An Open Letter to a SOCOM Commander

An Open Letter to a SOCOM Commander
United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) must adapt and evolve to enhance its effectiveness as a significant contributor to the Joint Force’s approach to strategic competition and counterterrorism today and beyond 2040.

Bureaucratically Dominate to Operationally Dominate

By Monte Erfourth


United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) must adapt and evolve to enhance its effectiveness as a significant contributor to the Joint Force’s approach to strategic competition and counterterrorism today and beyond 2040. The Commander of USSOCOM plays a pivotal role in steering the SOF enterprise towards future success. In the short term, this means aligning with the objectives set forth in the National Defense Strategy (NDS). In the long term, it means preparing a joint special operations force to succeed in a future context beyond our imagination. This transformation requires a comprehensive approach that embraces technological innovation, reformed processes, and changes in the future operating environment.

Ironically, the path forward for USSOCOM involves leveraging a concept often viewed as antithetical to the ethos of special operations: bureaucracy. While bureaucracy is typically associated with inefficiency and rigidity, a well-functioning bureaucracy can also provide a structured, integrated, and repeatable framework to implement wide-ranging reforms and innovations. For the SOF community, a carefully calibrated bureaucratic approach can help focus strategic planning, resource allocation, and the integration of cutting-edge technologies and capabilities for the strategic environment ahead.


Since the founding of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in 1987, every Commander has aimed to maintain SOF’s edge in a rapidly changing world by focusing on human capital and integrating new technologies. Until 9/11, SOF was orientated to provide unique access and capabilities in low-intensity conflict. After 9/11, counterterrorism (CT) became the primary focus of Special Operations (SOF). This focus on CT remained dominant until the release of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), which demanded the DoD shift to great power competition and relegated CT to being one of five significant threats to the homeland and US interests. The new approach by Secretary of Defense Mattis directed the Department to prepare for competition and conflict with great powers, to expand capabilities to counter cyber and space threats, and to leverage the extensive counterterrorism experience gained over the past twenty years to train and equip allies and partners. Responding to this Departmental shift, USSOCOM Commanders posit that SOF will be prepared to navigate the complexities of great power competition effectively by leveraging SOF’s people-centric approach and a commitment to tactical and technological innovation, which will, in turn, ensure readiness and resilience of the force to meet the challenges posed by diverse global threats.

The current USSOCOM Commander, GEN Fenton, has proposed two conceptual approaches to achieve the end states demanded by the NDS. The first is to find the answer to “what winning looks like.” The General has proposed winning is deterring our pacing and acute threats of China and Russia and keeping “X-Ops” outside the borders of the homeland.[JM1] [ME2] [1] The second concept is summarized in the traditional USSOCOM axiom, “Win, Transform, People,”[2] establishing command priorities to Win on the battlefield, Transform the force, and train our People. General Fenton adopted the long-established approach but now arranges the order as “People, Win, Transform.” The former addresses the General’s vision for operations in the geopolitical space, and the latter addresses the intent to develop the SOF enterprise.

Do General Fenton’s concepts properly orient the transformation of US Special Operations to become the great power competitor and counter-terror force we will need in the near term? How about the operating environment from 2035 to 2040? By what process does Headquarters USSOCOM manage the implementation of these concepts? How is US SOF’s progress along this transformational journey (which will last well beyond General Fenton’s tenure) codified, resourced, assessed, and adjusted? Some background is necessary to answer these questions.

How to transform will be a primary focus of this article. It is important to note that transformation can run in only a few directions. SOF can transform into a slightly better version of its current self or something completely different. USSOCOM probably needs to split the difference, but the pace of technology powered by AI may require something completely different sooner rather than later. That said, even this AI-generated image of “future SOF” illustrates an unimaginative linear evolution of SOF into better “trigger pullers.” However, this future is most likely not the revolutionary capability that the situation and the Joint Force will require. It is a linear progression of capabilities and force design optimized for the bygone era of CT. Congress has empowered USSOCOM with authorities and resources to innovate on the leading edge of the Joint Force, not just progress the status quo. USSOCOM can do better.

The reader may be forgiven for being a bit confused about the multi-directional nature of USSOCOM. The events and assessments that led to the consolidation of SOF into the singular command structure of USSOCOM clearly illustrate how failure and criticism can serve as powerful catalysts for change within military institutions. Operation Eagle Claw, the botched 1980 mission to rescue American hostages in Iran, exposed glaring deficiencies in the U.S. military’s command and control structures for special operations. This debacle underscored the complexity and difficulty of coordinating actions among different branches of the military’s special operations units. At the time, each operated independently from one another, often with little to no interoperability or joint planning capabilities.

Through the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 and the subsequent Nunn-Cohen amendment of 1987, Congress mandated a structure to provide unified command and dedicated resourcing for all Army, Navy, and Air Force special operations forces under the oversight of a new four-star-level headquarters. This groundbreaking move transformed the fragmented, uncoordinated structure of the late 1970s to the more integrated and effective unified command of USSOCOM, establishing the first true joint force. It also created a command, and a commander, who wears two hats.

Section 167 of Title 10 U.S. Code establishes USSOCOM as the unified combatant command for Special Operations Forces, granting the command “service-like” responsibilities. [3] Section 167 addresses USSOCOM’s organizational responsibilities, including SOF integration, budgeting and programming, force development, doctrine development, education, and training. 167 also establishes the command’s unique acquisition authority.

Under Section 167, USSOCOM commands four subordinate service components: U.S. Army Special Operations Command, U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command, U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command, and (added in 2006) U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. Each command brings unique capabilities and expertise to the joint special operations portfolio [4] and enables the U.S. SOF with a broad range of specialized skills, capabilities, and equipment necessary for conducting various clandestine, covert, and overt operations across all warfighting domains. Headquarters USSOCOM is responsible for ensuring the integration and interoperability of these component capabilities and maintaining the jointness of SOF.

Section 164 of Title 10 U.S. Code details the Commander’s other hat. Section 164 establishes USSOCOM as a Functional Combatant Command (FCC). It outlines the Commander’s authority, roles, and responsibilities.[5]In this capacity, USSOCOM operates across geographic boundaries and provides unique capabilities to geographic combatant commands (GCC). The command does this via seven Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs), the operational arms of SOF. Each TSOC is aligned to a GCC and is responsible for overseeing the planning and management of SOF operations in a particular region. USSOCOM also oversees the training and doctrine development function of the Joint Special Operations Command. As an FCC, USSOCOM is responsible for ensuring SOF can support the Department of Defense’s priorities:[6]

Defend the homeland, paced to the growing multi-domain threat posed by the PRC;

Deter strategic attacks against the United States, Allies, and partners;

Deter aggression while being prepared to prevail in conflict when necessary – prioritizing the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific region, then the Russia challenge in Europe; and,

Building a resilient Joint Force and defense ecosystem.

Though USSOCOM has administrative and resourcing control of the operational elements, TSOCs fall under operational control (OPCON) of the Geographic Combatant Commands. In short, this means the USSOCOM Commander’s primary role, even wearing the operational hat, is oriented towards his service-like responsibility.

Eight of the thirteen USSOCOM Commanders thus far served previously as the Commander of JSOC, with five of seven since 9/11. It’s a difficult move for any commander to go from leading a pinnacle operationally focused unit to becoming the head of a sprawling resourcing-oriented bureaucracy. This may cause Commanders to be more comfortable wearing their operational Section 164 hat and realize too late that their real power lies in the grinding, bureaucratic, annual resourcing cycle of their Section 167 responsibilities.


Upon assuming command, every USSOCOM Commander must immediately become familiar with the Defense Department’s Program, Planning, Budget, and Execution (PPBE) process. This process is how US military bureaucracies obtain funding, the lifeblood of force transformation. The annual Commander’s Posture Statement to Congress is, in part, a formal recurring validation of SOF’s existence to Congress, who in turn authorizes and appropriates resources requested in the command’s annual Program Objective Memorandum (POM) submission. The POM describes a 5-year look and presents the Services and Defense Agencies’ proposal to balance their available resource allocation. The POM includes an analysis of missions, objectives, alternative methods to accomplish objectives, and allocation of resources.

 The PPBE/POM cycle is an annual process with set events that occur at generally the same time each year. In the planning phase, USSOCOM must generate strategies and plans supporting larger national strategic objectives. These plans should extend out at least five years to cover the FYDP to justify both current and future FY requirements. Major budget issues between the services and GCCs are worked out by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the White House, and Congress approves the final appropriations bill.

 As presented here, the “SOCOM Annual Transform and Win Process”[7] is the historical and notional process USSOCOM has sometimes followed. The depiction above lays out the basic steps for the annual process necessary to move from ideas to plans of action that get resourced by Congress. In this process, the USSOCOM Commander analyzes higher guidance, determines ways to achieve tasks and objectives, codifies them in concepts, plans, and strategies, works out resourcing, and then examines the results.

USSOCOM should have an annual battle rhythm like any other military enterprise to govern a routine process. As the saying goes, “Do routine things routinely.” Each directorate should work in concert to develop the products necessary to inform the next step in the process on an established, recurring timeline. The process should hinge upon participation from each staff directorate, working collaboratively and with full appreciation of who that directorate is producing a product for and why. The Commander must understand and oversee the process and ensure the headquarters is aligned to implement his vision of joint SOF transformation.

Transformation happens only through process and resourcing. Resourcing, development, and integration of joint SOF are also USSOCOM’s fundamental Section 167 responsibility, as well as the primary reason for the existence of USSOCOM. However, resource and bureaucratic process management are skills that most (but not all) SOF general officers do not have expertise in. They are historically promoted for tactical and operational success (via JSOC, lately) vs bureaucratic acumen. This operationally focused background leads them to spend much of the first part of their command focused on Section 164 responsibilities: the command and control of SOF, despite this role being of secondary importance and likely least consequential of the USSOCOM Commander’s Title 10 obligations. If the USSOCOM Commander is not focused on building the next-generation joint special operational forces, then who is? This is not the function of the services as they are focused on building the next generation of service-tailored SOF, not joint SOF.

When a new USSOCOM Commander takes command, he inherits the POM decisions of the commanders before him. At this point, the budget for the upcoming FY is nearly locked, so his ability to impact the command’s budget request will be limited until the following year’s POM submission. In his second year of command, the USSOCOM Commander wholly owns the POM process and the decisions for the POM, with more ability to shape the more distant budget timeframe. In his third (and usually final) year in command, the Commander solidifies those longer-term budget decisions with which the next Commander must live. If the Commander serves the standard three years in command, he will have only two opportunities to steer the transformation of the SOF enterprise through resourcing.

The annual steps from guidance to resourcing are essentially identical from one commander to the next. Nothing is inventive about the process, but the Commander must direct and lead it to establish the best budget for the next guy. Future USSOCOM Commanders must realize their limited window of opportunity and act accordingly if they wish to truly and effectively transform the enterprise.

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