A View from the CT Foxhole: Mark Mitchell, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict.

Author:Dodwell, Brian

CTC: You've been involved in the SOF [Special Operations Forces] enterprise for more than 20 years, from the tactical level during the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to commanding a Special Forces group to now serving as the PDASD in SO/LIC. Broadly speaking, during that time, the role of SOF units in the CT fight has changed in a number of different ways. What are some of the most important changes that you've seen in the employment of SOF forces during the CT fight over the last 15-20 years?

Mitchell: I think the most obvious ones are that first of all, the SOF enterprise has, over the span of 17 years, almost doubled in size. We were around 40,000 total civilian and military across all of USSOCOM in 2001, with an annual budget then of about $2 billion. Today, the SOF enterprise stands at well over 70,000 people and an annual budget somewhere north of $13 billion. So there's been a remarkable growth not only in the size but also the resources devoted to the SOF enterprise. And importantly, I think that's a reflection of the role that SOF plays not just in counterterrorism but in all aspects of irregular warfare and conventional warfare. We've seen the SOF community and our forces become, instead of a peripheral player, a core element of many of our national security strategy and policy initiatives.

The downside, though, is what we refer to as the "SOF easy button." There's a tendency amongst some policy makers and some leaders--both civilian and military--to look to Special Operations to solve hard problems. And while we're very good at doing that, not every hard problem has a good SOF solution. Special Operations, while they are an important part of achieving our national security objectives, can very rarely be the sole solution. Every DoD effort, including Special Operations, needs to be integrated with our other instruments of national power. I think as we move forward, particularly as our focus shifts from CT to great-power competition, we're going to have to be mindful of that to ensure that we're taking on the right missions.

CTC: What is the role of your office in managing those transitions? Where does ASD SO/LIC fit into this?

Mitchell: ASD SO/LIC was created contemporaneously with U.S. Special Operations Command and was always envisioned to be like SOCOM, a dual-purpose organization. You have two main aspects for SO/LIC: the policymaking side and a Service Secretary-like resourcing and oversight function focused on SOF-specific funding --known as MFP-11--provided by Congress. But for a variety of reasons, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, ASD SO/LIC became much more focused at a tactical level and on operations overseas, while the resourcing and oversight functions dwindled. Congress took note of that and decided that we needed to re-energize our role in the resourcing and oversight.

The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act included provisions intended to ensure that ASD SO/LIC had a stronger role in the resourcing and oversight functions. So that has caused a kind of fundamental transformation of a portion of the SO/LIC portfolio. We have received authorization to add additional personnel and are becoming more directly involved in issues related to the manning, training, equipping, and organizing functions of USSOCOM. SO/LIC also retained a broad policy portfolio that includes not only Special Operations and combating terrorism but also all aspects of irregular warfare, hence the low-intensity conflict, which is really a legacy from the '80s and the creation of SO/LIC. We also have humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, disaster relief, global health engagement, counternarcotics, counter transnational organized crime, all forms of illicit trafficking, and counter-threat finance. We also have detainee policy. So we have a very broad portfolio of tasks, all of them relating one way or another to either Special Operations directly or irregular warfare.

CTC: With the recent shift in strategic focus back to great-power competition, how do we maintain an appropriate level of focus on the CT fight?

Mitchell: It's a great question. The good news, or bad news depending on how you want to look at it, is that our adversaries have a vote. The fact that they will continue to seek ways to attack our interests and people overseas and even here at home will force us to reckon with a continuing threat of terrorism. Within SO/LIC, within SOCOM, and even here within the Pentagon, everybody from the Secretary on down recognizes that the CT fight is not going away and that we need to remain engaged. The challenge is to find those opportunities where both the threat is sufficiently manageable and we have partners and allies that are willing to step up to contain that threat. Secretary Mattis has also challenged us to find more cost effective approaches to this problem and increase our overall readiness. The fundamental answer is we're going to have to remain very vigilant with our intelligence community and be prepared to reallocate SOF between great-power...

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