Defense Media Network

SOCOM at 25: The Battle for Capitol Hill

Part 1 of 4

“The Armed Services Committee members, especially Barry Goldwater, were open to it,” Cohen said. “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.’”

Sen. Barry M. Goldwater

Retired U.S. Sen. Barry M. Goldwater listens to a presentation during his visit to the U.S. Army Armor Center. DoD photo by PHC Chet King

And run they did. The 1986 legislative package, known as Goldwater-Nichols for its key sponsors (Goldwater and Congressman William Nichols, D-Ala.), would take war-fighting command responsibilities from the Joint Chiefs, and instead give command responsibilities to regional commanders in chief, or “CinCs,” downrange. Goldwater-Nichols also streamlined the chain of command down from the president, introduced 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. For the first time since the republic had been formed, the United States truly had reached consensus to create a joint and streamlined national military force. There were, however, some problems to overcome.

When Goldwater-Nichols passed, it was rightly hailed as the greatest piece of governmental defense reform since the 1947 National Security Act that had unified the services and created the intelligence community. But there were still significant problems for the SOF community ahead, because passing a law does not mean that people necessarily respect or comply with it. The various services had starved, and in some cases tried to kill, the various SOF components scattered throughout the DoD. The Air Force had worked hard to terminate the MH-53 Pave Low SOF helicopter program, despite the clear recommendations of the Holloway Report detailing the need for helicopters capable of penetrating deep into denied and defended territory. The Navy tried, and, thankfully, failed, to move its maritime SOF units, including the SEALs, into the Naval Reserve. Only the U.S. Army, which had institutionalized SOF into its special warfare capabilities in the 1960s, showed any real desire for an organic SOF capability, and it did not even make Special Forces a branch until 1986.


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. So when faced with the SOF reforms mandated by Goldwater-Nichols, senior service leaders simply 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,” he said. “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? 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 and implement not only the mandate of Goldwater-Nichols but also the intent, Cohen and Nunn began to craft a set of additional DoD modifications and reforms in late 1986. What became known as the Nunn-Cohen Amendment was one of the most carefully crafted pieces of legislation to ever make it through Congress, and that it did is a testament to the tenacity of those legislators who sponsored the bill, then voted for it. Responsible for much of the work on Nunn-Cohen was congressional staffer Jim Locher III, whose contributions were considered vital by 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 said.

Cohen remembers Locher laying out the key points of the bill, which needed certain features were it to do what was intended.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...