In a recent New York Times article, the fact that Admiral William McRaven, Cdr, U.S. Special Operations Command, was asking for more freedom in pursuing America’s self professed enemies was broached. Bill McRaven is the architect of both the Usama bin Laden (UBL) takedown in Pakistan and more recent rescue of the Somali pirate hostages. His stock is very high, as his successes have given President Obama the right to trumpet his strength in the face of the extremists. This is not the first time the idea of allowing SOCOM to be the head of the spear has come up. I, for one, think it is an idea whose time has come.
For those who do not understand the U.S. Combatant Command structure, let me give some background. In our military system, the world is divided up into geographic regions, each the domain of a four star commander. These are the HQ’s through which the President and the SecDef fight wars. Normally, all U.S. forces in those areas are under the command of the Combatant Commander (CoCom). There some exceptions such as the Marine Guards and Defense Attachés at our Embassies, but generally the CoCom is the military boss. The Services provide troops to the CoCom, and he fights them. There are also several functional commands that provide support to the Geo CoComs. U.S. Special Operations Command is a special case.
USSOCOM was designed to be a force provider most of the time, but a window was left open for him to actually run certain “special” missions. In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, this meant hostage rescue missions. Since then, SOCOM’s abilities have grown, as have the roles played by its hyper talented service members. Today, they are doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the nation in hunting down terrorists. Thus, McRaven’s quest to open his window of flexibility a bit.
Back in the 2002–2003, then-SecDef Donald Rumsfeld had a conversation with the Cdr of SOCOM, AF Gen Charlie Holland. Rumsfeld looked him in the eye and simply said, “General, I want you to lead the Global War of Terror.” I was in the room as a note taker, and as an Army Special Forces officer, I was thrilled. Unfortunately, General Holland was not. He seemed to blink, and a somewhat panicked look crossed his face. I know he was thinking that the Geo CoComs would not like this at all. As the “Biggest Brothers” in the family of 4 Stars, they jealously guard their authority. It was clear that Holland had no intensions of crossing the Central Command Cdr, and frankly he never did. Neither did Army GEN Doug Brown, his successor (2003-2007). They kept their missions very low key, pretty much turning USSOCOM into a support organization for Joint Special Operations Command, its subordinate outfit that contains the now famous Tier 1 gunfighters of both the Navy and Army. They understood that the Geo CoComs would not fight the independent use of these guys but would scream bloody murder if SOCOM tried to expand that mission set to all Special Operations Forces. Admiral Eric Olsen, who followed Brown in 2007, did a little more, but still basically stayed in his lane.
Now McRaven is trying to execute the direct order given to his long gone predecessors. God bless him. I am not advocating for scrapping our system. It actually works pretty darned well. What I am applauding McRaven for is that we need to add some flexibility to it. As the system stands right now, it is rigid to the point on being brittle. McRaven is fighting a highly agile and imaginative enemy, and he is doing it about as economically as the American military ever will. He needs to be turned loose to reach the full potential of his men and doctrine.
This will wound the egos of the Geo CoComs and the U.S. Ambassadors on whose bureaucratic toes he will inevitably tread. They need to put aside this hurt and look at the big picture. McRaven is not a cowboy, and he operates with the trust and blessing of the President. He should be given his head, and it should be done in a way that memorialized the doctrinal shift. Perhaps we will not always need this sort of authority, but we do right now.