Our review of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in the past year begins with this statement: 2011 was the most productive, successful, and impressive year in the history of the command. SOCOM personnel killed the most wanted man on Earth, Osama bin Laden, and starred in a blockbuster feature film, Act of Valor.
In the quarter-century that SOCOM has existed, the command and its professionals have often become the force of choice where presidents and other national leaders are concerned. It is frankly impossible to find another major military command in the history of the United States that has known such a meteoric rise in importance.
The American defense reforms of the late 1980s may have shown the world how armed forces would need to be organized to fight the conflicts of the post-Cold War era we have lived through, but SOCOM has demonstrated to the entire world the “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where” of 21st century combat.
In 2012, SOCOM could be considered the most respected, and in many ways, the most powerful component in the U.S. military. From an orphan that the services did not want in the 1970s and early 1980s, special operations forces (SOF) have become one of the most-often used tools of the Department of Defense. Capable, with world-class leadership in charge, and acquisition processes and funding the envy of everyone in the U.S. government, SOCOM is trusted by everyone from suburbia to the White House as it begins to commemorate its 25th birthday in 2012.
For some years, SOCOM has had a fairly consistent leadership pool in the Pentagon, at SOCOM Headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base (AFB) in Tampa, Fla., and at the various SOCOM component commands. 2011, however, was a year of many changes in leadership within the U.S. SOF community, most of it due to promotions and retirements. The position of assistant secretary of defense (ASD) for special operations/low intensity conflict & interdependent capabilities (SO/LIC&IC), held by the Honorable Michael G. Vickers until he was nominated and confirmed as the new under secretary of defense for intelligence, was finally filled in late 2011. His replacement is Michael A. Sheehan, a West Point graduate, noted author and counterterrorism expert, and former Army Special Forces (SF) soldier. Sheehan continues the recent trend of having the ASD for SO/LIC&IC be a SOF professional with strong credentials in other areas of unconventional warfare (UW).
On the military leadership side at SOCOM, the long and successful career of Adm. Eric T. Olson, USN, finally came to a close in 2011. Olson’s replacement, however, was another well-known Navy SEAL with his own set of professional credentials: Adm. William H. “Bill” McRaven, USN. McRaven, a lifelong naval SOF professional, commanded the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and has had tours commanding the Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) and Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR). A journalism major in college, McRaven is the author of SPEC OPS: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice, considered to be the SOF handbook on planning and executing raids. McRaven had already been nominated for the post when he was planning and executing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, and that public success has made him more well known than the typical SOF professional, indicated by him being the runner-up for Time magazine’s prestigious “Man of the Year” title.
Replacing Deputy SOCOM Commander Lt. Gen. David P. Fridovich has been a bit more challenging. Though U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) Commander Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, Jr., was nominated in 2011, U.S. Senate confirmation of his nomination, along with those of numerous other flag officers, has been glacial, a situation that continues as of this writing. [Mulholland was confirmed by the Senate late in June, after the publication went to press – Ed.] This slow confirmation process is becoming a real concern within SOCOM and the rest of the U.S. military due to the large numbers of nominations that are beginning to pile up on Capitol Hill in this election year. On a more positive note, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Faris took over as SOCOM’s senior enlisted adviser, bringing his steady hand, keen mind, and sound judgment to the U.S. military’s most dynamic combatant command.
There have been other leadership developments within the SOCOM leadership components as well. These include:
• USASOC – Maj. Gen. (Promotable) Charles T. Cleveland was nominated and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2011 to replace Mulholland as commanding general at USASOC. He is awaiting his swearing-in ceremony while Mulholland is being confirmed as the new deputy SOCOM commander. USASOC’s senior enlisted adviser is Command Sgt. Maj. Parry L. Baer, a position he has held since 2010.
• Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) – Lt. Gen. Donald C. Wurster, USAF, ended his storied career in 2011, turning over command of AFSOC to Lt. Gen. Eric E. Fiel, USAF. Fiel’s senior enlisted adviser is Chief Master Sgt. William Turner.
• Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) – Rear Adm. Edward G. Winters, III, USN, handed over command of NAVSPECWARCOM in 2011 to Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus, USN. 2011 also saw Force Master Chief Stephen D. Link take over as senior enlisted advisor at NAVSPECWARCOM.
• U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) – Maj. Gen. Paul E. Lefebvre, USMC continues to command MARSOC. His senior enlisted advisers are Sgt. Maj. Thomas F. Hall and MARSOC Command Master Chief Tavita Feti Saelua.
• Joint Special Operations Command – Maj. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, USA, has replaced McRaven as commander of JSOC.
There also is another set of commands in the American SOF community; those associated with regional special operations components of Unified Combatant Commands. There is a regular rotation between SOCOM’s headquarters and service components, the regional SOF components, which continues:
• Special Operations Command – Europe (SOCEUR) – Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, USA, continues to command SOCEUR. SOCEUR commands U.S. SOF forces who contribute to the NATO Alliance, and has a footprint that runs as far south as the Middle East, and north to the Arctic Circle.
• Special Operations Command Central Command (SOCCENT) – Based at MacDill AFB, the SOCCENT responsibilities were taken over in 2011 by Brig. Gen. Kenneth “Ken” Tovo, USA, when Cleveland left to command USASOC. SOCCENT’s senior enlisted adviser is Army Command Sgt. Maj. George Bequer.
• Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC) – Based at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii, SOCPAC was taken over in 2011 by Maj. Gen. Norman J. Brozenick, Jr., USAF, when Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus left to command NAVSPECWARCOM. SOCPAC’s senior enlisted adviser is Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony A. Pettengill, USA. SOCPAC covers a vast territory; more than 40 percent of the Earth’s surface is in its area of responsibility (AOR).
• Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH) – Rear Adm. Thomas L. Brown, II, USN, continues to command SOCSOUTH, and is assisted by his senior enlisted adviser Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas E. Wall. Brown commands a regional SOF component that continues to be a laboratory for new SOF missions and ideas, many of them relevant to other operations worldwide.
• Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF) (HoA), while not technically the SOF component of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), is the largest and best-established SOF organization in the region. In 2010, command of CJTF HoA passed to Rear Adm. Michael T. Franken, USN, and the command has been conducting operations ranging from anti-piracy to hunting al Qaeda affiliate leaders in East Africa and Nigeria.