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SOCOM at 25: The Battle for Capitol Hill

Part 1 of 4

“It comes back to the fractured command structure that we saw during Desert One,” Cohen said. “I was convinced you [have] to 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.”

Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga.

Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., speaks during the commissioning ceremony for the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). Seated behind him is Capt. Richard L. Martin, then-commanding officer of the Carl Vinson. Photo by Chuck Croston

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 potentially take all the SOF units from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines and place them under the proposed new U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Such a radical reorganization was unthinkable to many people in the DoD, Cohen recalls.

“I think that services felt that way, and that was the objection to it! 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 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 said. “We were primarily concerned with the lack of jointness, training, education, and cultural insight, and we wanted jointness really to 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.”

So what exactly did Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen do that changed the landscape so radically for U.S. SOF? In essence, those two pieces of enabling law, along with subsequent legislation since 1986, have made U.S. SOF a de facto fifth military service, along with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. This includes:

  • SOCOM – Based at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Fla., SOCOM is headed by a four-star general or admiral, and has within its structure the various service SOF components, along with JSOC, the Special Operations University, and other headquarters functions. SOCOM is chartered to train, equip, and package SOF units for the other combatant commanders, along with being empowered to form and operate its own JTFs in an area of responsibility (AOR) in the world.
  • Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Confict (ASD SOLIC) – To ensure that SOCOM has all the nessessary bureaucratic muscle it needs within DoD, there is the civilian ASD SOLIC, who acts as the “Secretary of SOF.”
  • Title 10 Budget Authority – For decades prior to Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen, U.S. SOF units had been unable to procure SOF-specific weapons and equipment without have to beg for extended periods of time. Under Nunn-Cohen, SOCOM and the ASD SOLIC have their own Title 10 funding line and budget, completely independent of the rest of the services and DoD.

These three simple attributes have made SOCOM into the most respected and powerful “service” in the U.S. military today, the go-to choice of presidents when the phones start ringing at 2 a.m. In particular, the SOCOM Title 10 funding line has become the command’s most powerful tool, able to rapidly procure timely and badly needed “stuff” in a fraction of the time needed by “normal” DoD/service procurement agencies.

The command drove straight from success on Capitol Hill into its first combat contingency, Operation Prime Chance (the Persian Gulf tanker escort/maritime lane protection effort) just a matter of months after SOCOM was created. Prime Chance was an unqualified success, showing the potential of the new joint command system laid out in Goldwater-Nichols as well as the potential of properly structured, equipped, and commanded SOF forces. The rapid organization, equipping, deployment, and commitment to action of this first Joint Special Operations Task Force was just the first of many such deployments in the quarter-century since.

SOCOM may have begun life as an unwanted bastard child following Vietnam, but that child has grown up taut, mean, and capable in a time when the world needs such qualities. The road to SOCOM’s birth followed a road of woe and potholes, and it is one reason why today’s special warfare professional reveres the men who walked that path before them.

SOCOM at 25 Part 2: Desert Storm to Allied Force

SOCOM at 25 Part 3: USSOCOM Since 9/11

SOCOM at 25 Part 4: The Future

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2012-2013 Edition.

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