Special warfare airmen assigned to the New Jersey Air National Guard participate in fast-rope training with a Marine Corps UH-1Y Venom helicopter at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., on Oct. 10, 2019.

Special warfare airmen assigned to the New Jersey Air National Guard participate in fast-rope training with a Marine Corps UH-1Y Venom helicopter at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., on Oct. 10, 2019. Master Sgt. Matt Hecht / U.S. Air National Guard

As Spotlight Fades, What's Next for Special Operators?

Under Trump, the Pentagon's "service secretary" in charge of special operation forces has changed hands eight times between seven people.

As the long campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have drawn down, the most vaunted and revered stars of the show — America’s special operators — have largely faded from the spotlight. Now, they are looking for a new identity and raison d’être in the era of great power competition. They have been hindered, not helped, by the Trump administration’s insistence on appointing a series of obscure and unremarkable placeholders as the Pentagon civilian in charge of special operations forces.

Until last week, I bet, you couldn’t name one of them. It’s no disrespect to them, as much as it is a combination of two factors: one, the big war years have wound down, which is a good thing; and two, it shows how few senior national-security leaders care to serve Donald Trump. 

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This job was once held by living legend Michael Vickers, who went on to become defense undersecretary for intelligence and receive the Presidential National Security Medal and the OSS Society’s William J. Donovan Award. But when the 2010s brought a chance to offer greater recognition and status to two groups — the National Guard and special operation forces — the Guard was given a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and SOF was left behind. Some wanted the commander of Special Operations Command, already a four-star billet, elevated to sit with the Joint Chiefs. Others suggested SOCOM be its own service branch, like how the Air Force was forced to branch off a new Space Force. Instead, in 2017 Congress approved a Pentagon request to elevate the top SOF post to be kinda, sorta on par with the Army, Navy and Air Force secretaries. 

Except it isn’t. The post is officially “assistant secretary of defense of special operations and low-intensity conflict.” That’s three levels below the defense secretary. The job’s not even close to a service secretary. Largely because it has never been filled with a personality who could force the Pentagon to treat it as such, but also because it can’t wish itself to be what it’s not. And there are plenty of senior leaders who don’t agree with the idea, believing even elite forces are just small groups among many types of specialties that serve the larger service branches. 

Under Trump, this post has changed hands eight times between seven people. Four took the seat in the administration’s first year, including Owen West, a former Marine platoon commander better known to that point as the son of Bing West, a Reagan-era assistant defense secretary for international security affairs-turned-author. The younger West held the post for an unremarkable year and a half, almost as invisible in Washington as the elite fighters he represented. His replacement was acting ASD SO/LIC Mark Mitchell, a respected former operator who helped revamp hostage policy and worked on Obama’s National Security Council. Mitchell lasted just four months. He was replaced in November by Thomas Alexander, the Pentagon’s counter-narcotics chief. Alexander had little relevant experience, and was not even appointed as “acting,” but as “performing the duties of” the job.

And so, when SOF executed its highest-profile mission in years — the January killing of Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani — Alexander wasn’t a factor. SO/LIC veteran Luke Hartig explains why that matters: “The short answer is that the ASD SO/LIC combines expertise in operational oversight with foreign policy judgement to ensure that our operations are conducted as prudently as possible. This is essential because special operations almost always have strategic and political ramifications that go beyond the military’s execution of them.” 

In May, Mitchell wrote an op-ed about the idea of giving the ASD SO/LIC a service secretary-like role. “Sadly, that effort has met much resistance within DoD, and half-hearted implementation has produced limited effects,” he wrote. Instead, he argued that the enterprise needed an even higher ranking leader: “I believe we need an undersecretary for special operations and irregular warfare.” He didn’t get it. 

Around that time, Trump finally asked the Senate to confirm someone to the job: self-described “Harley riding, tequila-drinking Navy SEAL” Louis Bremer. But Alexander didn’t wait for Bremer to be confirmed, departing in June. 

So who stepped into the role? A retired Green Beret-turned-contractor named Chris Miller. He lasted two months. In August, Miller was bumped up to run the National Counterterrorism Center, where he lasted, you guessed it, two months. Then Trump fired Mark Esper and named Miller his fourth acting defense secretary. 

Meanwhile, Bremer’s confirmation hearing in August went rather poorly, and when Miller left, White House insider Ezra Cohen-Watnik was tapped to “perform the duties” of acting ASD SO/LIC. Bremer’s nomination is collecting dust in the Senate. 

Last Wednesday, Miller declared that it was time for a change. With less than two months left in the Trump presidency, the acting SecDef beelined it to Fort Bragg, the North Carolina home of Army special operators, where he declared that the Pentagon would enact new “reforms” — including making the ASD SO/LIC “report directly to me...as Congress intended.” Four years after Congress told the Trump administration to do it in the 2017 defense authorization act, special operations was getting its due. 

The Pentagon was so unimpressed it informed the press of the event five minutes after it had started. 

“Welcome home,” said Cohen on Wednesday, standing in front of Bronze Bruce, the Green Beret statue at U.S. Army Special Operations Command. Introducing Miller, he declared they were “elevating special operations to a level on par with military departments.”

“By the historic reforms we have enacted today, we will ensure special operations forces has [sic] a civilian advocate commensurate to the secretaries of the other military departments. I am honored to serve as your service secretary.”

Many SOF veterans have welcomed the move as long overdue. Others, from global strategists to intelligence veterans, find it curious, insignificant, or downright ill-timed.

“His perspective, I think, is very much through the prism of counterterrorism operations and Special Forces,” John Brennan, former CIA director, told me on Wednesday in an interview during the Soufan Center’s Global Security Forum. “Despite his admirable past service, he is very, I think, inexperienced and unqualified to serve as acting secretary of defense. It's clear.” Brennan said Miller’s “quick elevation” move “may be cathartic” and “could be something that’s worthwhile to consider,” but he suggested the incoming Biden team should take a more holistic look at special operations and all Pentagon forces. 

There will be a role for SOF in great power competition. Some predict a return to asymmetric Cold War-like tactics and proxy conflicts as the United States keeps China and Russia at bay. 

But as Miller “elevated” special operations forces this week, his boss was racing the clock to end its most important era. On Tuesday, Miller announced the Pentagon would carry out Trump’s final order and pull additional troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving behind a token 2,500 in each, with no clear mission and no stated justification other than Trump’s desire for a political score back home. Even so, it’s presumed by all that one group of Americans will continue to be sent into Afghanistan whenever they are needed: special operators.