In Shake-Up, Acting SecDef Elevates Special Operations to Be 'On Par' with Service Branches

A U.S. soldier assigned to Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC) jumps from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter
A U.S. soldier assigned to Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC) jumps from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter on Nov. 25, 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Laurie Dexter)

Acting Defense Secretary Christoper Miller announced Wednesday that U.S. Special Operations Command will now report directly to him, putting it on par with the service branches.

He said the move comes in recognition of the nation's increasing reliance on its covert forces.

"I have directed the special operations civilian leadership to report directly to me," Miller said. "It will put Special Operations Command on par with the military services for the first time. This reform will immediately improve agility for the department and the command and will enable us to streamline decision flow; enhance decision-making; and more adeptly support our commanders and their superb soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines."

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With the support of President Donald Trump, "We are forging the next chapter in the history of U.S. Special Operations forces and formalizing a watershed reform," he added. "Right now, we start the transition to provide greater civilian oversight of and, critically, advocacy for our special operators."

Miller made the announcement at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on his first trip outside the Pentagon since being appointed to take over from fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Nov. 9.

He said Congress had endorsed the move to elevate SOCOM's status in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.

The action follows Miller's sudden announcement Tuesday that U.S. forces will draw down from about 4,500 to 2,500 in Afghanistan, and from about 3,000 to 2,500 in Iraq, by Jan. 15 -- five days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

The acting SecDef also appeared to signal that he intends his time in office to be transformative. He said that enhancing the status of Special Operations Command is in line with his three priorities: Bringing an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; carrying out the National Defense Strategy, which focuses on China and Russia; and accelerating efforts to combat transnational threats.

Miller also noted turmoil at the Pentagon and the blowback his initiatives have received during his short tenure. He cited a remark often attributed to President Harry S Truman: "If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog."

In authorizing the change, Miller addressed a long-standing complaint of special operators since Special Operations Command was made one of the Combatant Commands in 1987.

The secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force report directly to the defense secretary but the assistant secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict (SO/LIC) report through the undersecretary of Defense for Policy.

The job of reporting directly to Miller will go to Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a former aide to Trump's first national security advisor, Michael Flynn. Cohen-Watnick is now filling the role of assistant secretary of defense for SO/LIC on an acting basis.

In remarks at Fort Bragg, Cohen-Watnick said that Miller's action in underlining the importance of Special Operations Command was "following the vision of John F. Kennedy, who predicted the rise of Special Operations 60 years ago."

"Now, under the leadership of President Trump, we are fully realizing President Kennedy's prescient view of Special Operations forces," Cohen-Watnick said.

Miller, a retired Army colonel who served several deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq as a special operator, noted that the announcement was taking place in front of the monument known as "Bronze Bruce," a special warfare memorial on U.S. Army Special Operations Command Memorial Plaza at Fort Bragg.

The ceremony concluded with the playing of the 1966 song "Ballad of the Green Beret."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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