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Austin Swears in Pentagon's New Special Operations Chief

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III  swore in Christopher Maier yesterday as the Defense Department's new assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III swears in Christopher Maier.
Swearing In
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III swears in Christopher Maier as the Defense Department's new assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict during a ceremony at the Pentagon, Sept. 16, 2021.
Photo By: Marine Corps Sgt. Taryn Sammet
VIRIN: 210916-D-ZY556-0034

Maier, who was administratively sworn in June, is the first Senate-confirmed SOLIC chief under new parameters for the job.

The assistant secretary job has two roles, Maier said in an interview. While it has the policy role it's always had supporting the undersecretary for policy, DoD and Congress have also directed SOLIC to serve as the service secretary for special operations forces. 

"It's a bifurcated reporting structure [and] kind of tells you that SOLIC straddles a number of different areas," he said.

Maier will have civilian oversight of U.S. Special Operations Command in the administrative chain of command, but not in the operational chain of command. Wearing one hat, he will be the defense secretary's civilian advisor for special operations issues and will report directly to the secretary. 

Wearing the other hat, he will serve as a more traditional assistant secretary in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy where he'll coordinate policies on special operations, counterterrorism, humanitarian issues and counternarcotics. 

Austin holds regular meetings with the service secretaries, Maier said. "So, [it will be] the Army, Navy, Air Force and me," he said. "It's an interesting arrangement, certainly not how somebody traditionally would have viewed this role."

Like a service secretary, Maier will be involved in the "man, train, equip" requirements for special operations forces. "In conjunction with [Army Gen. Richard] Clarke, the Socom commander, we will do a number of things in that role — setting the long term strategic goals and where we're trying to go; the objectives we're trying to meet; how training and recruiting, all these sort of manpower-related things, support that."

Maier will also have oversight on the budget. "As each one of [the special operations] components is building their individual budgets … it will bubble up to the overall SOF budget," he said. "We have the ability to set the objectives and then really look at how those investments and other monetary things are being done, and then advocate on behalf of Socom on the Hill."

Maier is also involved in the role special operations forces will play in the future and has been involved in deliberations on the global posture review, which will be released soon. What roles will special ops forces play in strategic competition with China and Russia? How will over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations work? How does training foreign militaries fit into the picture? 

Maier also wants to emphasize what is a special operations mission and what missions should, or could, be done with more conventional forces. He noted that there is a gray area between special ops and conventional forces. "We could see special operations forces begin a mission and turn it over to conventional forces," he said.

"SOF has particular expertise that can be done in small numbers [with] low visibility," Maier said. Over the past 20 years, special ops forces have built "tremendous partnerships with counterparts in foreign militaries that gives us a tremendous reach globally."

In a competition with China and Russia, this special operations forces mission set may enable placement and access to "unlock a lot of other joint force capabilities against near-peer adversaries that they probably can't match," he said.

Maier said he is humbled to have this new job, and he promised to focus on the sacrifices that have been made to date by operators and their families. "I do think the requirements on SOF will continue, and it'll continue to be a national asset," he said. "SOF is a key part of where the country is going from a national defense perspective towards competition and really being a high return on investment."

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