Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. military's Special Operations Command has gained manpower and money as well as responsibility for an ever-wider range of missions.
But now Congress is beginning to question, and push back against, the commando mission-creep.
Special Operations Command's budget request for 2020 asks for $13.8 billion to fund 66,553 military personnel and 6,651 civilians. The request reflects 17 years of steady growth, the Congressional Research Service noted in a March 2019 report.
At present SOCOM is the lead agency for U.S. military counterterrorism operations and security-force assistance. The latter involves U.S. forces training foreign armies and other proxy forces.
SOCOM in 2016 also assumed the lead role in combating the spread of weapons of mass destruction, a mission that previously belonged to U.S. Strategic Command. More recently, SOCOM became the lead command for America's "military information support operations." In essence, propaganda.
The command wants even more responsibility, according to CRS. "The current unified command plan stipulates USSOCOM responsibility for synchronizing planning for global operations to combat terrorist networks," CRS noted.
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.
But the world has changed in those nearly two decades. Congress increasingly has questioned SOCOM's sprawling responsibilities and recently ordered two separate reviews of the command.
Lawmakers in part were motivated by reports of misconduct by SOCOM personnel as well as by SOCOM's alleged participation in conflicts for which Congress did not provide authorization, specifically in Niger.
Four SOCOM troops died on Oct. 4, 2017 when militants ambushed their patrol in Niger in Central Africa.
"Prior to starting out on the ill-fated patrol, two junior officers, including an Army captain who remained at the base in Niger and the team leader, falsified a document to get approval for a mission to kill or capture a local ISIS leader," CNN reported.
"That mission was never approved by the proper chain of command, according to [an official] summary. A much lower-risk mission was instead submitted and approved. However, the team was unable to locate the ISIS leader during their unauthorized mission."
"Some believe this situation calls into question the adequacy of civilian oversight and control of U.S. SOF," according to CRS.
The reviews of SOCOM that CRS mentioned will "take an introspective look at U.S. SOF’s culture, roles and responsibilities, adequacy of resources, organizational structure and the adequacy of training, education and personnel," the research service reported.
"Some have suggested these provisions are a precursor for congressional and [Defense Department] actions to 'rein in and reorient' U.S. SOF from fighting terrorists to taking on nation-states, instead."
Aware that U.S. [special operations forces] are overburdened and that there is a need to find the right balance between continuing to challenge terrorist organizations while simultaneously addressing growing irregular warfare threats posed by nation-states, policymakers will likely make good use of the two forthcoming congressionally mandated reviews.
It is possible that over the next few years, significant public policy debates on the future of USSOCOM and U.S. SOF will be undertaken, potentially resulting in a number of changes.
After 17 years at the forefront of the global military campaign against terrorism, policymakers, defense officials, and academics are questioning the future role of USSOCOM and U.S. SOF.