As the 10th commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, a job title that became official Thursday afternoon in a ceremony at the Tampa Convention Center, Army Gen. Joe Votel assumes leadership in what he and his predecessor called “the golden age” of special operations.
But he takes command at a time of flux.
The days of explosive growth in personnel assigned to Socom following the attacks of 9/11 are over. Defense spending is diminishing and another round of automatic budget cuts is looming. In many ways, the world is more complex and dangerous now than ever. And special operations capabilities are projected to be a key component of any U.S. military response to crises around the globe.
Votel, 56, an Army Ranger who for the past three years ran the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at Fort Bragg, took over from retiring Adm. William McRaven, 58, who will become the chancellor of the University of Texas System after 37 years in uniform.
Before turning over the command, McRaven called this “the golden age” of special operations forces (SOF).
“It’s been a magnificent three years,” said McRaven. “I have been incredibly fortunate to have watched and taken part in the evolution of special operators, from the late ‘70s until now. I believe over the past several years, without even knowing it, we have been, and we are in, the golden age of special operations.”
For Votel, who served as Socom chief of staff before taking over JSOC in 2011, this is the second time he has followed McRaven up the ladder of command.
“Bill, I’m not afraid to admit that I am again a bit awed to be following you in command,” said Votel. “The command is at its absolute zenith and it is indeed a golden age of SOF.”
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As JSOC commander, Votel had a direct role in planning Special Operations Forces missions, like clandestine raids to kill and capture enemy leaders.
At Socom, the job will be much different. That’s the command where McRaven planned the May 2, 2011 raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.
Instead of planning missions, Votel will now be in charge of organizing, training, equipping and deploying special operators — Navy SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant Crew members, Army Green Berets and Rangers, Air Force Air Commandos and Marine Corps Raiders — who will work at the behest of four-star regional commanders.
The mission, says Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who presided over the ceremony, is key.
“What special operators do every day not only helps make America safe and the world better it also directly contradicts the uninformed and false scenario that somehow the United States is pulling back,” said Hagel. “In fact Socom and the entire U.S. military are more engaged now than ever before in more places and a wider variety of missions.”
All told, about 69,000 work for the command, with about 9,500 operators deployed on an average week to about 90 different countries. The bulk of them are in Afghanistan and the White House has ordered several hundred into Iraq to advise military forces there and assess how they can cope with the threat of the Sunni insurgent group Islamic State.
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Votel, a 1980 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, served in Panama and Sarajevo before being deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, according to his official biography.
After attending the Army War College, Votel commanded the 75th Ranger Regiment and participated in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to his biography.
As a general officer he served in the Pentagon as director of the Army and Joint IED Defeat Task Force and subsequently as the deputy director of the Joint IED Defeat Organization established under the Deputy Secretary of Defense. He served as the deputy commanding general (Operations) of the 82nd Airborne Division/Combined Joint Task Force-82 in Afghanistan and was later named deputy commanding general of JSOC before going to Tampa.
As with any change at the top of a command like Socom, the ceremony at the convention center brought in top military and intelligence community dignitaries.
In addition to Hagel, they included: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers, Asst. Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict Michael Lumpkin, U.S. Central Command boss Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, U.S. Southern Command boss Marine Gen. John Kelly and Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan W. Greenert.
The ceremony was also attended by three former Socom commanders, retired Army Generals Peter Schoomaker and Doug Brown and retired Navy SEAL Adm.Eric Olson, as well as politicians like Sen. Bill Nelson, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and Mayor Bob Buckhorn.