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Special Operations: What New Powers They Need From Congress & Pentagon

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

WASHINGTON: America’s commandos have been darlings of the Congress, Pentagon, and the media since 9/11. Now, as Special Operations Forces reorient from Iraq and Afghanistan to lower-profile missions worldwide in places like Mali, they will need new sources of funding and new legal authorities — changes that may rub both Congress and the four armed services the wrong way.

That’s the conclusion of a recent report by Wilson Center scholar and sometime US Central Command advisor Linda Robinson, who interviewed more that 60 senior officers and civilian officials, released last week by the Council on Foreign Relations.

“This is not a call for more resources,” Robinson said at a briefing this morning. In the current budget crunch, she knows they won’t be forthcoming. But, Robinson said, the money Congress already allocates could be managed much better.

The problem isn’t just that the huge flow of supplemental funding for Iraq and Afghanistan is drying up. It’s that operations outside the major warzones are funded by a grab-bag of different sources, “a portfolio of about 30 different authorities,” said Robinson.

Each pot of money has its own particular purpose and legal rules. Commanders must figure out where to apply for money for their particular operation, and if they do get it once, they still have to compete for it again next year. (It’s rather like thinktank academics scrambling to fund their next study). There is “complicated wargaming that goes on [just] to get your operation funded,” Robinson said. It is, she wrote, “a lottery system.”

This annual scramble is not only a huge waste of staff officers’ time and energy: Such an ad hoc approach undermines the kind of “persistent presence” that no less a figure than Special Operations Command chief Adm. William McRaven considers essential to building up local allies so they can prevent regional crises without large-scale US intervention.

“You can have the most beautiful plan in the world, but if you don’t have predictable funding to implement it, it doesn’t matter,” said Robinson.

So how can Congress provide more stability, I asked Robinson after her public remarks. The ideal might be to fund several years of operations in a given country with a single vote, but legislators hate to make multi-year commitments.

“Multi-year money is a hard ask for Congress and that may be a bridge too far,” Robinson agreed, “but… you have to have a sustained approach to these countries.” As a compromise, she suggested, one politically more manageable reform would be to package all the support for a particular country into a single line item subject to a single vote every year.

Different agencies and the different committees overseeing them are notoriously reluctant to pool funding across jurisdictions, it’s true. However, said Robinson, there is a precedent for this approach in Plan Colombia, the long-running support for counter-guerrilla and counter-drug operations in Colombia that actually predates 9/11. (Many human rights groups and drug legislation activists loathe Plan Colombia, but the intelligence community and the military view it as a geostrategic success. And no one can argue that Colombia isn’t much more stable and much safer than it was before).

Of course, the U.S. military and, indeed, the federal government as a whole are hardly getting stable, predictable funding from Congress at the moment. But funding isn’t the only thing SOCOM needs from Congress, Robinson said.

The Pentagon has already strengthened SOCOM’s role in supporting the geographic combatant commanders via regional headquarters called the TSOCs, Theater Special Operations Commands. The next step, said Robinson, would be to strengthen the authorities and increase the staff of SOLIC, the office of the assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict. That’ll be a hard sell at a time when the Pentagon is under heavy pressure to cut back the number of civil servants.

Harder yet to achieve would be Robinson’s recommendation that Congress grant SOCOM authority to “co-manage” the career paths of Special Operations officers, currently a prerogative of the services, whoa re charged by Golwarter-Nichols with train. “That will be a hard pill for the services to swallow,” Robinson admitted, which is why it will have to be imposed by legislation.

While SOCOM possesses some of the legal and funding authorities of an armed service, all its military personnel belong to either the Army, Air Force, Navy, or the Marine Corps. Their promotions, assignments, and selection for special opportunities like graduate school or language training are all handled through the services’ powerful — and hidebound — personnel bureaucracies. SOCOM’s influence on its own personnel’s career paths is limited to cajoling, Robinson said. While SOCOM itself is not advocating for a formal “co-management” role alongside the services, she argued, that’s what it will take for Special Operations to shape its own destiny.

But today’s admirals and generals are all too well aware that their most important legacy lies in picking their successors. As difficult as some of Robinson’s other recommendations may be to push through, the battle over who controls promotions and assignments will be the hardest fought of all.

What do you think?