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OPEN LETTER TO A USSOCOM COMMANDER

Updated: 24 minutes ago

Bureaucratically Dominate to Operationally Dominate

By Monte Erfourth

March18, 2024

 

A SHORT INTRODUCTION

United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) must adapt and evolve to enhance its effectiveness as a significant contributor to the Joint Force’s approach to strategic competition and counterterrorism today and beyond 2040. The Commander of USSOCOM plays a pivotal role in steering the SOF enterprise towards future success. In the short term, this means aligning with the objectives set forth in the National Defense Strategy (NDS). In the long term, it means preparing a joint special operations force to succeed in a future context beyond our imagination. This transformation requires a comprehensive approach that embraces technological innovation, reformed processes, and changes in the future operating environment.

Ironically, the path forward for USSOCOM involves leveraging a concept often viewed as antithetical to the ethos of special operations: bureaucracy. While bureaucracy is typically associated with inefficiency and rigidity, a well-functioning bureaucracy can also provide a structured, integrated, and repeatable framework to implement wide-ranging reforms and innovations. For the SOF community, a carefully calibrated bureaucratic approach can help focus strategic planning, resource allocation, and the integration of cutting-edge technologies and capabilities for the strategic environment ahead.

THE ISSUE

Since the founding of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in 1987, every Commander has aimed to maintain SOF’s edge in a rapidly changing world by focusing on human capital and integrating new technologies. Until 9/11, SOF was orientated to provide unique access and capabilities in low-intensity conflict. After 9/11, counterterrorism (CT) became the primary focus of Special Operations (SOF). This focus on CT remained dominant until the release of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), which demanded the DoD shift to great power competition and relegated CT to being one of five significant threats to the homeland and US interests. The new approach by Secretary of Defense Mattis directed the Department to prepare for competition and conflict with great powers, to expand capabilities to counter cyber and space threats, and to leverage the extensive counterterrorism experience gained over the past twenty years to train and equip allies and partners. Responding to this Departmental shift, USSOCOM Commanders posit that SOF will be prepared to navigate the complexities of great power competition effectively by leveraging SOF’s people-centric approach and a commitment to tactical and technological innovation, which will, in turn, ensure readiness and resilience of the force to meet the challenges posed by diverse global threats.

The current USSOCOM Commander, GEN Fenton, has proposed two conceptual approaches to achieve the end states demanded by the NDS. The first is to find the answer to "what winning looks like." The General has proposed winning is deterring our pacing and acute threats of China and Russia and keeping "X-Ops" outside the borders of the homeland.[JM1] [ME2] [1] The second concept is summarized in the traditional USSOCOM axiom, "Win, Transform, People,"[2] establishing command priorities to Win on the battlefield, Transform the force, and train our People. General Fenton adopted the long-established approach but now arranges the order as “People, Win, Transform.” The former addresses the General’s vision for operations in the geopolitical space, and the latter addresses the intent to develop the SOF enterprise.

Do General Fenton’s concepts properly orient the transformation of US Special Operations to become the great power competitor and counter-terror force we will need in the near term? How about the operating environment from 2035 to 2040? By what process does Headquarters USSOCOM manage the implementation of these concepts? How is US SOF’s progress along this transformational journey (which will last well beyond General Fenton’s tenure) codified, resourced, assessed, and adjusted? Some background is necessary to answer these questions.

How to transform will be a primary focus of this article. It is important to note that transformation can run in only a few directions. SOF can transform into a slightly better version of its current self or something completely different. USSOCOM probably needs to split the difference, but the pace of technology powered by AI may require something completely different sooner rather than later. That said, even this AI-generated image of “future SOF” illustrates an unimaginative linear evolution of SOF into better “trigger pullers.” However, this future is most likely not the revolutionary capability that the situation and the Joint Force will require. It is a linear progression of capabilities and force design optimized for the bygone era of CT. Congress has empowered USSOCOM with authorities and resources to innovate on the leading edge of the Joint Force, not just progress the status quo. USSOCOM can do better.



The reader may be forgiven for being a bit confused about the multi-directional nature of USSOCOM. The events and assessments that led to the consolidation of SOF into the singular command structure of USSOCOM clearly illustrate how failure and criticism can serve as powerful catalysts for change within military institutions. Operation Eagle Claw, the botched 1980 mission to rescue American hostages in Iran, exposed glaring deficiencies in the U.S. military's command and control structures for special operations. This debacle underscored the complexity and difficulty of coordinating actions among different branches of the military's special operations units. At the time, each operated independently from one another, often with little to no interoperability or joint planning capabilities.

Through the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 and the subsequent Nunn-Cohen amendment of 1987, Congress mandated a structure to provide unified command and dedicated resourcing for all Army, Navy, and Air Force special operations forces under the oversight of a new four-star-level headquarters. This groundbreaking move transformed the fragmented, uncoordinated structure of the late 1970s to the more integrated and effective unified command of USSOCOM, establishing the first true joint force. It also created a command, and a commander, who wears two hats.

Section 167 of Title 10 U.S. Code establishes USSOCOM as the unified combatant command for Special Operations Forces, granting the command “service-like” responsibilities. [3] Section 167 addresses USSOCOM's organizational responsibilities, including SOF integration, budgeting and programming, force development, doctrine development, education, and training. 167 also establishes the command’s unique acquisition authority.

Under Section 167, USSOCOM commands four subordinate service components: U.S. Army Special Operations Command, U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command, U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command, and (added in 2006) U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. Each command brings unique capabilities and expertise to the joint special operations portfolio [4] and enables the U.S. SOF with a broad range of specialized skills, capabilities, and equipment necessary for conducting various clandestine, covert, and overt operations across all warfighting domains. Headquarters USSOCOM is responsible for ensuring the integration and interoperability of these component capabilities and maintaining the jointness of SOF.

Section 164 of Title 10 U.S. Code details the Commander's other hat. Section 164 establishes USSOCOM as a Functional Combatant Command (FCC). It outlines the Commander’s authority, roles, and responsibilities.[5]In this capacity, USSOCOM operates across geographic boundaries and provides unique capabilities to geographic combatant commands (GCC). The command does this via seven Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs), the operational arms of SOF. Each TSOC is aligned to a GCC and is responsible for overseeing the planning and management of SOF operations in a particular region. USSOCOM also oversees the training and doctrine development function of the Joint Special Operations Command. As an FCC, USSOCOM is responsible for ensuring SOF can support the Department of Defense's priorities:[6]

  • Defend the homeland, paced to the growing multi-domain threat posed by the PRC;

  • Deter strategic attacks against the United States, Allies, and partners;

  • Deter aggression while being prepared to prevail in conflict when necessary – prioritizing the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific region, then the Russia challenge in Europe; and,

  • Building a resilient Joint Force and defense ecosystem.

Though USSOCOM has administrative and resourcing control of the operational elements, TSOCs fall under operational control (OPCON) of the Geographic Combatant Commands. In short, this means the USSOCOM Commander’s primary role, even wearing the operational hat, is oriented towards his service-like responsibility.

Eight of the thirteen USSOCOM Commanders thus far served previously as the Commander of JSOC, with five of seven since 9/11. It's a difficult move for any commander to go from leading a pinnacle operationally focused unit to becoming the head of a sprawling resourcing-oriented bureaucracy. This may cause Commanders to be more comfortable wearing their operational Section 164 hat and realize too late that their real power lies in the grinding, bureaucratic, annual resourcing cycle of their Section 167 responsibilities.

ANALYSIS OF THE RESOURCING PROCESSES

Upon assuming command, every USSOCOM Commander must immediately become familiar with the Defense Department’s Program, Planning, Budget, and Execution (PPBE) process. This process is how US military bureaucracies obtain funding, the lifeblood of force transformation. The annual Commander’s Posture Statement to Congress is, in part, a formal recurring validation of SOF’s existence to Congress, who in turn authorizes and appropriates resources requested in the command’s annual Program Objective Memorandum (POM) submission. The POM describes a 5-year Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) and presents the Services and Defense Agencies’ proposal to balance their available resource allocation. The POM includes an analysis of missions, objectives, alternative methods to accomplish objectives, and allocation of resources.



The PPBE/POM cycle is an annual process with set events that occur at generally the same time each year. In the planning phase, USSOCOM must generate strategies and plans supporting larger national strategic objectives. These plans should extend out at least five years to cover the FYDP to justify both current and future FY requirements. Major budget issues between the services and GCCs are worked out by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the White House, and Congress approves the final appropriations bill.



As presented here, the “SOCOM Annual Transform and Win Process”[7] is the historical and notional process USSOCOM has sometimes followed. The depiction above lays out the basic steps for the annual process necessary to move from ideas to plans of action that get resourced by Congress. In this process, the USSOCOM Commander analyzes higher guidance, determines ways to achieve tasks and objectives, codifies them in concepts, plans, and strategies, works out resourcing, and then examines the results.

USSOCOM should have an annual battle rhythm like any other military enterprise to govern a routine process. As the saying goes, “Do routine things routinely.” Each directorate should work in concert to develop the products necessary to inform the next step in the process on an established, recurring timeline. The process should hinge upon participation from each staff directorate, working collaboratively and with full appreciation of who that directorate is producing a product for and why. The Commander must understand and oversee the process and ensure the headquarters is aligned to implement his vision of joint SOF transformation.

Transformation happens only through process and resourcing. Resourcing, development, and integration of joint SOF are also USSOCOM’s fundamental Section 167 responsibility, as well as the primary reason for the existence of USSOCOM. However, resource and bureaucratic process management are skills that most (but not all) SOF general officers do not have expertise in. They are historically promoted for tactical and operational success (via JSOC, lately) vs bureaucratic acumen. This operationally focused background leads them to spend much of the first part of their command focused on Section 164 responsibilities: the command and control of SOF, despite this role being of secondary importance and likely least consequential of the USSOCOM Commander’s Title 10 obligations. If the USSOCOM Commander is not focused on building the next-generation joint special operational forces, then who is? This is not the function of the services as they are focused on building the next generation of service-tailored SOF, not joint SOF.

When a new USSOCOM Commander takes command, he inherits the POM decisions of the commanders before him. At this point, the budget for the upcoming FY is nearly locked, so his ability to impact the command’s budget request will be limited until the following year’s POM submission. In his second year of command, the USSOCOM Commander wholly owns the POM process and the decisions for the POM, with more ability to shape the more distant budget timeframe. In his third (and usually final) year in command, the Commander solidifies those longer-term budget decisions with which the next Commander must live. If the Commander serves the standard three years in command, he will have only two opportunities to steer the transformation of the SOF enterprise through resourcing.

The annual steps from guidance to resourcing are essentially identical from one commander to the next. Nothing is inventive about the process, but the Commander must direct and lead it to establish the best budget for the next guy. Future USSOCOM Commanders must realize their limited window of opportunity and act accordingly if they wish to truly and effectively transform the enterprise.

WINNING TOOLS OF A JOINT FORCE PROVIDER

The reason for USSOCOM 's existence is to provide joint, integrated SOF to support the larger joint force. To do this, USSOCOM, as a service-like institution, must perform mundane tasks like writing joint doctrine, overseeing manpower issues, providing education and training, developing new weapons, supporting existing platforms, and making calculated investments through budgeting. Each subordinate SOF service component builds, manages, trains, equips, partially funds, and prepares its special operators to support operations mission sets that are particular to their service. SEALs swim, Green Berets advise, etc.

Each SOF service Component Commander must answer to two masters, USSOCOM and their respective service, and they receive resources and direction from both. Without integration guidance from USSOCOM, SOF service components will develop an element of SOF aligned with its service’s particular vision for the future. SOF Components are also partly at the mercy of strategic resourcing decisions made by their respective services. Yet the USSOCOM Commander must drive integration and answer to Congress about how joint special operations will collectively achieve the military ends prescribed by national strategy – without having complete control of how that formation will be constructed. It can be a challenging position for a Commander to be in.

Current events bear this out. The US Army faces two major contextual shifts: a decline in active-duty soldiers by approximately 30,000 from 2021 to 2024 due to recruiting challenges and a strategic pivot towards countering China's military rise. The Army views this second challenge as a call to bolster its capability to conduct major (conventional) combat operations. However, the first challenge of available human resources is driving the Army to divest the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capabilities that defined the post-9/11 era. Consequently, Army leaders plan to reduce special operations forces by 3,000 slots, reallocating resources towards capabilities deemed more critical for great power competition.[8] [9] [10]

Absent a compelling narrative for how SOF can support the joint force (the Army and Navy in particular) in this new age of strategic competition, OSD and Congress have no reason to support long-term investment in “legacy” special forces.

Again, USSOCOM can – and must – do better.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army sees no distinction between conventional and irregular warfare. The PLA and their Chinese Communist Party masters are currently employing a Fabian strategy[11], attacking US interests asymmetrically, incrementally, and with the intent to avoid a major military confrontation until the conditions are weighted heavily in their favor. They intend to soften targets and sap any will to resist, intimidate, exploit, and subjugate rivals without fighting a major conflict.

Special operations are ideally suited to compete with China in this context by reinforcing partnerships, bolstering resistance capabilities, undermining Chinese illegal actions on the periphery without retribution, and creating strategic dilemmas.[12] And yet, the Army found USSOCOM’s argument unconvincing. Why? Certainly, the Defense Department’s institutional bias toward planning major conventional combat operations, supported by large and expensive acquisition programs, is a factor. However, the more likely reason is USSOCOM’s inability to put forward a compelling narrative for how SOF can support the joint force in this context (and, in turn, serve to protect the Army’s interests).

As stated, it is a tough position. However, USSOCOM’s budget must be defended to avoid another Operation Eagle Claw moment. What are the Commander’s tools to wage this fight? The Commander must provide a long-term vision, a resource-oriented strategy, and clear and compelling operating concepts, just as the services have done. In short, he must embrace the power of his bureaucracy.

General Fenton has asked, “What does winning look like?” This is an appropriate way to frame his Commanders’ Guidance. His intent is for SOF to conduct special operations that will support integrated deterrence and prevent “X-Ops” from conducting a strike on the homeland in accordance with national strategic objectives.[13] This idea could be the basis for a global joint special operations strategy that points the way to five years of successful campaigning. However, USSOCOM has not expanded or tested the idea nor developed it into a strategy intended to inform resourcing, resulting in the lack of a compelling argument for why the services should support investment in (vs divestment from) SOF. Yet the POM cycle continues, leaving the Commander few opportunities to change the ship's course. The lack of a coherent and multi-directorate effort also means that a few very stressed personnel in the J8 are left to figure out the future of joint SOF operations and what should be funded.

Optimally, when a new Commander arrives, he (or she) should aim to make the most of his (or her) limited time by focusing on the power granted by Section 167. This starts by producing an institutional vision to guide the development of the force – an interim “end state” to serve as a North Star for the command[JM4] . Then, complete a strategy that extends five years into the future (FYDP) to demonstrate how SOF activities translate into real-world effects. The headquarters can build a campaign that illustrates SOF creating effects and dilemmas for peer rivals across theaters and time. This strategy could be completed by combining each TSOC theater support plan, incorporating JSOC capabilities, adding what winning looks like, and then synchronizing the details. The strategy should be paired with a Future Operating Concept (FOC) that extends out ten to fifteen years in the future to demonstrate what SOF can do operationally and point the way to what SOF will become in future warfare.

Beyond an operational strategy, USSOCOM requires an institutional one. USSOCOM has cited “Win, Transform, People” for many years as its raison d'etre. Winning is basically covered with a strategy, and people are the focus of training and human development. What exactly should SOF transform into? A fully developed FOC supplies the institutional answer to this question. A FOC attempts to imagine future operating conditions (10-15 years in the future) and then develop the competencies needed to operate in that environment. This is the lodestar for the future development, training, testing, war gaming, procurement, and budgets each service uses to prepare for the future. All services have them. The Army went so far as to set up an entire command to take on this challenge.[14]

Concepts have much to do with budgeting, but each service must be prepared to fight with the right capabilities in all future conditions, or it will put our homeland at risk. Our budget and procurement pipeline produce the next ship, plane, or tank. SOF produces people, and it does that exceptionally well. However, the world is arguably at the beginning of a massive acceleration in computing power that will put powerful weapons and capabilities in our warrior’s hands and those of our rivals.[15] How is the USSOCOM headquarters preparing for that?

The right FOC paired with a strategy would have given USSOCOM the ammunition it needed to explain to the Army what SOF can do in more realistic terms. Although having these documents may not convince the Army to invest in special forces, the probability of winning such an argument would improve significantly. Given the likelihood of human resources shortages over the next several years, it will not be the last time a service asks to cut special operational forces. USSOCOM must be prepared to have these conversations.

A strategy would also have other tangible benefits. Besides its role as the joint SOF leader, USSOCOM has a global responsibility. This is akin to a superpower. It allows for objective evaluation and analysis of each theater and an opportunity for comparative analysis between theaters that no GCC can match. With a global understanding and a strategy developed to achieve national security-driven priorities, USSOCOM would be ideally situated to make well-informed resourcing decisions and offer advice on the best use of special operational forces. The strategy-FOC combination provides a way to set priorities, move towards objectives, and measure the effects created by SOF activities.

Measuring the impact of special operations in the Joint Force's environment is vital to quantitatively demonstrate value.[16] The key is linking Intermediate Military Objectives (IMO) to the desired ends of the National Security Strategy (NSS), National Defense Strategy (NDS), and Theater Combatant Command Plans. Just registering activity is not helpful. SOF must link activity to an empirical result, or the conventional force will never understand SOF’s contribution to strategic competition. By developing measures for IMOs and the impact of SOF activities, the SOF enterprise can understand their effects and gauge that impact relationship to national strategic objectives. It will also avoid the misapplication of scarce resources and offer a recorded history of results that will inform future decisions. Budget allocation decisions could be targeted to the most critical requirements. Equally as necessary, the decision to end legacy programs would be substantiated by data analysis. Perhaps most importantly, SOF could quantitatively demonstrate value in competition to Congress and the services.

Combined with the right measurements, a strategy could be a powerful tool in the USSOCOM Commander’s kit. If “What does winning look like?” yields a robust integrated deterrence, what does SOF’s contribution look like? Beyond opinion, how can SOF validate its contribution to the Joint Force efforts across the theaters? Without good data and knowing what you want to achieve year in and year out, how do you adjust forces or recommend different ways to compete? All too often, TSOCs and other SOF entities across the enterprise report activities, not results.

To dominate future joint operations, USSOCOM must dominate bureaucracy today. Working with the Special Operations Component Commands, the TSOCs, GCCs, and interagency, USSOCOM can manage its process and develop game-changing strategies and FOCs. The command can win resourcing battles and prepare the force necessary for great power competition and counterterror operations. Ironically, it will require great warriors to become great process leaders where the battles they fight are on the whiteboard, in conference rooms, and in the halls of Congress. Win there, then dominate threats to our nation with a joint SOF force ready-made for the challenge.

USSOCOM: THE COMBATANT COMMAND

Joint doctrine states a campaign is a series of related military operations to accomplish a strategic or operational objective within a given time and space. If China and Russia operate globally, a global SOF campaign that coordinates effects in time and space will be the most effective way to achieve integrated deterrence while advancing U.S. national security interests. Strategy does not have to be a straitjacket; it can be reviewed annually, updated, or adjusted whenever the Commander thinks conditions have changed.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act streamlined the military chain of command, which now runs directly from the President through the Secretary of Defense to Combatant Commanders. It also gave us the current Combatant Command divided into six theaters of operation.[17] With six theaters developing campaign plans that are not coordinated or aligned with the others, DoD has no way to campaign globally under a single, united plan. There is no Global Commander who answers to the SecDef or President. What results are six “soda straw” views of local campaigns that only marginally coordinate in time and space across theaters, do not coordinate effects, and cannot capitalize on the United States’ global reach capabilities. China and Russia are well aware of this fact.

USSOCOM could provide the TSOCs with a better sense of global conditions, what operations are being conducted, where, and with what results, and assist in operational coordination across GCC boundary lines. Our pacing and acute threats have no such borders, and SOF has the means to see beyond them through USSOCOM. Whatever makes the command and joint SOF operations better at developing coordinated effects and achieving objectives should be considered and established. New technologies will soon make this achievable in ways never previously provided.

A SHORT LIST OF RECOMMENDATIONS

This article is not meant to bash any one person or directorate at USSOCOM. It is to present hard-earned knowledge of what USSOCOM could be. The command is staffed with incredible human talent. There is so much wasted and disconnected effort, that daily HQ life can sometimes be hard to witness. It would not take a superhuman or mystical act to change this situation. It can be done by better-defining command functions, officially recognizing the basic annual process and associated products, implementing a battle rhythm, and following through.

Under USSOCOM’s Title 10, Section 164, and 167 requirements, it might be fair to say that winning and transforming joint special operations is accomplished through bureaucratic domination by the USSOCOM headquarters. Of course, this must be done in full coordination with the SOF enterprise, OSD's civilian leadership, and other national power elements. The staff and Command leadership can dominate the future from tomorrow to 2040 through guidance, a battle rhythm, staff planning, conferences, war gaming, analysis of future trends, and harnessing technology. This can be done, and the headquarters does not have to grow to do it. If the HQ can divest its numerous extraneous tasks and streamline its core processes, it could theoretically realize human resources and time savings, which could be used to bolster the TSOC staff.

In order of importance and by Directorate, here are key changes that must be adopted:

Office of the Chief of Staff – Deputy Chief of Staff

  • Develop and enforce an annual staff battle rhythm that coordinates staff actions, provides guidance, drives product requirements, enables vital decision points for the Commander and senior leaders, and ensures the right actions and products are produced on time.

  • In line with the Battle Rhythm, establish when products from the Directorates and Components must be published to support the annual process cycle. The Chief should also insist the process produces quality results and informs the enterprise.

  • Promulgate senior leader guidance on Joint SOF requirements.

  • Aid and empower the staff to work together throughout the annual cycle.

The J5 Directorate – Policy, Plans, and Strategy

  • Develop and annually update a joint SOF strategy going five years into the future.

  • Establish a system to analyze geopolitical and technological trends. The system must also identify and integrate shortfalls and new requirements into the strategy.

  • The J5 must inform the J8 what requirements are unfunded (informed by the Components) and outline environmental changes that force investment adjustments.

  • The J5 must be able to assess the environment, determine how joint SOF operations impact the global geo-political environment, and compare it to the IMOs and objectives of the strategy.

  • Assess the sufficiency of the global joint SOF to execute the Defense Strategy.

  • The J5 must develop a Joint SOF Future Operating Concept that ASD SO/LIC will find acceptable and that the J8 can use for POM development.

  • The J5 must conduct at least annual war gaming of the strategy and FOC. The results must be shared with the J8.

  • Objectively assess the effects of applying global joint SOF against the strategic objectives and adjust the following strategy as appropriate.

Some of these systems were in place in the past to help USSOCOM register budget shortfalls and identify new technology that could make a strategic difference. One such system was the Operational Exchange Meeting (OEM), used from 2018 to 2021. Unfortunately, this process was dismantled without a replacement. Another system was the analysis and assessment team of J5, which evaluated the impact of SOF operations from 2018 to 2022, but it was also dismantled without a replacement. Assessments and analysis can help in making resource decision-making fact-based rather than guesswork. This worked in conjunction with the Campaign Plan – Global Special Operations (CP-GSO) to lay out a global understanding of SOF actions and priorities over time that could be measured. CP-GSO has not been revised since 2020, and the last USSOCOM Strategy was published in 2021.

J8 Directorate - Force Structure, Resources, and Assessment

  • The J8 must be involved in strategy development, oversight, unfunded requirement data collection, technology analysis, and future concepts.

  • The J5 and J8 should work closely to identify gaps, budget shortfalls, and emergent technologies impacting future operations and unprogrammed requirements.

  • Improve the Capabilities-Based Process.

  • Provide early joint capability development guidance to the components.

  • Review and assess Component programs to ensure integration of Joint Warfighting capabilities.

  • Participate in strategic and future concept wargaming.

  • Assess programs' efficacy, proficiency, and optimization to determine their alignment with the command’s strategy.

J4 Directorate - Logistics

  • The J4 should write a robust joint SOF logistics annex for the strategy or campaign plan and participate in technology analysis and future operating concept development.

  • Doctrine must be pushed to support the entire effort.

  • Participate in strategic and future concept wargaming.

J3 Directorate - Operations

  • To better guide a demand-based force allocation system, proactive force allocation requirements based on the J5-produced Global SOF Strategy/Campaign Plan and assessments should be determined.

  • Assist TSOCs in preparing and planning their Operations and Activities submissions to maximize the annual allocation of limited SOF assets.

  • Embrace AI to develop a real-time global Common Operating Picture for the entire SOF enterprise.

  • Write Annex C of the Strategy or Campaign Plan as the annual manpower guidance to the force to ensure thorough coordination.

  • Lead operational and global wargaming.

J2 Directorate - Intelligence

  • The J2 should support the J5 and J8 by producing longer-term geo-political trends and analysis.

  • Publish a Joint Operating Environment at least annually. Provide a more in-depth analysis of areas where SOF should anticipate conducting operations.

  • Synchronize the future geo-political and technical environment depiction with J5 and J8.

  • Participate in operational, strategic, and future concept wargaming.

The collective effect of the staff getting guidance, working together, producing documents that others need to do their job on time, and involving and informing the Commander throughout would be transformative.  This cannot be overstated.  At present, there is no requirement for any Directorate to work with another. There is no timetable to know if what one Directorate does is needed by others at a specific time.  Directorates can also decline to support other Directorates without penalty.  This is a recipe for cylinders of mediocrity, not a unified team of excellence. 

Staff turnover is a significant factor in the creation, atrophy, and abandonment of essential processes at USSOCOM. Few staff officers report to USSOCOM with a good understanding of how the Headquarters works.  Most of the long-term employees have never seen it function properly.  There is confusion and many differing opinions on what the command should do.

The need for clarity on what should happen at USSOCOM and its priorities can be blamed on how Sections 164 and 167 are written. [JM5] There is overlap in what they cover for responsibilities, some caveats, and stark differences between Service-Like and Functional Combatant Command. Repeated readings of these sections of law can be an exercise in confusion. Those who take the time to study these laws can infer a wide array of interpretations. Each new staff generation should take the time to read the law and debate its meaning, then act in a way that comports with the law and best serves the enterprise. The sooner the USSOCOM Commander understands the difference in responsibilities between a service and functional command, the better. Working with Congress to revise the legal language could be a worthy cause. Being uniquely established and directed leads to staff paralysis and a much longer lead time in understanding what can and should be done by the staff and flag-grade officers.

The USSOCOM Commander can fix this quickly. The way to do that is probably personally unpalatable: becoming a top-tier bureaucrat. He must become a dedicated bureaucratic warrior and push the USSOCOM headquarters to live up to its mandate as a service. He can leave a proud legacy by focusing on staff integration, demanding quality products that lead to transformation, and ensuring the right investments are made in joint capabilities. By dominating the bureaucratic space today, joint SOF operations will dominate the competition in the 2030s.

FINALLY A CONCLUSION

This open letter calls for USSOCOM to embrace strategic and bureaucratic innovation to ensure SOF readiness for the future security environment's multifaceted challenges.  SOF capable of competition, counter-terror, and other missions are critical for the United States to maintain its global strategic edge. This letter outlines recommendations to improve USSOCOM's routine processes, strategic planning, resource management, and operational effectiveness. These include embracing bureaucratic processes for effective resource allocation, developing a joint SOF strategy and FOC, enhancing integration and interoperability within the SOF community, and preparing for future operational environments through rigorous planning, war gaming, analysis, and technological adaptation.

The main thrust of the argument is the paradoxical need for USSOCOM to leverage bureaucracy—a concept usually at odds with the ethos of special operations—for structured, integrated, and repeatable frameworks to implement transformation and innovation. USSOCOM must move beyond a linear progression of capabilities designed for counterterrorism to revolutionary capabilities that address the broader strategic challenges posed by great power competitors and emerging technologies. It points out the necessity for USSOCOM to harness its unique authorities, resources, and capabilities to innovate and lead within the Joint Force rather than maintaining the status quo.

USSOCOM exists to provide joint, integrated SOF to support the larger joint force. As a service-like institution, USSOCOM must perform mundane tasks with a sense of unity, urgency, and agency. As unpalatable as it is, the USSOCOM Commander must transform from a warrior to a great process leader where the battles are won on the whiteboard, in the gaming center, in conference rooms, at the desks of action officers, and in the halls of Congress. The USSOCOM staff must be the physical means of transformation, from top to bottom. It must transform itself and then transform joint special operations through the humble method of routine process. Dominate this process, and joint SOF will dominate future operations. Failure to do this will mean a slightly better SOF will face a world of shrinking manpower and budgets and ever more capable competitors armed with nothing more than a hope and a prayer.

 

About the Author:

Monte Erfourth (Colonel, USA Ret.) was the former USSOCCENT J5 Director and the USSOCOM Chief of Plans before retiring at the end of 2020. Since then, he has supported consulting and academic efforts for or with USSOCOM. He is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Strategy Central.


[1] The SOFCAST Season 4, Episode 13 podcast with GEN Fenton, where he explains what winning looks like. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnD0SAIfb3g

[3] 10 U.S.C. 167 - Unified combatant command for special operations forces. https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/USCODE-2011-title10/USCODE-2011-title10-subtitleA-partI-chap6-sec167

[5] 10 U.S. Code § 164 - Commanders of combatant commands: assignment; powers and duties. https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/USCODE-2011-title10/USCODE-2011-title10-subtitleA-partI-chap6-sec164

[6] National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, govinfo,(January 1, 2005), https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/GOVPUB-D-PURL-LPS59037.

[7] Note: This process was never followed with any kind of regularity and the title of “SOCOM Annual Transform and Win Process” is provided as a way for the reader to understand the focus of the process relative to the Win and Transform aspects of the axiom “People, Win, Transform.”

[8] Association of the United States Army. (n.d.). Forging Ahead: Wormuth Oversees a Hard-Pressed Force in Transition. AUSA. Retrieved February 28, 2024, from https://www.ausa.org/articles/forging-ahead-wormuth-oversees-hard-pressed-force-transition

[9] Livieratos, C. (2024, January 9). Cutting Army Special Operations Will Erode the Military’s Ability to Influence the Modern Battlefield. War on the Rocks. https://warontherocks.com/2024/01/cutting-army-special-operations-will-erode-the-militarys-ability-to-influence-the-modern-battlefield/

[10] South, T. (2023, November 1). Personnel cuts and force redesign ahead for Army special operations. Army Times. https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2023/11/01/personnel-cuts-and-a-force-redesign-ahead-for-army-special-operations/

[11] Erfourth, M. (2024, March 7). Lessons of the Fabian Strategy: History, Application, and the China – United States Competition. Strategy Central. https://www.strategycentral.io/post/lessons-of-the-fabian-strategy-history-application-and-the-china-united-states-competition

[12] Miller, J., Erfourth, M., Monk, J., and Oliver, R. (2019 February 7). Harnessing David and Goliath: Orthodoxy, Asymmetry, and Competition. https://smallwarsjournal.com/index.php/jrnl/art/harnessing-david-and-goliath-orthodoxy-asymmetry-and-competition

[13] The SOFCAST Season 4, Episode 13 podcast with GEN Fenton, where he explains what winning looks like. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnD0SAIfb3g

[14] Army Futures Command. https://www.army.mil/futures

[15] Mustafa Suleyman & Michael Bhaskar. The Coming Wave: Technology, Power, and the Twenty-first Century's Greatest Dilemma. Crown. September 5, 202

[16] Hendrickson, S., & Post, R. (2020). “A Blue-Collar Approach to Operational Analysis: A Special Operations Case Study.” Joint Force Quarterly, (96), 50-57. https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/jfq/jfq-96/JFQ-96_50-57_Hendrickson-Post.pdf

[17] Every CRS Report. Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986: Proposals for Reforming the Joint Officer Personnel Management Program (1986). https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RL30609.html

 

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Very well researched and presented. Hopefully, SOCOM will read this and strongly consider some changes.

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