Just over 20 years ago, a battle for the future of the U.S. military was fought on the banks of the Potomac River. Upon this battle depended the future of the American armed forces and how they would fight for more than a generation. Like all battles worth fighting, it was fought by a small band of idealists, whose sworn enemies were those in their own country more than happy to accept a mediocre status quo. And finally, were the battle to be lost, America would lose the piece of its armed services that it would most need in the wars of the early 21st century: Special Operations.
Awakening: After Vietnam
It is sometimes hard to remember what a gut-wrenching national experience the Vietnam era was for the United States. Not since the Civil War had America been so ideologically divided as it was over Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and Watergate. And seemingly taking the blame for all these ills was the U.S. military. It was not fair or right, but that was the way it was in the late 1970s.
With those responsible for the political decisions of Vietnam either dead or in public exile, the only visible entity for a disillusioned American public to blame was its military. It took the national shame of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and Ronald Reagan being elected president, for America to once again be supportive of its armed forces. But that alone did not make America’s armed services a credible fighting force. And that is where the story really begins.
The late 1970s would seem to be an odd time to begin a period of innovative military thinking in the United States, but that is exactly what was going on. One of those involved was a young freshman Republican senator from Maine by the name of William S. Cohen, who had already served in the House of Representatives for three terms prior to taking his senate seat in 1979.
Invited to sit on both the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, Cohen got an unusually good look at the military and intelligence communities at the end of the 1970s, a time when both were, frankly, in poor shape. Like a number of young legislators, then-Senator Cohen had a desire to do something positive for America’s national security. Fortunately, there was in Congress and around Washington, D.C., at the time a group that tried to educate each other and exchange ideas. Today, Cohen remembers the Military Reform Caucus with fondness.
“As early as 1979 or 1980, there was a group of us on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees called the Military Reform Caucus, and it had people like Newt Gingrich, Gary Hart, and myself, along with a bunch of other folks, that were interested in military affairs,” Cohen says. “It really wasn’t a caucus as such, not getting together as a group or anything like that, but a loose affiliation of like-minded people saying, ‘Let’s challenge the way we are doing business, and see if we can do it better. Let’s see if we can’t get ahead of the curve, and see if we can’t do things differently than today. At least examine them and see if there is merit to changing what we are doing today.’”
Unfortunately, not everyone in Washington was happy with such a freewheeling dialogue. The senior leadership of the armed services watched with concern as caucus members spoke to groups, appeared on television, wrote books and articles, and generally got people thinking about defense. Cohen recalls, “I was rather surprised to find out that I, and those of us who went out and spoke about defense reform to the Rotarians and all the other service clubs, would about a week later find a high-level officer from one of the services coming out publicly and really criticizing us for our views,” Cohen says. “I remember thinking, ‘We’re trying to get a dialogue going. We’re not trying to disrupt things, we want to examine things!’ They were keeping track of all of us, where we were and what we were saying, and it struck me – something is wrong with this picture.”
It was the wakeup call that Congress in the 1980s was not just going to hand the military a blank check without some reforms to the way they did business.
For Cohen, one of his key topics of interest was U.S. Special Operations Forces, and their roles and missions within the American defense establishment. Like many others on Capitol Hill, what brought SOF to his attention was the tragic events at Desert One during the abortive hostage rescue attempt in Iran.
“The thing that initiated it for me was how Desert One unfolded,” Cohen says, “the lack of unified command, integrated training, and the tragedy that took place and what it did to the country in paralyzing us for some time in terms of the hostages being held and the loss of our service personnel. That was followed by the invasion of Grenada, which, while successful, revealed a number of difficulties, once again in coordination. So I decided that I was going to focus on the ways in which we might create a command that would combine the SOFs like the Army Special Forces, that would put them at the tip of the spear for a variety of missions, one of which would actually be to prevent war from taking place — to have men and women who would be skilled in language, who could have studied the culture and history of a country, to be inserted in a very pre-emptive way, blend into the community, then gather and send back intelligence that might be used to make conflict unnecessary — But also to have a dual role to prepare the battlefield as such in case you did have to go in. To do that you had to have a very specialized type of command to coordinate the Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marines so they could carry out that mission. So it was born out of tragedy.”
Desert One was followed by the invasion of Grenada, the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, and the hijackings of TWA Flight 847 and the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. In each case, flawed command structures, a lack of joint training, and other factors made the results less than successful. And in three of the four, SOF units were unable to fulfill their missions due to their lack of needed command, control, communications, and intelligence resources.
Battle Lines Drawn: The Drive to Goldwater-Nichols
The breakthrough for defense reform came in 1985, when a panel of experts at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a landmark study called “Defense Reform.” In it was the roadmap for what would become the defense reform process in the late 1980s, and it was a milestone for reformers like Cohen.
“The study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies [CSIS] at Georgetown University provided us some real muscle in the reform debate with the Department of Defense [DoD]. And we used that. We also had a real lineup of people who were knowledgeable, substantive, and lent weight to the effort. Otherwise, if you just take senators and congressmen to challenge the Pentagon on their own, you have a heavy road ahead,” Cohen says. “Remember, we spent a year studying defense reform before we ever sponsored a bill. Having CSIS and people of that caliber, and knowledgeable in military affairs, who were asking ‘How do we change DoD to make it a more efficient operation?’ lent a lot of credibility to the effort.”
Just one year later, Congress proposed and passed a sweeping overhaul of the entire DoD command structure and how it would fight future wars. Opposed by the DoD leadership, both civilian and military, the legislation might have gone by the wayside but for its formidable chief sponsor, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Cohen remembers Goldwater with fondness and respect.
“The Armed Services Committee members, especially Barry Goldwater, were open to it,” Cohen says. “In fact, he was in the forefront of the defense reform effort. Barry was very kind and generous to me, and no sooner was I on the Senate Armed Services Committee than he invited me to join the Senate Intelligence Committee. He was open to change, and he was very critical of what had happened at Desert One and Grenada. So he turned to me and some of the younger members of the committee and told us to run with it.”
And run with it they did. The 1986 legislative package, known as Goldwater-Nichols for its key sponsors (Goldwater and Democratic Congressman Bill Nichols), would take warfighting command responsibilities from the Joint Chiefs, and instead place them with regional commanders-in-chief, or “CinCs.” Goldwater-Nichols also streamlined the chain of command running downward from the president, added a number of other reforms meant to provide periodic DoD-wide force structure and modernization reviews (today’s Quadrennial Defense Review or QDR), and elevated the SOF community out of its stepchild status with the services.
When Goldwater-Nichols passed, it was hailed as the greatest piece of governmental reform since the 1948 National Security Act that had unified the services and created the intelligence community. But there were still problems for the SOF community ahead, because passing a law does not mean that people necessarily respect or comply with it.
Second Bite at the Apple: Nunn-Cohen
Washington, D.C., is a town built around the “zero sum gain,” and when Goldwater-Nichols passed in 1986, the armed services fought back in the one place that they could: the SOF community. Already starved for funding and command authority, the various service SOF units had come under outright attack in the 1980s. The U.S. Navy had considered moving the SEALs to the Naval Reserves, and Air Force Special Operations tanker/transports were assigned to the Military Airlift Command, while the Air Force’s Air Staff attempted to zero the funding for critical SOF modernization programs like the MH-53 Pave Low helicopter.
When faced with the SOF reforms mandated by Goldwater-Nichols, senior service leaders chose to ignore the legislation, something that did not go unnoticed by congressional defense reformers like Cohen.
“I felt that Goldwater-Nichols really did not deal with the issues that I had been concerned with originally: How do you take the talent of SOF warriors that we have, get ‘jointness of command’ for them, along with the training and study of language, culture, and history, and then insert them into a country that is a potential trouble spot?” Cohen says. “And do this well in advance, so that they have time to learn the customs of the people and the region? Then have those individuals gather information and report back to us, without it being just the examination of a single CIA agent in the field, but the observations of a trained military observer who may have to go into battle as the tip of the spear? Either going after select targets, or serving the combatant commanders directly? I just did not feel that was coming through with Goldwater-Nichols.”
Realizing that the only way to force DoD and the armed services to respect not only the mandate of Goldwater-Nichols, but also the intent, Cohen and Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia began to craft a set of additional modifications and reforms in late 1986. What became Nunn-Cohen was one of the most carefully crafted pieces of legislation ever to make it through Congress. Responsible for much of the work on Nunn-Cohen was congressional staffer James R. Locher III, whose contributions were considered vital by then-Senator Cohen:
“The key staffer in crafting the SOF legislation was, again, Jim Locher. And you need to keep in mind that he also was behind the creation of the position of assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict [SOLIC]. That also was hard fought. He was working with the staff members of the committees, which were open to him, by virtue of what they had heard during the hearings into Desert One, the Grenada operation, and the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon,” Cohen says.
Cohen remembers Locher laying out the salient features of the bill, which needed certain key provisions were it to do what was intended. “It comes back to the fractured command structure that we saw during Desert One,” Cohen says. “I was convinced you had to have a command created with a four-star officer in charge with budget authority that could not be shoved aside by those in the parent services. This had to be a joint command unto itself. And from the beginning, I saw that money is power, so having budget authority means being able to control things. And once again, I think it was Jim Locher who came up with that feature in the legislation. I would turn to Jim Locher as our intellectual reservoir for putting together the research, and making sure we were apprised of all the pitfalls of what we were trying to do. Even if you are relatively knowledgeable as a senator on military affairs, you still have four other committees you are serving on and who knows how many subcommittees, and you’re spread pretty thinly. So you depend upon people like Jim Locher, staff members who are extraordinarily bright. Jim, coming from a West Point background, was a student of organizational science and history, and I would have to give him and those who worked with him a great deal of credit. I don’t profess to be at that level. The SOLIC position at DoD was the same kind of thing, and I have to give Jim credit for that as well.”
When the debate on Nunn-Cohen began in Congress, it was quickly realized that what the legislation was creating was a virtual fifth service, as it would take all the SOF units from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, and place them under the proposed U.S. Special Operations Command. Such a radical reorganization was unthinkable to many people in DoD, Cohen recalls.
“I think that services felt that way, and that was the objection to it,” he says. “They seemed to be saying, ‘You’re creating a whole new service here, and that is inconsistent with what we are trying to do,’ when what I was trying to say was, ‘No, what we’re trying to do is take your SOFs from the individual services, blend and unify them together in a way that they can carry out extraordinary missions.’”
In the end, the only real concession that was required to get Nunn-Cohen passed was an exclusion for the Marine Corps, which would not give up its force reconnaissance units. With the compromises made and the legislation passed, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) was stood up on April 17, 1987.
Two decades later, having served as secretary of defense, Cohen looks back with pride upon his work on behalf of SOF in the 1980s.
“It [SOCOM] has gone beyond anything that either Sen. Nunn or I expected at the time,” he says. “We were primarily concerned with the lack of jointness, training, education, and cultural insight, and we wanted jointness to really become a reality. We felt we needed that ‘tip of the spear’ to be able to go into selected countries on very discreet missions. What has happened is that SOF has become the indispensable tool, and we have seen SOF become what we call a ‘low density – high demand’ kind of force. We actually want to see SOCOM expanded, which of course it is doing today. I’m really proud to have been associated with this effort, and I think it has been essential to the success we have enjoyed.”
This article was first published in U.S. Special Operations Command – The First 20 Years.