Spec Ops Culture Sets Conditions 'Favorable for Inappropriate Behavior,' 4-Star Says

Members of Naval Special Warfare Group TWO.
Members assigned to Naval Special Warfare Group TWO conduct military land warfare operations. (Russell Rhodes Jr./U.S. Navy)

The military's most elite command wrapped up a months-long sweeping review, after a string of bad behavior incidents, that found the command favors combat missions over leadership development and training.

The military has leaned heavily on special operators to combat violent extremism around the world, states a new 69-page report released on U.S. Special Operations Command's comprehensive review. Unrelenting demand -- along with SOCOM's willingness to take on the missions -- have taken a toll across the chain of command.

The command's culture, which emphasizes deployments above most anything, is harming leadership, discipline and accountability, the review found.

"The continuous global demand for SOF capabilities, combined with a SOF culture focused on force employment and mission accomplishment, has led to a sustained high operational tempo which challenges unit integrity and leader development, and erodes readiness," the report states.

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The review of the community's culture and ethics was directed by Army Gen. Richard Clarke, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, in August. Clarke's directive followed several prominent and embarrassing events within the command, which he said threatened the trust Americans place in its special operators.

"I ordered this review to keep faith with the American people and our policy leaders regarding the good order and accountability of SOF," Clarke said in a statement last week. "Maintaining your trust and confidence is critically important."

The review did not look at any specific incidents, he added, but was meant to identify organizational challenges that could make the command better.

Some of the high-profile incidents that led to the review included a Navy SEAL platoon being kicked out of the war zone over allegations of rape and drinking, a hazing attempt that led to a soldier's death, and troops inappropriately posing for a photo with an enemy combatant.

Clarke stressed that the command does not have a systematic ethical behavioral problem.

"The vast majority of our people maintain the highest standards of conduct every single day," he said, "and they do so in some of the most challenging conditions around the globe."

The review did find, however, that the command is, at times, setting conditions "favorable for inappropriate behavior," he said.

The review found the command's culture emphasizes deployments and mission accomplishment, which is contributing to the "detriment of leadership, discipline and accountability." That has allowed "for misconduct and unethical behavior to develop within the SOF enterprise," the report states.

"The Review Team uncovered not only potential cracks in the SOF foundations at the individual and team level, but also through the chain of command, specifically in the core [tenets] of discipline and accountability," it adds.

The report notes a perception among operators that deploying to combat zones is valued above professional development. From accession pipelines to their first units, SOF personnel are encouraged to emulate those who have tactical deployment experience -- regardless of whether those troops uphold positive or negative standards, the report states.

"Deployments forward, specifically to locations where combat is a possibility, are valued above all other things, and perceived as the ultimate expression of competence," it says.

That drive often leaves individuals and small teams being unpredictably pulled from their day-to-day duties, leaving units displaced and without commanders and senior enlisted leaders to teach, train, mentor and hold them accountable.

"[This kind of leadership] did not appear to be happening as regularly as it should -- or at least with a level of professionalism required to maintain good order, discipline and accountability," the report states.

It was often clear which units had present and engaged leaders, the review found, as opposed to teams that are fractured or out of balance.

"Normalized unit disaggregation contributes to the erosion of leadership, discipline and accountability," the report states. "... The habitual disaggregation of SOF units to meet global demands strains effective present and engaged leadership."

The community's already high operational tempo to fight terrorism and violent extremism around the world could only get more intense as the Defense Department shifts its focus toward taking on great power, the report warns.

Fixing the Culture

Two teams examined the command's culture as part of the review.

One team was made up of former senior military leaders and academic experts. They provided insight and external critique to SOCOM leaders and the second team, which included 20 active-duty officers and enlisted troops, along with civilians.

That team, which was led by a SOCOM general officer, canvassed more than 2,000 personnel across the special operations community. That included engagements with SOCOM headquarters, its service-specific components, and theater special operations commands.

The review assessed five areas: force employment, force accountability, leader development, force structure, and assessment and selection.

As early as entry-level training, some future operators develop an "unhealthy sense of entitlement" because they're separated from other trainees and get special treatment and access to different facilities.

The review teams made 16 recommendations for action. Correcting those problems, they wrote, "will have cascading effects."

Recommendations include restoring structure and emphasis on leadership development.

"Insufficient junior leader development, an unbalanced approach to professional military education (PME), and non-codified officer and enlisted career milestone requirements have weakened leadership, discipline and accountability practices within the USSOCOM enterprise," the report states.

The teams recommended a joint in-residence special operations junior officer course; empowering leaders to fix problems before they get too advanced "with the potential to manifest into individual and group misconduct and tragic incidents on the battlefield;" and incentivizing troops to fill leadership and management gaps.

Troops from across the force were honest in describing shortfalls and offering individual solutions, the report states.

But, as the report notes, it's not the first time the command has completed this type of review.

Other attempts to fix similar problems in the special operations community have had varying degrees of success, the report states. That includes a 2011 Press on the Force and Families Task Force, which found the special operations force "fatigued, worn and frayed around the edges."

The review teams warned that the results of this effort must be acted on, or leaders risk grave results.

"If left unaddressed, the conditions outlined in the [comprehensive review's] findings will continue to create the conditions and contexts, where unethical behavior and misconduct place both the assigned SOF mission as well as the safety and well-being of service members at risk," they wrote.

In his statement, Clarke stressed that the command's work on this review won't end with the report.

"I am forming an implementation team that will follow through on these findings and recommendations, assess results, and refine our policies accordingly," he said.

In a letter to the force, Clarke added that culture does not tend itself.

"Only active, consistent engagement from leaders at every level will make us better," he said. "... You have our full support as we get after this together."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Read more: SOCOM Must Make These Changes as it Reviews Ethics Problems, Operators and Experts Say

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