and well-suited for the discussion:

Ms. Linda Robinson is a long-time observer of US SOF. She is the author of Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces and of numerous papers and articles about SOF. Currently she is the Director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation.

Lt. Gen. Mike Nagata, US Army (Ret.) had a long career in SOF spanning over 3 decades with US Army Special Forces and other special mission units (SMUs). He is a former commander of Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT).

Ms. Kate Germano retired from the United States Marine Corps with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. She is the author of Fight Like a Girl: The Truth Behind How Female Marines Are Trained. The book details her professional battle against systemic gender bias in the Marines.

Mr. Mark Mitchell is a retired 0-6 that served many years in U.S. Army Special Forces. He is also a former (acting) Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SO/LIC). He is a frequent commentator and writer about SOF and the need for ASD SO/LIC to have a closer relationship with the Secretary of Defense and more oversight on United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

Hearing Comments. Each of the panel witnesses provided a short opening statement and then responded to questions from the subcommittee members. Below are remarks from each of the witnesses – either from the opening statements or in response to questions. Unless in “quotes” the paragraphs below provide a ‘sense’ of the statements and responses made.

MG Nagata, (Ret.) The retired SF general stressed the need to conduct SOF specific research on the effects of recurring deployments, combat action, blast effects, and other events experienced by SOF operators. He feels that 20 years of counterterrorism operations have focused SOF on direct actions missions to the neglect of other missions that are important in todays ‘great power competition’ environment. He sees US SOF “reawakening” to the current “war of influence” we are currently engaged in with our adversaries. SOF needs to be able to solve very complex problems that don’t always require physical force or a weapons system. A recurring theme in his testimony was the need to win the “war of influence”.

On the topic of deployment to dwell ratios – Nagata had two views. One is that the OPTEMPO has a significant effect on SOF operators. However, he believes that people who join SOF wouldn’t have it any other way. They want to deploy frequently. He also said that these deployments are necessary as they expose the force to complex foreign environments, develop skills within the force, and are key to winning the fight for influence. The more SOF lives and operates in a foreign environment the better they can compete with our adversaries. One interesting concept he offered was the stationing of SOF on long-term deployments or assignments where their families could live as well. The SOF operator picks up the cultural and language expertise and the family life doesn’t suffer.

Nagata believes that a disproportionate allocation of defense resources is spent on weapons systems and not enough on non-kinetic methods. The mantra of a ‘more lethal force’ is counterproductive and takes the focus away from the type of competition (hybrid, gray zone, etc.) we are faced with in today’s security environment. He also stated that terrorism is not going away and that SOF needs to remain capable in CT skills and operations. In addition, he believes that CT and COIN missions overseas provides us access and placement for developing influence in countries where we are competing with adversaries – places like Kenya, Philippines, and Mozambique.

ASD SO/LIC was also a topic for Nagata. He noted that while the nation relied on SOF over the past two decades and that the SOF community (USSOCOM) had significant growth – ASD SO/LIC hasn’t.

On the topic of diversity in SOF, Nagata believes that more research needs to be conducted on what would motivate members of minority or ethnic groups to join SOF. He believes that the SOF selection and training institutions are doing their job but that recruitment of diverse members of society needs to improve. His experience was that in the past there was a lack of diverse candidates. More emphasis must be placed on the recruiting process to fix the diversity issue. Nagata believes that one way to attain more diverse force is to reach out to the men and women attending the academies, ROTC, and officer candidate schools.

Mr. Mitchell. The former (acting) ASD SO/LIC stressed the importance of civilian oversight of USSOCOM throughout his testimony. He believes the relationship with SECDEF needs to be stronger, that the organization needs more resources (40 personnel is not enough), and that some functions need to be transferred from Tampa to D.C. Mitchell stressed that building relationships with the militaries of other nations is important in great power competition. He sees us competing with Russia and China across the globe – in a war of influence.

Mitchell also spoke about the need create new military occupational specialties within SOF – citing electronic warfare and cyber operations as an example. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are areas where SOF should improve its expertise. He mentioned a program that USSOCOM had started under then General Tony Thomas that was experimental in nature – incorporating 21st century skills into the force. (Unfortunately, it appears USSOCOM has discontinued this effort.)

He stated the need for diversity in SOF – including more minorities and women in the ranks. He also stressed how recruiting members of the immigrant community could add more cultural and language capability to SOF.

Ms. Robinson. In her opening statement, Linda Robinson spoke of the need to have a strategic rebalance in the SOF community. She noted that there are some systemic issues that need to be addressed: oversight, diversity, deployment to dwell ratio, and ethics. While she strongly advocates for a more diverse force – inclusive of women and minorities – she cites the need for gender neutral standards as well as maintaining high standards for SOF. She believes there are some ‘subtle’ barriers to diversity that need to be removed.

She emphasized the importance of working with partner nations around the world in today’s competitive security environment. She also pointed out how cyber, electronic warfare, and information operations are more important today than in the past. She believes that great power competition is more than a high-intensity conflict – that it also encompasses the irregular warfare spectrum. Robinson worries about the current focus on kinetic instead of non-kinetic operations.

Ms. Germano. The former Marine officer believes that attaining a diverse force is essential to improving our military. She believes that there is an institutional resistance to change. She explained that there is an emotional response by members to the military’s attempts to attain a more diverse force. A recurring theme heard by members of the military (and SOF) is that diversity increases the effectiveness of the military force. However, there is not a lot of ‘facts’ that back that claim up. She believes that more research has to be done that proves a diverse force is more capable – which in turn will offer the ‘proof’ needed to sway those who currently see diversity as just another progressive block to be checked.

According to Germano some potential recruits to SOF and the military in general are put off by the public media’s depiction of the military – with its problems of ethics, racism, sexual assault, and other issues. Leaders can help by reaching out to the minority communities within and outside of the military. In addition, she believes a strategic plan should be set in place to increase diversity in the military. Germano looks at the recruiters as one of the primary ways to achieve diversity in the force. She notes that recruiters tend to have stereotypes and bias when it comes to who is a potential recruit for combat arms and SOF.

Subcommittee Member Questions. Many of the questions were about ASD SO/LIC, how to get to a more diverse force, operational tempo, great power competition, and gender issues. There were some specific questions on other topics as well – for instance, drone strike approval. One Congressman, Representative Mike Waltz (a former Green Beret), asked why society and Congress pushed for gender integration in the military and SOF (he isn’t opposed to it) but then pushed for different standards when it comes to physical fitness (referencing the newest Army Combat Fitness Test).

Conclusion. It was an interesting hearing, one conducted in today’s COVID environment. Most of the witnesses and subcommittee members appeared to be ‘attending’ from the comfort of their homes. Not one suit and tie was in attendance. One subcommittee member was sitting in his car with his seatbelt securely fastened while another was receiving lot of attention from his dog. There was the occasional crying baby in the background! The chairman appears to need some help in running a meeting from home. The topics were interesting. The questions and statements from the subcommittee members seemed generic in nature and ‘politically correct’. The testimony of the witnesses was the best part of course – especially from Nagata and Mitchell. The first 20 minutes are worth a listen (opening statements). The entire 2 hours? Maybe not.


The hearing was aired live. It was also recorded and posted on YouTube.
“SOF Culture and Climate: The Future of the Force”
House Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations
March 26, 2021, 2 hours 9 minutes, starts just after 7 min mark.

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