If America’s special operations forces (SOF) hit rock bottom on April 24, 1980, in the dusty desert of Iran with the failure of Operation Eagle Claw (the Iranian hostage rescue mission), few people remember the real battle for U.S. SOF was won seven years later with the passage of a little-known amendment to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reform Act. What is today known as Nunn-Cohen, after the pair of statesmen senators (William Cohen, R-Maine, and Sam Nunn, D-Ga.) who sponsored the legislation, created in law what much of the U.S. military establishment and Department of Defense (DoD) bureaucracy had fought decades to prevent: the creation of a functional fifth military service, built around the special operations community.
Nunn-Cohen did a number of things for special operations, which included:
• U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) – The Nunn-Cohen legislation created a new unified command: SOCOM. Based at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., SOCOM would be commanded by a four-star general or flag officer, and have overall control and ownership of the various service SOF component commands.
• Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict and Interdependent Capabilities (ASD/SOLIC&IC) – To provide DoD-level support and oversight for SOCOM, a new service secretary-level position was created by Nunn-Cohen within DoD: ASD/SOLIC&IC. More than any other feature of the 1987 legislation, the ASD/SOLIC&IC made it clear that the special operations community was going to become a de facto fifth military service.
• SOF Title 10 Funding – To guarantee that SOCOM and its component SOF units have the specialized equipment and support services required by their roles and missions, Nunn-Cohen provides SOCOM with its own funding stream under Title 10 of the U.S. Code.
It is this last item, the SOCOM Title 10 funding line in the annual U.S. federal budget, that has given the U.S. SOF community both strength and capability over the past two decades.
SOF TITLE 10 FUNDING: WHY?
As far back as World War II, the core parent services have done their best to deprive the SOF community of personnel and funding.
Much of this animosity came from SOF units being “different” from the mainstream military as well as the perception that top-line personnel and funding were being “wasted” in the clandestine arena of unconventional warfare. Despite world-class operations and results in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, the U.S. SOF community was hammered in the 1970s, denied personnel, funding, equipment, and force structure. The failure of the Iranian Embassy hostage rescue mission at Desert One in 1980 simply highlighted the erosion of talent and capabilities within the community. However, despite the obvious need to rebuild SOF capabilities in the 1980s, U.S. special operations suffered continued negligence through much of the decade. The U.S. Air Force (USAF), for example, spent much of the 1980s trying to kill programs like the MH-53 Pave Low SOF helicopter, and even disestablish SOF units committed to joint (inter-service) roles and missions.
The result was that when U.S. SOF units were asked to lead the way during Operation Urgent Fury, the 1983 invasion of Grenada, their performance was decidedly mixed. While some of the problems of Urgent Fury were addressed by Goldwater-Nichols in 1986, the more material shortcomings, such as inadequate communications, limited SOF aviation support, and even things as simple as good maps, still needed attention. The sad truth was that while Goldwater-Nichols directed DoD and the military services to take proper care of the SOF community, the leadership of the American defense establishment simply ignored the guidance for another year. In response, Nunn-Cohen in 1987 made the aforementioned reforms a matter of federal law, something that the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and military service chiefs would from that time on defy under penalty of criminal prosecution.
SOF TITLE 10 FUNDING: MEANING
Title 10 of the U.S. Federal Code, for those unfamiliar with the budget process, is in essence the operating manual for DoD. As such, it provides legal oversight and guidance for everything from the Uniform Code of Military Justice to the annual budget process. In particular, DoD and each of the military services has its own budget line for research, development, and procurement under the code, which allows each to buy service-specific (and joint) equipment, supplies, and services. What Nunn-Cohen did in 1987 when it was signed into law was to create a budget line for SOCOM, enabling the command to buy SOF-specific gear and services for their unique roles and missions.
For those who may see this entire discussion about budget authority as nothing more than a paper chase and an exercise in moving money from one account to another, something needs to be said right here. The ability to commit and spend money is perhaps the ultimate power within the federal government. When the characters in the movie The Right Stuff said, “No bucks … no Buck Rogers!” they were speaking the truth. Starving the SOF community of funding was the ultimate weapon of the military services to eliminate special operations from the American military scene. By giving SOCOM its own line of funding, along with the other measures laid out in Nunn-Cohen, Congress was giving the U.S. SOF community the ultimate survival tool.
“It comes back to the fractured command structure that we saw during Desert One,” Cohen said in a 2006 interview for this publication. “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.”
SOCOM and its component SOF units would need highly specialized equipment, weapons, supplies, and support services, everything from state-of-the-art helicopters and firearms to specialized rations and tasked satellite imagery for training and planning in order to carry out its specialized missions. This raised another issue.
Historically, the military has learned that specialized procurements need to be overseen by professionals who have themselves used what is being bought. Since the 1920s, naval aviation professionals have overseen every facet of carrier and aircraft development and procurement for the Navy, and so it has developed within SOCOM. By giving procurement authority and oversight to SOF professionals within SOCOM and its component commands, operators in the field get what they really need, when they need it.
SOF TITLE 10 FUNDING: EXAMPLES
So what kinds of unique things has SOCOM’s Title 10 funding line allowed the SOF community to buy over the years? Quite a few useful items, as the following list indicates:
• Special Operations Aviation (SOA) – Long before Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen were conceived, the lack of SOA-specific aircraft was a critical shortcoming for U.S. SOF units. Specialized capabilities like in-flight refueling for helicopters, high-end electronic countermeasures packages, and precision navigation systems simply were not part of the equipment of most conventional military aircraft. So initially, SOCOM concentrated on procurement of heavily modified existing airframes like the C-130 Hercules, H-6 Little Bird, and H-60 Black Hawk. Later, more specialized modifications like the MH-47 Chinook became lynchpins of post-September 11 SOF operations. The CV-22B Osprey is a new development entirely, with SOCOM having helped create the original specification for the Osprey based upon the planned parameters of the 1980 Iran hostage rescue mission. SOCOM has also been able to procure non-standard aircraft like the Polish M-28 Skytruck and the Pilatus PC-12/U-28A for its specialized needs.
• Vehicles – One of the most important additions to American SOF capabilities since the inception of SOCOM has been increasing the
mobility of ground units in the field. Nightmare situations for teams like ODA 525 and the British Bravo 2-0 during Operation Desert Storm led SOCOM to procure specialized vehicles for SOF teams needing greater mobility and carrying capacity than mere muscles could provide. Initially, these consisted of off-the-shelf buys of civilian vehicles like Land Rovers for 10th Special Forces Group (SFG). By the late 1990s, SOCOM had contracted with the Letterkenny Army Depot in Pennsylvania to produce a modified HMMWV variant: the Ground Mobility Vehicle (GMV). Introduced in 1998 to 5th SFG, the GMV has become an outstanding success story. SOCOM has also procured a number of SUVs, light pickup trucks, and ATVs to provide mobility when stealth and SOA limitations are factors.
• Armament – For much of SOCOM’s first two decades, units have been using variants of existing weapons from their conventional brethren. However, it did not take long for SOCOM to begin adding its own special features to existing systems like the classic M16 combat rifle. Because of weight, space, and tactical considerations, a short-barreled carbine version of the M16 with a telescoping stock, the M4, was created for SOF units. To this was added the SOCOM-designed MIL-STD-1913 Rail Interface System (RIS), known by its popular name, “the Picatinny Rail,” after the arsenal in New Jersey that developed it. The Picatinny RIS allows for the addition of sights,
sensors, lights, and other accessories to weapons like the M4, and has become a standard with conventional military forces and police units across the globe. More recently, SOCOM has begun fielding its first real SOF-specific firearms system, the SOF Combat Assault Rifle, or SCAR. Able to fire either NATO-compatible 5.56 X 45 mm or 7.62 mm ammunition in a variety of configurations, SCAR is rapidly gaining interest from other services and nations.
• Other Equipment and Services – Along with “big” things like aircraft and weapons, SOCOM also regularly procures SOF-specific equipment and services critical to accomplishment of its assigned missions. One area of rapid growth has been in the area of unmanned aircraft systems, ranging from small man-portable aircraft like the RQ-11B Raven to more substantial UAVs like the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. These have also included precision airdrop systems for both resupply and leaflet delivery, based upon GPS-guided parafoil designs. SOCOM today is also a leader in the development of high-density ration systems, to reduce weight and volume for deployed SOF units. SOCOM also procures specialized services and support, as it did prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, with a bulk buy of 1-meter resolution satellite imagery that was critical for planning.
SOF TITLE 10 FUNDING: SUMMARY
Clearly, in the years since the creation of SOCOM, the command’s own Title 10 funding line has been a critical factor in its wide-ranging successes. From Panama to Mogadishu, the ability of the U.S. SOF community to design and procure its own systems and services has provided the national leadership with options that simply would not have existed had SOCOM not created them. At times, it has been America’s critical edge when nothing else was available.
One story in particular illustrates this point. In the fall of 2001, when then-Col. John Mulholland was sending the first Special Forces “A-Teams” into northern Afghanistan, there was only one helicopter available to him for the delivery and resupply of the troops: the MH-47 Chinook. Those aircraft flew the longest and most difficult combat helicopter missions on record, with a single round-trip to Bagram (near Kabul) taking 11 hours and needing three in-flight refuelings. Despite having only six MH-47s available for operations in northern Afghanistan, the unique abilities of the Chinooks to operate at high altitudes (over 19,000 feet above sea level) and refuel in flight was the critical edge America’s SOF forces needed to get into the fight after the attacks of September 11.
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2009 Edition.