The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the Department of Defense (DoD) has not set timeframes for planned actions and has not clearly described the roles and responsibilities of DoD and special operations, which have become key challenges in improving oversight.

Congress has recently directed the DoD to improve its oversight of special operations.

In a recent study, the GAO found that the DoD has increasingly relied upon Special Operations Forces since the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. The number of personnel has increased from 45,000 to 70,000 and the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) budget has more than doubled from $5.2bn in 2005 to $12.3bn in 2018.

The GOA said that since 2017, the DoD has made several recommendations, developed actions and taken steps to address requirements in Section 922 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the fiscal year 2017. These expanded the roles and responsibilities of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflicts (ASD-SO/LIC).

The study found that in 2018, the DoD identified 166 recommendations to change the ASD-SO/LIC’s oversight of special operations forces (SOF).

Based on the recommendations, 87 actions that were necessary to implement Section 922 were developed. The DOD has implemented 56 of these actions since February 2019.

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Although the office of the ASD-SO/LIC has taken actions to implement Section 922, the DoD faces two key challenges. Lack of timeframes and unclear guidance can impact the implementation of the ASD-SO/LIC’s new roles and responsibilities.

“Unless roles are clarified, DoD stakeholders will not know the extent of the authorities and responsibilities of ASD-SO/LIC and SOCOM.”

The GAO found that as of February, 28 out of 31 unimplemented actions associated with Section 922 did not have clear timeframes for implementation. In addition, current guidance about ASD-SO/LIC responsibilities is outdated.

While the DoD states that the ASD-SO/LIC shall report directly to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Section 922 states that SOF-related administrative matters are managed directly by the Secretary of Defense to the ASD-SO/LIC.

According to the study, unless roles and responsibilities are clarified in guidance, other DoD stakeholders, including the military services, will not know the extent of the authorities and responsibilities of ASD-SO/LIC and SOCOM.

The GAO has made recommendations to the DoD to establish timeframes to implement Section 922 actions, update guidance to clarify roles and responsibilities for the ASD-SO/LIC and SOCOM, as well as develop a strategic workforce plan that incorporates key principles.