U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress




U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF):
Background and Issues for Congress

Updated May 6, 2021
Congressional Research Service
https://crsreports.congress.gov
RS21048




U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress

Summary
Special Operations Forces (SOF) play a significant role in U.S. military operations and, in recent
years, have been given greater responsibility for planning and conducting worldwide
counterterrorism operations. U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has about 70,000
Active Duty, National Guard, and reserve personnel from all four services and Department of
Defense (DOD) civilians assigned to its headquarters, its four service component commands, and
eight sub-unified commands.
In 2013, based on a request from USSOCOM (with the concurrence of Geographic and
Functional Combatant Commanders and the Military Service Chiefs and Secretaries), the
Secretary of Defense assigned command of the Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs)
to USSOCOM. USSOCOM has the responsibility to organize, train, and equip TSOCs. While
USSOCOM is responsible for the organizing, training, and equipping of TSOCs, the Geographic
Combatant Commands will have operational control over the TSOCs. Because the TSOCs are
now classified as sub-unified commands, the services are responsible to provide non-SOF support
to the TSOCs in the same manner in which they provide support to the Geographic Combatant
Command headquarters.
The Unified Command Plan (UCP) stipulates USSOCOM responsibility for synchronizing
planning for global operations to combat terrorist networks. This focus on planning limits its
ability to conduct activities designed to deter emerging threats, build relationships with foreign
militaries, and potentially develop greater access to foreign militaries. USSOCOM is proposing
changes that would, in addition to current responsibilities, include the responsibility for
synchronizing the planning, coordination, deployment, and, when directed, the employment of
special operations forces globally and will do so with the approval of the Geographic Combatant
Commanders, the services, and, as directed, appropriate U.S. government agencies. Further, the
proposed changes would give broader responsibility to USSOCOM beyond counterterrorism
activities, to include activities against other threat networks. In August 2016, the Obama
Administration assigned USSOCOM the leading role in coordinating DOD’s efforts to counter
WMDs, a mission previously assigned to U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM).
USSOCOM is also the DOD proponent for Security Force Assistance and recently was assigned
the mission to field a Trans Regional Military Information Support Operations (MISO) capability.
On November 18, 2020, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller announced that he was
implementing the reforms outlined in Section 922 of the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense
Authorization Act by “elevating Special Operations forces to a level on par with military
departments as authorized and directed by Congress.”
On May 5, 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reversed Acting Secretary of Defense
Christopher C. Miller’s 2020 decision and returned the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special
Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASD [SOLIC]) to the control of the Under Secretary of
Defense for Policy (USD [P]).
Potential issues for Congress include policy concerns relating to Secretary of Defense Austin’s
decision to reverse Acting Secretary of Defense Miller’s 2020 policy decision and the status of
DOD’s review of DOD and USSOCOM support to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
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Contents
Background ..................................................................................................................................... 1
Overview ................................................................................................................................... 1
Command Structures and Components ..................................................................................... 1

Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs) .............................................................. 2
Additional USSOCOM Responsibilities ................................................................................... 2
Army Special Operations Command ......................................................................................... 3
Air Force Special Operations Command .................................................................................. 4
Naval Special Warfare Command ............................................................................................. 5
U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) .................................... 5

MARSOC to Consolidate at Camp Lejeune, NC ................................................................ 6
Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) ............................................................................. 6
Civilian Oversight of USSOCOM .................................................................................................. 6
Acting Secretary of Defense Miller Announces Implementation of Section 922,
FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 114-328) ................................................ 7
Secretary of Defense Austin Reverses Acting Secretary of Defense Miller’s Decision ........... 8
DOD Review of DOD and USSOCOM Support to the Central Intelligence Agency

(CIA) ...................................................................................................................................... 8
Potential Issues for Congress........................................................................................................... 9
Secretary of Defense Austin’s May 2021 Policy Decision on the Organizational Role
of ASD (SOLIC) .................................................................................................................... 9
Status of DOD Review of DOD and USSOCOM Support to the Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) ......................................................................................................................... 9

Contacts
Author Information ........................................................................................................................ 10

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U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress

Background
Overview
Special operations are military operations requiring unique modes of employment, tactical
techniques, equipment, and training. These operations are often conducted in hostile, denied, or
politically sensitive environments and are characterized by one or more of the following
elements: time sensitive, clandestine, low visibility, conducted with and/or through indigenous
forces, requiring regional expertise, and/or a high degree of risk. Special Operations Forces (SOF)
are those active and reserve component forces of the services designated by the Secretary of
Defense and specifically organized, trained, and equipped to conduct and support special
operations. The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), headquartered at MacDill Air
Force Base in Tampa, FL, is a functional combatant command responsible for training, doctrine,
and equipping for all U.S. SOF units.
Command Structures and Components
In 1986, Congress, concerned about the status of SOF within overall U.S. defense planning,
passed legislation (P.L. 99-661) to strengthen special operations’ position within the defense
community and to strengthen interoperability among the branches of U.S. SOF. These actions
included the establishment of USSOCOM as a new unified command. As stipulated by U.S.C.
Title X, Section 167, the commander of USSOCOM is a four-star officer who may be from any
military service. U.S. Army General Richard Clarke is the current USSOCOM Commander. The
USSOCOM Commander reports directly to the Secretary of Defense. The Assistant Secretary of
Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict (ASD (SOLIC)) is the principal civilian
advisor to the Secretary of Defense on special operations and low-intensity conflict matters. The
ASD (SOLIC) has as his principal duty overall supervision (to include oversight of policy and
resources) of special operations and low-intensity conflict activities.1 On April 23, 2021,
President Biden nominated Christopher Maier to serve as ASD (SOLIC).2 He is the is current
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity
Conflict and was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and
Combating Terrorism in the Obama-Biden Administration.3
As of 2020, USSOCOM consisted of over 70,000 active duty, reserve, National Guard, and
civilian personnel assigned to its headquarters (about 2,500 personnel), its four components, and
sub-unified commands.4 USSOCOM’s components are the U.S. Army Special Operations
Command (USASOC); the Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC); the Air Force Special
Operations Command (AFSOC); and the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command
(MARSOC). The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is a USSOCOM sub-unified
command.

1 https://policy.defense.gov/OUSDP-Offices/ASD-for-Special-Operations-Low-Intensity-Conflict/; accessed December
3, 2020.
2 The White House, “President Biden Announces Key Administration Nominations in National Security,” April 23,
2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/04/23/president-biden-announces-key-
administration-nominations-in-national-security/, accessed May 6, 2021.
3 Ibid.
4 2021 Fact Book, USSOCOM, p. 12.
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U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress

Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs)
Theater-level command and control responsibilities are vested in Theater Special Operations
Commands (TSOCs). TSOCs are sub-unified commands under their respective Geographic
Combatant Commanders (GCCs). TSOCs are special operational headquarters elements designed
to support a GCC’s special operations logistics, planning, and operational command and control
requirements, and are normally commanded by a general officer.
In February 2013, based on a request from USSOCOM and with the concurrence of every
geographic and functional combatant commander and military service chiefs and Secretaries, the
Secretary of Defense transferred combatant command of the TSOCs from the GCCs to
USSOCOM.5 This means USSOCOM has the responsibility to organize, train, and equip TSOCs,
as it previously had for all assigned SOF units as specified in U.S. Code, Title 10, Section 167.
This change was intended to enable USSOCOM to standardize, to the extent possible, TSOC
capabilities and manpower requirements. While USSOCOM is responsible for the organizing,
training, and equipping of TSOCs, the GCCs continue to have operational control over the
TSOCs and all special operations in their respective theaters. TSOC commanders are the senior
SOF advisors for their respective GCCs. Each TSOC is capable of forming the core of a joint task
force headquarters for short-term operations, and can provide command and control for all SOF
in theater on a continuous basis. The services have what the DOD calls “Combatant Command
Service Agency (CCSA)” responsibilities for providing manpower, non-SOF peculiar equipment,
and logistic support to the TSOCs. The current TSOCs, the GCCs they support, and the CCSA
responsibility for those TSOCs are as follows.6
 Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH), Homestead Air Force Base,
FL; supports U.S. Southern Command; its CCSA is the Army.
 Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA), Stuttgart, Germany;
supports U.S. Africa Command; its CCSA is the Army.
 Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR), Stuttgart, Germany; supports
U.S. European Command; its CCSA is the Army.
 Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT), MacDill Air Force Base, FL;
supports U.S. Central Command; its CCSA is the Air Force.
 Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC), Camp Smith, HI; supports
U.S. Pacific Command; its CCSA is the Navy.
 Special Operations Command Korea (SOCKOR), Yongsang, Korea; supports
U.S. Forces Korea; its CCSA is the Army.
 Special Operations Command U.S. Northern Command (SOCNORTH), Peterson
Air Force Base, CO; supports U.S. Northern Command; its CCSA is the Air
Force.
Additional USSOCOM Responsibilities
In addition to Title 10 authorities and responsibilities, USSOCOM has been given additional
responsibilities. In the 2004 Unified Command Plan (UCP), USSOCOM was given the

5 Information in this section is taken from USSOCOM Information Paper, “Special Operations Forces: 2020: Theater
Special Operations Commands,” April 25, 2013.
6 USSOCOM Pamphlet, “United States Special Operations Command, GlobalSOF Network2020,” 2013.
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U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress

responsibility for synchronizing DOD planning against global terrorist networks and, as directed,
conducting global operations against those networks.7 In this regard, USSOCOM “receives,
reviews, coordinates and prioritizes all DOD plans that support the global campaign against
terror, and then makes recommendations to the Joint Staff regarding force and resource
allocations to meet global requirements.”8 In October 2008, USSOCOM was designated the DOD
proponent for Security Force Assistance (SFA).9 In this role, USSOCOM performs a
synchronizing function in global training and assistance planning similar to the previously
described role of planning against terrorist networks. In 2018, USSOCOM was also assigned the
mission to field a Trans Regional Military Information Support Operations (MISO) capability
intended to “address the opportunities and risks of global information space.”10
Army Special Operations Command
U.S. Army SOF (ARSOF) includes approximately 33,000 soldiers from the active Army, National
Guard, and Army Reserve organized into Special Forces, Ranger, and special operations aviation
units, along with civil affairs units, military information units, and special operations support
units.11 ARSOF Headquarters and other resources, such as the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare
Center and School, are located at Fort Bragg, NC. Five active Special Forces (SF) Groups
(Airborne),12 consisting of about 1,400 soldiers each, are stationed at Fort Bragg and at Fort
Lewis, WA; Fort Campbell, KY; Fort Carson, CO; and Eglin Air Force Base, FL. Special Forces
soldiers—also known as the Green Berets—are trained in various skills, including foreign
languages, that allow teams to operate independently throughout the world. Two Army National
Guard Special Forces groups are headquartered in Utah and Alabama.
An elite airborne light infantry unit specializing in direct action operations,13 the 75th Ranger
Regiment, is headquartered at Fort Benning, GA, and consists of three battalions of about 800
soldiers each, a regimental special troops battalion, and a regimental military intelligence
battalions. The Army’s special operations aviation unit, the 160th Special Operations Aviation
Regiment (Airborne) (SOAR), consists of five battalions and is headquartered at Fort Campbell,
KY. The 160th SOAR features pilots trained to fly the most sophisticated Army rotary-wing
aircraft in the harshest environments, day or night, and in adverse weather and supports all
USSOCOM components, not just Army units.

7 “Fact Book: United States Special Operations Command,” USSOCOM Public Affairs, February 2013, p. 10.
8 Ibid.
9 Information in this section is from testimony given by Admiral Eric T. Olson, Commander, USSOCOM, to the House
Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee on the Fiscal Year 2010 National Defense
Authorization Budget Request for the U.S. Special Operations Command, June 4, 2009.
10 Statement of General Raymond A. Thomas, III, U.S. Army, Commander, United States Special Operations
Command before the Senate Armed Services Committee, February 14, 2019, p. 12.
11 Information in this section, unless otherwise noted, is taken from 2020 Fact Book, USSOCOM, p. 18.
12 Airborne refers to “personnel, troops especially trained to effect, following transport by air, an assault debarkation,
either by parachuting or touchdown.” Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and
Associated Terms, 12 April 2001 (As Amended Through 31 July 2010).
13 Direct action operations are short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions conducted as a special
operation in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments, as well as employing specialized military capabilities
to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover, or damage designated targets. Direct action differs from conventional
offensive actions in the level of physical and political risk, operational techniques, and the degree of discriminate and
precise use of force to achieve specific objectives.
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Some of the most frequently deployed SOF assets are Civil Affairs (CA) units, which provide
experts in every area of civil government to help administer civilian affairs in operational
theaters. The 95th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne) is the only active CA unit that exclusively
supports USSOCOM. Military Information Support Operations (formerly known as
psychological operations) units disseminate information to large foreign audiences through mass
media. Two active duty Military Information Support Groups (MISGs)—the 4th Military
Information Support Group (MISG) (Airborne) and 8th Military Information Support Group
(MISG) (Airborne)—are stationed at Fort Bragg, and their subordinate units are aligned with
Geographic Combatant Commands.
Air Force Special Operations Command
The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is one of the Air Force’s 10 major
commands, with approximately 20,800 active, reserve, and civilian personnel.14 AFSOC units
operate out of four major continental United States (CONUS) locations and two overseas
locations. The headquarters for AFSOC is Hurlburt Field, FL.15 AFSOC units are stationed as
follows:
 1st Special Operations Wing, Hurlburt Field, FL;
 24th Special Operations Wing, Hurlburt Field, FL;
 27th Special Operations Wing, Cannon Air Force Base, NM;
 137th Special Operations Wing (Air National Guard), Oklahoma City, OK;
 193rd Special Operations Wing (Air National Guard), Harrisburg, PA;
 352nd Special Operations Wing, Royal Air Force Mildenhall, UK;
 492nd Special Operations Wing, Hurlburt Field, FL;
 919th Special Operations Wing (Air Force Reserves), Duke Field, FL; and
 353rd Special Operations Group, Kadena Air Base, Japan.16
Air Force Special Operations Command specialties generally fall into four groups:
Special Tactics: Special Tactics comprises Special Tactics Officers, Combat
Controllers, Combat Rescue Officers, Pararescuemen, Special Operations
Weather Officers and Airmen, Air Liaison Officers, and Tactical Air Control
Party Operators.
Special Operations Aviators: Aircrew who fly a fleet of specially modified
aircraft in permissive, contested, denied, or politically sensitive environments.
Missions include long-range infiltration and exfiltration; nonstandard aviation;
precision strike; aerial refueling; military information support operations; foreign
internal defense; and command, control, intelligence, surveillance, and
reconnaissance.
Combat Aviation Advisors: Combat aviation advisors work with foreign
aviation forces as part of Foreign Internal Defense, Security Force Assistance,
and Unconventional Warfare operations.

14 Information in this section, unless otherwise noted, is taken from 2020 Fact Book, USSOCOM, p. 26.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid., p. 27.
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Support Air Commandos: A variety of Air Force specialties who serve in
mission support, maintenance, and medical specialties in support of AFSOC
units.17
Naval Special Warfare Command18
The Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC) comprises approximately 10,000 personnel,
including active duty and reserve component Special Warfare Operators, known as SEALs;
Special Warfare Boat Operators, known as Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC);
reserve personnel; support personnel, referred to as Enablers; and civilians. NSWC headquarters
is located at Coronado, CA, and is composed of eight active duty SEAL Teams, two reserve
component SEAL Teams, two SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) Teams, three Special Boat Teams,
and two Special Reconnaissance Teams. Because SEALs are considered experts in special
reconnaissance and direct action missions—primary counterterrorism skills—NSWC is viewed as
well-postured to fight a globally dispersed enemy ashore or afloat. NSWC forces can operate in
small groups and have the ability to quickly deploy from Navy ships, submarines and aircraft,
overseas bases, and forward-based units. Naval Special Warfare Groups (NSWGs), NSWC’s
major components, are stationed as follows:
 NSWG-1, San Diego, CA;
 NSWG-2, Virginia Beach, VA;
 NSWG-3, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, HI;
 NSWG-4, Virginia Beach, VA;
 NSWG-10; Virginia Beach, VA; and
 NSWG-11, San Diego, CA.19
U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command
(MARSOC)20
On November 1, 2005, DOD created the Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) as a
component of USSOCOM. MARSOC comprises almost 3,000 personnel, including Critical Skills
Operators (enlisted), Special Operations Officers, Special Operations Independent Duty
Corpsmen (medics), Special Operations Capabilities Specialists, Combat Service Support
Specialists, and Marine Corps Civilians.21 MARSOC consists of the Marine Raider Regiment,
which includes 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Marine Raider Battalions; the Marine Raider Support Group; 1st,
2nd, and 3rd Marine Raider Support Battalions; and the Marine Special Operations School.
MARSOC headquarters, the 2nd and 3rd Marine Raider Battalions, the Marine Special Operations
School, and the Marine Raider Support Group are stationed at Camp Lejeune, NC. The 1st Marine
Raider Battalion and 1st Marine Raider Support Battalion are currently stationed at Camp
Pendleton, CA. MARSOC forces have been deployed worldwide to conduct a full range of

17 Ibid., pp. 28-29.
18 Information in this section, unless otherwise noted, is taken from 2020 Fact Book, USSOCOM, p. 23.
19 https://www.nsw.navy.mil/CONTACT/Components/; accessed March 6, 2020.
20 Information in this section is from “Fact Book: United States Special Operations Command,” USSOCOM Public
Affairs, February 2013, p. 20; “U.S. Special Operations Command Factbook 2015” USSOCOM Public Affairs, p. 30;
and CRS discussions with USSOCOM staff, September 10, 2013.
21 2020 Fact Book, USSOCOM, p. 30.
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special operations activities. MARSOC missions include direct action, special reconnaissance,
foreign internal defense, counterterrorism, and information operations.
MARSOC to Consolidate at Camp Lejeune, NC22
Reportedly, the 1st Marine Raider Battalion and 1st Marine Raider Support Battalion will move
from Camp Pendleton, CA, to Camp Lejeune, NC. Beginning in the fall of 2019, the move is
planned to be completed during the summer of 2022. Concerns have been expressed that the
move to Camp Lejeune could result in family stress, decreased training efficiency, negative
culture and morale, and a decrease in recruiting and retention. MARSOC reportedly contends the
move will save money on several fronts and create greater training opportunities by having all
three battalions together. Associated cost savings are said to include
 Saving millions of dollars due to the lower cost of living in North Carolina;
 Moving all the Raiders to Camp Lejeune could save $55 million between 2021-
2026 from reduced Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) and the elimination of
Permanent Change of Station (PCS) costs; and
 Eliminating the need for duplicate equipment, reducing MARSOC acquisition
costs by $65 million, and permitting the return of $33 million worth of equipment
to the Marine Corps.23
Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)24
From USSOCOM’s 2020 Factbook:
The Joint Special Operations Command, located at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, is a sub-
unified command of the U.S. Special Operations Command. It is charged to study special
operations requirements and techniques, ensure interoperability and equipment
standardization, plan and conduct Special Operations exercises and training, and develop
joint Special Operations tactics.
Civilian Oversight of USSOCOM 25
While Congress created the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low
Intensity Conflict (ASD [SOLIC]) in 1987 (10 U.S.C. §138), it has been suggested that post-
2001, as USSOCOM amassed resources and influence, the office of ASD (SOLIC) failed to keep
pace, contributing to USSOCOM’s over emphasis on direct action missions, ethics problems, and
resulting in a command not prepared to meet the challenges of great power competition.26
Furthermore, even though Congress expanded ASD (SOLIC)’s role and responsibilities in 2017
(§922, FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act; P.L. 114-328), some have felt that it has
been difficult to restore civilian leadership to USSOCOM (e.g., at present, there is only an Acting
ASD [SOLIC], Mr. Ezra Cohen). Without stronger guidance from civilian leadership in the

22 Information in this section is taken from Philip Athey, “It’s Official: Marine Raiders Leaving California for a New
Home in North Carolina,” Marine Corps Times, January 6, 2020.
23 Ibid.
24 Taken directly from 2020 Fact Book, USSOCOM, p. 34.
25 Mark E. Mitchell, Zachary Griffiths, and Cole Livieratos, “America’s Special Operators Will be Adrift Without
Better Civilian Oversight,” War on the Rocks, February 18, 2020.
26 Ibid.
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Pentagon and Congress, it was considered unlikely that USSOCOM would enact the necessary
changes to produce capable and ethical special operations forces.27
Three potential solutions for enhancing civilian oversight and control could include (1)
continuing DOD’s “incremental but non-committal approach” toward meeting the requirements
of Section 922 of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act, (2) congressional elevation of
ASD (SOLIC) to an Under Secretary of Defense for Special Operations reporting directly to the
Secretary of Defense, or (3) making ASD (SOLIC) an independent Assistant Secretary of Defense
similar to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.28
Acting Secretary of Defense Miller Announces Implementation of
Section 922, FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 114-
328)29
On November 18, 2020, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller announced that he
was implementing the reforms outlined in Section 922 of the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense
Authorization Act by “elevating Special Operations forces to a level on par with military
departments as authorized and directed by Congress.”30 As such ASD (SOLIC) is to report
directly to the Secretary of Defense “instead of through the current bureaucratic channels.”31 The
Acting Secretary of Defense also said “he hopes that in the future, Congress will elevate the ASD
(SOLIC) position to Under Secretary of Defense.”32
Reportedly, some former USSOCOM commanders have differing opinions of this action. Former
USSOCOM Commander Army General Joseph Votel reportedly stated that the action “is
probably good for SOF/SOCOM because it takes it out from under Office of the Secretary of
Defense (OSD) for Policy and it may help with getting action on some of the more important
budgetary and conceptual issues that SOCOM will be dealing with.”33 Former USSOCOM
Commander Army General Raymond Thomas reportedly had a different opinion, noting the
action was “not a big deal and an ill-timed, understaffed decision,” further suggesting “that such
changes are complicated with profound implications for DOD, ironically, demonstrated with the
recent roll out of U.S. Space Command which is still a work in progress.”34

27 Ibid.
28 Ibid.
29 DOD Transcript, “Acting SECDEF Announces OSD Changes at Fort Bragg, NC,” November 18, 2020,
https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/2419853/acting-secdef-announces-osd-changes-at-
fort-bragg-nc/.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid.
32 David Vergun, “Special Operations Leader to Report Directly to Acting Defense Secretary,” DOD News, November
18, 2020, https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2419154/special-operations-leader-to-report-directly-
to-acting-defense-secretary/.
33 Meghann Myers and Howard Altman, “Pentagon Shakeup Means More Civilian Oversight for Special Operations,”
Military Times, November 18, 2020.
34 Ibid.
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Secretary of Defense Austin Reverses Acting Secretary of Defense
Miller’s Decision
On May 5, 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reversed Acting Secretary of Defense
Christopher Miller’s November 18, 2020, decision and returned ASD (SOLIC) to the control of
the USD (P).35 In addition, Secretary Austin directed:
 The ASD (SOLIC) is the principal staff assistant and civilian advisor to the
Secretary of Defense for special operations, low-intensity conflict, and special
operations peculiar administrative matters and, after the Secretary and Deputy
Secretary of Defense, is the principal official for these matters.
 The ASD (SOLIC) will continue to report directly to the Secretary of Defense in
exercising authority, direction, and control of all special operations peculiar
administrative matters relating to the organization, training, and equipping of
special operations forces. ASD (SOLIC) will continue to be a member of the
senior leader fora as designated in Acting Secretary Miller’s November 18, 2020,
memorandum.
 ASD (SOLIC) remains in the administrative chain of command, exercises
authority, direction, and control of the Commander, U.S. Special Operations
Command, for special operations-peculiar administration, including the readiness
and organization of special operations forces, resources and equipment, and
civilian personnel (per 10 U.S.C. §167(f)).
 For all other policy matters, ASD (SOLIC) will be subject to the authority,
direction, and control of the USD (P).36
DOD Review of DOD and USSOCOM Support to the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Reportedly, DOD is reviewing a 15-year-old memorandum of understanding (MOA) with the CIA
and could possibly move some personnel and resources from supporting the agency to other
duties.37 Although DOD officials suggest they are trying to better allocate resources to focus on
great power competition with Russia and China, others are said to believe that the CIA has been
using too many military assets and personnel—many of whom are from USSOCOM—and that
DOD wants to reexamine this practice.38 For example, it is reported that about two-thirds to three-
fourths of the CIA’s fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles are owned by the Air Force.39
The CIA has relied heavily on special operations personnel to support its paramilitary activities,
and the CIA and USSOCOM have worked together extensively since 2001 on global
counterterrorism operations. It is not known how many or what types of USSOCOM personnel
are detailed directly to the CIA or how long these details last. Some national security experts

35 Secretary of Defense Memorandum, “Organizational Role of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special
Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict,” May 5, 2021.
36 Ibid.
37 Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon Weighs Sharp Drawback in Support for C.I.A.,” The New York Times,
December 10, 2020.
38 Ibid.
39 Ibid.
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believe that reducing USSOCOM support to CIA paramilitary and counterterrorism efforts will
have an overall detrimental influence on national security.40 Others, however, advocate that DOD
should assume primary responsibility for U.S. paramilitary activities from the CIA41 in
accordance with the recommendations of the 2004 9/11 Commission Report.42
Potential Issues for Congress
Secretary of Defense Austin’s May 2021 Policy Decision on the
Organizational Role of ASD (SOLIC)
While Secretary of Defense Austin decided to retain Acting Secretary of Defense Miller’s
principal staff assistant designation for ASD (SOLIC) and include ASD (SOLIC) in senior-level
meetings as directed by Acting Secretary of Defense Miller, the ASD (SOLIC) will again be
subject to the authority, direction, and control of the USD (P). Congress might wish to examine if
Secretary of Defense Austin’s policy decision meets the intent of Section 922, FY2017 National
Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 114-328) or if additional action is required.
Status of DOD Review of DOD and USSOCOM Support to the
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
As nothing has been said publicly by Secretary Austin regarding rescinding this review, it can be
assumed that it is still likely ongoing. If this is the case, DOD’s 2020 decision to review DOD and
USSOCOM support to the CIA raises potential issues for Congress. Some of these potential
issues include the following:
 What is the anticipated date of the completion of DOD’s review?
 What office in DOD is in charge of the review?
 What, if any, roles do ASD (SOLIC) and USSOCOM play in the review?
 What role, if any, does the CIA play in the review?
 What, if any, other government agencies are involved in this review?
 Does DOD plan to brief the congressional defense and intelligence committees
on the results of the review and, if so, when?
 Will there be any independent analysis of the review in terms of its potential
impact on national security?
 If the results of the review are adopted, what are the associated resource and
budgetary implications for both DOD and the CIA?



40 Ibid.
41 Douglas A. Livermore, “Passing the Paramilitary Torch from the CIA to Special Operations Command,” Small Wars
Journal, September 1, 2019.
42 Recommendation 32 from the 9/11 Commission Report (Washington: GPO, 2004) pp. 415-416.
Congressional Research Service

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U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress


Author Information

Andrew Feickert

Specialist in Military Ground Forces



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Congressional Research Service
RS21048 · VERSION 69 · UPDATED
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