- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
By “Socom Man”
Best Defense guest columnist
U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has lost rapport with Congress. This is catastrophic in the sense of the rapport that has been lost and because of the fact that Congress controls the purse strings. And now members of Congress are showing SOCOM just how much control of those strings they have.
Recently the SOCOM commander had to send out a letter to the members of his command explaining how he would mitigate the loss of funding permissions to spend money on having psychologists and physical therapists for special operations personnel. This program, the so-called “Pressure on the Force” (or “POTF”) effort, was meant to address the very real and challenging issue of a great number of special operations personnel suffering from the effects of more than a decade of repeated deployments into war zones. The problems range from broken bodies to broken minds and these personnel having direct support at the unit level is so important, since trying to get help within the Tricare system is fraught with the same issues that one hears about the Veterans Administration having: long wait times, very generic prescriptions, terrible follow-up, and treating patients as faceless numbers. This is terrible for retirees, but even more so for those we still expect to take up arms and deploy into combat.
The sad fact about this issue is that it is not about money: SOCOM has plenty of it. The real story is that SOCOM has done some things recently that has incensed members of Congress (actually, those members and their staffs who support the Air Force and Navy) and thus Congress is resorting to the only thing it feels safe doing: squeezing programs that don’t cost a lot of money and won’t affect big-ticket platforms that translate into jobs and corporate money for campaigns. Forcing SOCOM to fire a few physical therapists and psychologists — all contractors or civilian employees — won’t result in a loss of donations to a representative’s coffers. But the loss of those services for those who have deployed numerous times, are suffering from PTSD and suicide, and dealing with the loss of physical abilities is shameful and Congress should stop it.
Congress does, however, have a reason to be mad at SOCOM. The command has behaved very badly lately — the natural result of a bureaucracy that has been given lots of money, lauded with tons of praise, and has expanded well beyond the original intent of its founders. The original legislation that established SOCOM was meant to solve the problem of the military services ignoring special operations. It gave the command its own budget and other special exceptions. Today, however, SOCOM is making a play to control strategy, is writing its own global engagement concepts, and has wrested control of portions of the regional commands away from the conventional side. It should come as no surprise that others within the vast defense bureaucracy have started to fight back. SOCOM is another interest group in DC now — and one that has a growing amount of influence and a recently proven track record.
One big mistake, compounded, especially angered Congress and gave SOCOM’s enemies an opportunity.
This was the establishment of the Global SOF Network. This effort is seen by many as SOCOM’s attempt to steer money and personnel its way in the fight for resources. That SOCOM has tied it to the Strategic Landpower Initiative makes it that much more sinister to the Navy and Air Force. Within SOCOM itself one can see this play out with Air Force and Navy Special Operations representatives calling into question the need for a Global SOF Network while the Army Special Operations argues it is needed (Marine Special Operations, benefitting from either side, normally sits on the fence). SOCOM compounded the error by setting up an office in DC to promote its agenda. This sounds terrible to the layman, but in actuality this is exactly what the other services have done. SOCOM was simply competing with everyone else. The problem here was that they did not gain any support for this effort before doing it and SOCOM’s (and the Army’s) enemies got Congress to deny SOCOM permission to establish the office. But SOCOM had already set it up.
That SOCOM has assumed that they can do no wrong in the eyes of Congress simply because of the relatively recent successes in taking out high-profile terrorists is the same mistake that many with a position of power make: They overreach. People always overreach for the same reason — because they thought they could. Money and equipment have never been better. Operational control of the special operations components of the regional commands is a dream come true for many. And special operations is the toast of the town: The take-down of bin Laden capped the result of a turn-around in special operation’s fortunes that arguably began with Operation Eagle Claw in 1980 and the subsequent reforms that brought SOCOM into existence. Many have started to argue that the times are changing and SOCOM will need to be more humble and get along with others better. That admonishment, however, has fallen on mostly deaf ears: Many SOF personnel, especially at the upper levels, cannot hide their disdain for conventional forces, nor their inflated sense of themselves. This attitude is now coming home to roost.
Regardless of SOCOM’s stumbles, however, and the natural overreach of those with power, Congress should not take things out on the troops. There are very real issues that our special operations personnel are having to deal with daily and they should not have to suffer because of higher-ranking officers screwing up building rapport with our own kind. (How ironic, since at the lower ranks SOCOM often selects partly on the basis of building rapport!) Congress should restore whatever SOCOM wanted for the POTF effort and the other small-ticket items they are currently denying, like the special operations Ph.D. program. The latter program, again not a big-ticket item like helicopters, submersibles, or hovercraft, will assist special operations in building the intellectual capacity within the force to help address the failures in strategy over the last decade. This problem — a lack of critical and creative thinking — is staring the nation in the face as we continue to celebrate very impressive tactical strikes that lead to nothing strategically. For Congress to withhold the permission to help suffering military personnel and to make necessary intellectual investments in the special operations community simply to punish the SOCOM hierarchy is below shameful. They are being derelict in their duty to the nation.
But make no mistake: SOCOM will still spend that money on other things. Unfortunately it will go to things like flat-screen TVs, unneeded extra weapons parts, and smart boards that will sit unused for years. That is because in the crazy world of government spending one has to spend or one will lose, and Congress has made it easy for the military to buy things it doesn’t need. When they want to punish the services, they usually deny them the ability to buy the small things they really need.
If Congress really wants to punish SOCOM’s leadership, then it should admonish a general or two or cancel a major platform program like the Iron Man suit or the fast boat program. Or, even better, pass legislation that requires special operations to cut 50 percent of their bureaucratic headquarters and transfer those positions to the operational force. The argument against doing so inevitably boils down to resources: SOF supposedly won’t get the wonderful equipment they have without all the bureaucracy. SOF, however, are valuable because of their people — not because of equipment and platforms. Spending money on healing their wounds and making them smarter seems to be a no-brainer. Why Congress woul
d default to what every bureaucracy values — that is, more money to buy “stuff” — is ridiculous, but understandable since that is where campaign donations come from. Instead Congress should be pushing SOCOM to spend more on its people and less on its stuff. Now that would be some punishment.
“Socom Man” is a 21-year veteran and active-duty officer with 18 years of service within USSOCOM.