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

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. The proven structure of a Joint Inter-Agency Task Force (JIATF) is well suited to address the later challenge.

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.

THE US SPECIAL OPERATIONS ENTERPRISE: A PRIMER

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 codified authorities in Title 10 USC § 167 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.” 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. 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).

READ MORE: https://www.strategycentral.io/post/function-then-form-rethinking-the-operational-command-structure-of-us-sof

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