Success has many Fathers:  Building a Joint SOF Headquarters

Success has many fathers, and the growth of Special Operation Forces (SOF) Joint Headquarters (HQ) is no exception. A lot of people have worked very hard over decades to help nations develop their special operations command and control HQ for the purpose of maximizing SOF. I served in SOF for a long time, and as far back as I can remember one of the most sought after universal objectives was the development of a Joint SOF HQ. USSOCOM came together in 1987. Shortly after that Joint Special Operation Command (JSOC) was born, and it became the “gold standard” for Joint SOF HQs. It is unrealistic to assume that any other nation can come close to this command, but other nations can develop the capability to establish a Joint SOF Component Command like the kinds we see in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

A Joint SOF Command does not consist solely of a building with a flag officer and a lot of staff officers and Non-commissioned Officers (NCOs) running around doing staff things—there is a lot more to it. A real Joint SOF Command has organic capabilities capable of conducting complex, sustained special operations as a SOF Component Command completely integrated into the Joint Force. This is no easy task.

I can’t name a single example of the development of a Joint SOF HQ that was not met with stiff resistance from conventional flag officers and politicians trying to protect their turf. Most people fear change and struggle with the complex SOF operations necessary in many regions. USSOCOM is the only Congressionally mandated SOF HQ. If the decision was left to the US Department of Defense, USSOCOM would never have been created. Senators Cohen and Nunn fought to mandate USSOCOM, and like them, there are other non-SOF leaders that recognize the need of SOF and become “SOF Champions”.

As I type this, Poland and Romania are on a path to form Joint SOF HQs. Additionally, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands are exploring the creation of a multinational command for SOF capable of leading and coordinating special operations task groups within a small joint operation. Combined with the ongoing efforts of other nations, I am confident that this is more than a fleeting trend. Nations are building their SOF, and they are doing the structural changes to ensure their SOF is capable.

A lot of people assume that the growth is a direct reflection of US security cooperation funding, but that is not correct. Unfortunately, the percentage of the entire US security cooperation budget spent to help partner SOF is low. I hope that will change.

The 2017 NDAA SEC. 1204 “Independent Evaluation of Strategic Framework for Department Of Defense” directs the US Secretary of Defense to enter into an agreement with a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) , or another appropriate independent entity, with expertise in security cooperation to conduct an evaluation of the implementation of the strategic framework for Department of Defense security cooperation, as directed by section 1202 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 (Public Law 114–92; 129 Stat. 1036; 10 U.S.C. 113 note).

The study must provide an evaluation of the Department of Defense’s implementation of each of the required elements of the strategic framework; an evaluation of the impact of the strategic framework on Department of Defense security cooperation activities, including the extent to which such activities are being planned, prioritized, and executed in accordance with the strategic framework.

I am told that the RAND Corp will be the FFRDC conducting the report. I sincerely hope the authors conclude that partner nations need more SOF support, rather than high end weapons platforms that are in a supporting role in the current fight. Nations are also figuring this out—albeit slowly—and they are spending more money on SOF.

One of the big issues facing NATO is whether to join the counter-ISIS coalition. Another is the lack of nations meeting the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense. Several nations like Romania will make it in 2017, and Lithuania in 2018, but I would submit to you that it is even worse than we think. If nations are spending 2% of the GDP on defense capabilities that are “legacy” platforms from the Cold War or high end capabilities for major regional operations, then they are buying capability that will never be used.

Nations that are developing their Joint SOF HQs are not wasting their money. Many of the nations are already contributing SOF to multinational operations all over the world. I hope that the US will place higher priority on SOF in its security cooperation spending so we can develop these much needed capabilities. If this does not happen, US SOF will continue to be over-committed, with long-term consequences for the force.

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