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Function… then Form: Rethinking the Operational Command Structure of US SOF

Updated: Jun 30

By Jeremiah Monk




The US Department of Defense (DoD) continues to struggle with the adaptation required to meet the era of global strategic competition. Pentagon strategists have clearly explained the imperative,[i] but the Department has yet to realize that both its functionality and form are not up to the task. The DoD’s impediment is twofold: a regionally focused operational organization and a primary focus on the operational military aspects of competition. To maintain US National Security and uphold the US-led international order that enables it, the DoD must rethink how it coordinates, integrates, and executes competition activities.


A wealth of documentation already exists on how exceptionally well-suited US Special Operations Forces (SOF) are to integrate and lead a global competition campaign.[ii] However, despite the impressive capabilities of the US SOF Enterprise, it too is largely impeded by the same geographic boundaries as the larger DoD. Furthermore, as most strategic competition occurs in non-military fields of play (diplomatic, economic, informational, legal, financial, etc.), competition is a strategic challenge that cannot be approached by a military structure alone. The proven structure of a Joint Inter-Agency Task Force (JIATF) is well suited to address the later challenge. The former issue will require an entity with the experience, presence, and perspective to effectively serve as a trans-regional integrator for strategic competition.




Note: This section provides an orientation for those readers unfamiliar with the command and control structure of the US Military and US Special Operations Command. Readers familiar with this structure may prefer to skip to the next section.


The Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986[iii] instituted a regionally aligned military command structure still in use. This organizational construct primarily reflected the concept of warfighting of the day in which combat operations would largely be confined to geographic, physical theaters of operation. The Unified Combatant Commands (now Geographic Combatant Commands, or GCCs) were organizations by which the DoD could effectively delegate command and control of military activities without going so far as to establish a centralized General Staff. Now codified into law as Title 10 USC § 164 (c)[iv], Combatant Commanders hold specified authorities within their geographically-assigned regions, to include:

(B) prescribing the chain of command to the commands and forces within the command;

(C) organizing commands and forces within that command as he considers necessary to carry out missions assigned to the command;

(D) employing forces within that command as he considers necessary to carry out missions assigned to the command;

(E) assigning command functions to subordinate commanders;

Following Goldwater-Nichols, the Nunn-Cohen amendment to the 1988 National Defense Authorization Act[v] codified authorities in Title 10 USC § 167[vi] for US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) similar to that of a military service branch. Paragraph (e) of this section also grants the Commander of USSOCOM the authorities of a Combatant Commander listed in Title 10 USC § 164, to include:


(C) organizing commands and forces within that command as he considers necessary to carry out missions assigned to the command;

(D) employing forces within that command as he considers necessary to carry out missions assigned to the command;

(E) assigning command functions to subordinate commanders


Despite the USSOCOM Commander holding these Combatant authorities, SOF operations typically fall under the authority of the GCC in which they occur. 10 USC § 167 (d) prescribes: “Unless otherwise directed by the President or the Secretary of Defense, a special operations activity or mission shall be conducted under the command of the commander of the unified combatant command in whose geographic area the activity or mission is to be conducted.”[vii] This caveat significantly limits the operational command authority of the USSOCOM Commander. It puts SOF assigned to a theater in the position of aligning their focus to support the priorities of their assigned regional GCC.


USSOCOM has established seven Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOC), with subordinate headquarters elements aligned with the regional GCCs. Each TSOC (save one) is led by a general or flag officer, and provides logistics, planning, and operational command and control for all SOF in that GCC’s area of responsibility (AOR) to include sensitive SOF activities.[viii] Through SOF employment in-theater, TSOCs ensure access, placement, and influence in support of their GCC’s regional campaign plans and enable the application of SOF in GCC warfighting plans. However, GCCs and TSOCs normally opt to delegate command and control of combat operations to subordinate Task Force structures, preferring to have dedicated subordinate commanders to focus on managing the day-to-day demands of ongoing operations.


USSOCOM provides resources and administrative support to the TSOCs, but the TSOCs take their operational marching orders from their respective GCCs. As GCCs are constrained by geographic boundaries, scope of responsibility, and a military-centric point of view, so too are the TSOCs. Each GCC has one assigned TSOC, with one notable exception: US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) has two TSOCs, Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC) and Special Operations Command Korea (SOCKOR).




SOCKOR is an interesting animal. It is a TSOC focused on a specific region, the Korean peninsula. It reports to US Forces Korea (USFK), a sub-unified command underneath US INDOPACOM. It is also the only TSOC with the dual luxuries of having a singular geopolitical problem set (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) and only one partner force to work with (the Republic of Korea, ROK).


The frozen conflict with North Korea is the sole reason for the existence of SOCKOR and USFK. The nature of the situation leaves little else for these commands to do other than help the ROK deter DPRK aggression and prepare for war. SOCKOR has limited visibility and no authority outside of the Korean Peninsula, and, as with USFK, its plans and operations are heavily influenced by the threat of combat.


Though the DPRK is essentially a regional actor, it does conduct activities that are adversarial to the US, US allies, and US partners across the globe.[ix] The DPRK is closely integrated with the People’s Republic of China and increasingly so with Russia, and therefore appropriately serves as the antagonist in one of the DoD’s five Global Campaign Plans. SOCKOR, as the only SOF entity aligned to this problem, is the only entity that is able to serve as USSOCOM’s lead agent for dealing with the global DPRK threat system. But because of SOCKOR’s regional constraint and warfighting focus, the command is poorly equipped to advise on the application of SOF to support non-warfighting competitive operations across the rest of the globe (e.g., DPRK sending maritime shipments of munitions to support Russia’s war in Ukraine).[x]


The other six TSOCs are worse off. Each has taken on the role of SOF lead agents for the most significant adversary home-based in their AOR (SOCEUR – Russia, SOCPAC - China, etc) – a situation driven as much by regional proximity as by the artificial economics of USSOCOM favoring threat-based (vs. objective-based) resource prioritization guidance. Like SOCKOR, all TSOCs are regionally constrained to the AOR of the GCC to which they are assigned. However, all the others must contend with added complexity caused by the adversarial activities of all five strategic competitors operating in their AORs.


This fragmentation ensures no one TSOC can understand, much less effectively counter, the entirety of a singular threat system -and much less so the interconnectivity of five systems spread across all competitive fields of play. Furthermore, as the existing DoD resource allocation processes force each TSOC to compete with each other for limited manpower and funding allocation, each TSOC is inherently motivated to address only the largest adversary in their own backyard, only within that adversary’s backyard, which effectively leaves the rest of the globe up for grabs.




As military organizations, TSOCs and the GCCs to which they are assigned tend to look at problems from the military perspective. This leads them to develop plans and operations with a distinct military focus. GCCs were established with an eye to regional warfighting, and this focus drives the TSOCs to spend a significant amount of effort planning for hypothetical combat operations – often at the detriment of actual ongoing strategic competition. Thus, not only are regional US command structures limited to looking at the actions of one regional adversary, but they do so through the lens of offense or defense warfighting.


As TSOCs are the operational arms of the US SOF enterprise, this fragmentation of focus severely inhibits the ability of USSOCOM to see and understand the larger global connectivity of the ongoing competitive context. Because USSOCOM is not an operational command by 10 USC § 167 (d), the short-term risk to force is low. However, because USSOCOM is responsible for developing strategies, plans, programs, and a force structure to provide SOF to address this rapidly changing environment, there is a real - and severe - risk to both the mission and force of the future.


But it gets worse. Military organizations, staffed by military personnel and focused on military problems, are essentially blind to the non-military dimensions of a problem set. Military planners do generally not concern themselves with such things as capital funding flows, trade agreements, transnational organized crime, or the brazen pillaging of sovereign resources, even within their AORs. The diplomatic, economic, and informational aspects of strategic problem sets are often discussed in Senior Service Schools but more often go overlooked in military campaign planning - yet these non-military realms are the active fields of strife.


Military organizations tend to do military things. Militaries tend to focus heavily on those things: war and the deterrence thereof. But combat normally happens only when lower-level competitive options have been exhausted. Most of those competitive options are not in the military’s purview and often go ignored or unseen by military planners. By maintaining such a relentless focus on the hypothetical worst-case scenario, the DoD, and by extension SOF, are therefore preparing to win a fight that may never be while actively losing the fight, that is.




Because competition primarily occurs outside the military domain, the obvious solution is for the DoD to look for opportunities to support other government agencies, leveraging their unique capabilities and authorities to provide a more holistic approach to strategic competition. This idea is not new - the US military often provides manpower, planning, logistics, and transportation support to bolster interagency and coalition partners with the authority, access, and capabilities required for mission success.


The standard structure formed to accomplish a specific interagency mission set is called a Joint Inter-Agency Task Force. Historically, the most successful JIATFs support law enforcement and homeland defense, the most notable example being JIATF-South. [xi] Established under US Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), JIATF-S “conducts detection and monitoring operations…to facilitate the interdiction of illicit trafficking in support of national and partner nation security.” JIATF-South works because it is built to leverage the authorities of the IA partners, particularly those of law enforcement. It works because it is designed to put the military instrument of power in support of the IA partners. It also works despite being subordinate to USSOUTHCOM largely because the GCC is limited in authorities, resources, and potential for combat operations. JIATFs are also constructed to be network-centric, which encourages coordination and support from other JIATFs.

The JIATF structure presents a promising organizational structure to address the non-military aspects of strategic competition. The organization could expand to include partner nations to form a Combined-JIATF, reinforcing international trust and cooperation. At a minimum, such a JIATF would need to include representatives from the Departments of State, Commerce, Energy, Justice, Homeland Security (DHS), Transportation, Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Intelligence Community (IC), all underpinned by the capabilities of the DoD.


Of course, the nature of global strategic competition is far too large for any one JIATF. As the success of JIATF-S demonstrates, JIATFs are most effective when they have a clear scope and an achievable mission. JIATFs are probably, therefore, best formed to address more regional mission sets that support larger strategic objectives, such as:


Countering Chinese Influence in the South China Sea:

  • Objective: Protect freedom of navigation and uphold international maritime law.

  • Actions: Conduct joint patrols with regional allies, engage in diplomatic efforts to resolve territorial disputes, and support regional capacity-building initiatives.

  • IATF Members:

    • DoD: Conducts joint patrols and military presence.

    • State: Engages in diplomatic efforts and negotiations.

    • Commerce: Manages trade policies and economic sanctions.

    • IC: Provides intelligence and surveillance.

Securing US Interests in the Arctic:

  • Objective: Address strategic challenges and opportunities in the Arctic region, including homeland security, trade routes, environmental resilience, economic development, and upholding international law.

  • Actions: Enhance surveillance and defense capabilities, address climate change impacts, promote responsible economic opportunities, and foster international cooperation.

  • IATF Members:

    • DoD: Enhances surveillance and defense capabilities.

    • State: Leads diplomatic efforts and fosters international cooperation.

    • DHS: Supports homeland security and maritime law enforcement.

    • NOAA: Monitor climate change impacts and environmental resilience.

    • EPA: Ensures environmental protection and resilience-building efforts.

    • Commerce: Promotes responsible economic opportunities and sustainable development.

    • IC: Provides intelligence and surveillance to support strategic objectives.

Stabilizing the Sahel Region in Africa:

  • Objective: Counter violent extremism and support regional stability.

  • Actions: Provide security assistance and training to local forces, support humanitarian efforts, and engage in development projects to address root causes of instability.

  • IATF Members:

    • DoD: Provides security assistance and training.

    • State: Leads diplomatic efforts and regional partnerships.

    • USAID: Supports humanitarian and development projects.

    • Justice: Assists in building local law enforcement capacity.

Supporting Democratic Governance in Latin America:

  • Objective: Promote democratic institutions and counter malign influence.

  • Actions: To strengthen democratic governance, assist in electoral processes, provide anti-corruption training, and support civil society organizations.

  • IATF Members:

    • State: Promotes democratic institutions and anti-corruption initiatives.

    • USAID: Provides development assistance and supports civil society.

    • Justice: Offers anti-corruption training and legal support.

    • Commerce: Facilitates economic development and trade.

Enhancing Maritime Security in the Indo-Pacific:

  • Objective: Counter illicit activities and ensure maritime security.

  • Actions: Conduct joint maritime patrols, support regional maritime law enforcement agencies, and engage in capacity-building initiatives to enhance regional maritime security capabilities.

  • IATF Members:

    • DoD: Conducts joint maritime patrols and training.

    • State: Engages in diplomatic efforts and regional cooperation.

    • DHS: Supports maritime law enforcement.

    • IC: Provides intelligence and surveillance.


DoD has activities and operations that are oriented to each of these objectives. However, without other government agencies' added capability and authority, the efforts are unilateral and, therefore, inherently handicapped. Forming JIATFs to address these example missions could be a remedy, though, like other successful JIATFs, they will need to be underpinned by DoD organizational support. Fortunately, the DoD has already established regionally-focused commands that are already used to working with IA partners and in the complex world of competition. Reenter the TSOCs.




TSOCs are well-positioned to form the core of JIATFs aimed at specific mission sets that increase the US competitive advantage. TSOCs already have established command and control capabilities, infrastructure, regional expertise, and interagency coordination mechanisms. They work closely with US envoys and country teams and maintain long-standing relationships with partner forces. The special activities sections of TSOCs routinely work closely with interagency partners, and already have a wealth of experience reaching innovative solutions through combining authorities. TSOCs also possess the infrastructure and operational experience necessary to plan, coordinate, and conduct joint operations below the threshold of combat operations.


Ultimately, just like with JIATF-South, a JITAF would most likely fall under the administrative umbrella of a GCC. This is not to say that a GCC or TSOC should always lead a JIATF. This is especially true considering TSOCs have other roles and responsibilities and limited manpower and time. However, a TSOC is well suited to host a JIATF and serve as the DoD’s contributing member of the IA team. In this capacity, the TSOC can request and manage SOF (ideally suited to accomplish these missions), provide resources and logistics support, and command and control DoD operations as necessary.


JIATFs should be led by a senior official from the government agency with the most at stake in the particular mission. Just as JIATF-S is a law enforcement mission led by the US Coast Guard (DHS), the JIATF-South America example above should be led by the Department of State. The JIATF-Africa example, however, is more suited to be led by DoD (SOCAFRICA). The unified mission is vital to the success of a JIATF, so even though the organization may be formed under a GCC and on a military foundation, it must not be dominated by a military predisposition.


JIATFs are a potential solution to integrate interagency capabilities to accomplish missions that will impact the greater context of global strategic competition. This solves one problem: unilateral DoD operations focusing only on the military aspects of competition. However, JIATF missions must be limited in scope, purpose, and geography. The second issue, that of strategic competition being global vs regional, will not be solved by the JIATF structure. A more global perspective is needed to decide where and why to invest in JIATFs, integrate strategic objectives, and assess the impacts.




USSOCOM is an excellent candidate to fill this role as the integrator of global strategic competition. The command has a global perspective, worldwide access and presence, a long history of working with IA and foreign partners, and the responsibility to develop, manage, and allocate SOF. This force offers many exquisite capabilities needed to operate in the “grey zone” of competition.[xiii]


True, 10 USC § 167 (d) says USSOCOM must relinquish operational control of SOF operating in-theater to the GCC Commander. However, USSOCOM still has robust responsibilities and authorities available, and in the case of competition, they are arguably more potent than operational control. USSOCOM holds the power of resource allocation.


Like Congress, USSOCOM holds the power of the purse – in this case, the power to allocate both forces and funds. Though TSOCs plan and execute operations and activities for the GCCs, they must request forces for those activities from USSOCOM. USSOCOM, therefore, has the power to decide what type of force to send, when to send it, for how long, which authorities to grant that force, or whether to send a force at all. Through allocation, USSOCOM has the power to shape what sort of operations the TSOCs plan to do in the first place, well before the period of GCC-controlled operational execution.


This responsibility puts USSOCOM in a unique position to offer strategic orientation and synchronization that can better integrate trans-regional competition activities by steering resources to those activities that best align with this strategy. That strategy should look more at the global landscape of strategic competition, evaluate where US interests are at risk, and recommend competition operations, much like the above examples. USSOCOM could then incentivize TSOCs to plan and request resources for these activities by establishing clear rules, guidance, and priorities for resourcing – setting the “rules of the game” for its annual force allocation process. If TSOCs want to succeed in receiving an allocation of SOF, they would have a much higher chance of success if their request aligns with USSOCOM’s recommended strategy.


Of course, TSOCs must nest their planned activities to support GCC regional theater campaign strategies and support GCC SOF requirements. This is not to suggest otherwise. Most competition and JIATF-appropriate activities would nest well with GCC regional campaign plans. USSOCOM must balance its strategy against regional requirements and prioritize allocation accordingly. But far too often, TSOCs are left to develop long-range plans in a vacuum of strategic guidance. The global nature of competition presents USSOCOM with an opportunity to fill this void. USSOCOM should strive to provide clear resource prioritization direction to the TSOCs on the types of operations and activities that would move the needle in strategic competition, then allow the TSOCs time to plan accordingly.


USSOCOM currently has a force allocation process that does this in part, but it is largely unguided by strategy, reactive to current events, and heavily threat-centric. This process is inherently flawed, as it establishes resourcing incentives based on regional adversaries instead of upon objectives. Instead, USSOCOM should look to develop a global strategy for competition that orients on national interests, prescribes conceptual operations and activities required to secure those interests, provides prioritization guidance, and recommends the types of forces required to achieve those objectives – to include a JIATF is appropriate. Establishing this sort of resourcing guidance would be welcomed by the TSOCs and significantly change the reactive and regionally fragmented way SOF is currently allocated. Furthermore, it would address the second problem by establishing USSOCOM as the DoD entity to integrate and synchronize competition objectives across regional boundaries.




The DoD’s approach to strategic competition is hindered in two dimensions. One is a military-centric perspective, which in competition is often ill-suited for the task. Military organizations are frequently left blind to their adversaries gaining competitive advantage in their AORs. The JIATF structure presents a historically proven solution to address the larger scope of competition. However, the DoD must carefully consider what IA authorities or equities are essential for the mission and which agency is best positioned to lead. With their existing structure, networks, relationships, and capabilities, TSOCs are well-suited to form the foundation for these competition-focused JIATFs.


The other issue that inhibits the DoD’s approach to competition is the regionally constrained nature of its command structure. GCCs are poorly situated to lead a global strategic competition campaign - they focus on the problems in their own backyard and have no authority and little visibility outside their regions. However, a global command like USSOCOM is well suited to develop and synchronize a global strategy for competition. This is especially so as USSOCOM holds the power of allocation of SOF, which would be the primary contributor of DoD to this competition campaign.


The imperative is real. Adversaries of the United States aim to defeat the United States strategically without resorting to armed conflict, necessitating a persistent and integrated approach to national security. By establishing JIATFs, the DoD can leverage the combined expertise and capabilities of various USG departments and agencies, ensuring a cohesive and comprehensive response to multifaceted threats. USSOCOM, with its trans-regional operational capabilities and experience in integrating interagency efforts, is uniquely positioned to lead these initiatives. A globally synchronized competition campaign would allow the United States to shape the competitive space proactively, tilting the balance in favor of U.S. interests and undermining adversaries' strategies. This approach not only more effectively deters aggression while preparing for potential conflicts, but also supports partners in achieving shared strategic objectives, in turn enhancing the overall resilience and effectiveness of US national security efforts.


The alternative is bleak. Our adversaries are actively working to undermine the US-led world order. Should the DoD continue its unilateral, disaggregated, and unsynchronized approach to strategic competition, the result will most likely be a loss of national influence, access, and advantage – without a fight- leaving the DoD with little left to fight for. At present this remains a choice for both USSOCOM and DoD, but time is running short as adversaries grow increasingly bolder. Simply rebranding counterterrorism-era functionality and form as a panacea for great power competition will only increase the chances of strategic defeat.


[i] Joint Staff. Joint Concept for Competing. Washington D.C., February 10, 2023, as published by Small Wars Journal on February 26, 2023. (accessed June 17, 20214)

[ii] Aaron Bazin,, “On Competition: Adapting to the Contemporary Strategic Environment.” JSOU Report 21-5, JSOU Press, August 2021. (accessed June 20, 2024).

[iii] US Public Law 99-433, “Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986”, 1 Oct 1986.

[v] 100th US Congress. “H.R.1748 - National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989.” 4 Dec 1987.,this%20or%20any%20other%20Act.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Congressional Research Service, “U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress.” Updated 11 May 2022.,%2C%20train%2C%20and%20equip%20TSOCs.

[ix] Jean Mackenzie, “North Korean weapons are killing Ukrainians. The implications are far bigger.” BBC, 4 May 2024.

[x] Joyce Sohyun Lee and Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “Russia and North Korea’s military deal formalizes a bustling arms trade.” The Washington Post, June 22, 2024. (accessed June 22, 2024).

[xi] Evan Munsing and Christopher J. Lamb, “Joint Interagency Task Force–South: The Best Known, Least Understood Interagency Success” National Defense University Institute for National Security Studies, Strategic Perspectives No. 5, 2011.

[xii] Joint Staff, “Joint Concept for Competing.” Washington D.C., February 10, 2023, p.v.; as published by Small Wars Journal on February 26, 2023. (accessed June 17, 2024)

[xiii] Forward Defense experts, “Today’s wars are fought in the ‘gray zone.’ Here’s everything you need to know about it.” Atlantic Council, February 23, 2022. (Accessed June 23, 2024).

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