One Major General Was The Fall Guy For The Niger Ambush. The Real Fault Lies Elsewhere

The Long March

Major General Marcus Hicks, the senior officer reprimanded in connection with last year’s ambush in which four Army soldiers were killed in Niger, was not set up for success. The way this has been handled sends a clear message, but it is not a good one for building trust, accountability, and underwriting mistakes.

The way this played out should not have been a surprise. It goes to the heart of problems in the way we prepare and manage our senior leaders.

I know Hicks. He is a competent and professional officer. But he simply was not prepared for the job they gave him. He had zero experience to take over the equivalent of a division-level command, and one that happens to be operating in one of the most dynamic, diverse, volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous areas on the planet.  He was barely 90 days in command when the Niger ambush occurred.  As smart as he is, this was not enough time to understand a Sub-Unified command that operated at the strategic, operational, and tactical level in 28 countries, with 2000 or so  SOF and other personnel, doing 96 missions with 886 associated ground, air, sea tasks.

We did our part in U.S. Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) to get him ready, but this was very challenging as he was the out-going COS at U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and was preparing to move his family, with the additional complexity of an OCONUS assignment.

He did not have the benefit of previously serving in a GO assignment at U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), as I had, and as had Rear Adm. Losey and Maj. Gen Linder. That was a big mistake. Having one of those seasoning tours under his belt would have been greatly helpful to him. The model should have been sustained by SOCOM.  There were two SOF GO’s that were serving in AFRICOM at the time that would have fit this requirement.  Our recommendations fell on deaf ears at SOCOM and AFRICOM.

In addition, General Hicks was slated for retirement after this assignment.  What talent management process knowingly gives a division level operational assignment to a terminal GO? The Army does not assign a division commander that was not a DCG and they make their choice for division commanders from a pool of successful DCGs.  There seems to have been an inattentiveness at very senior levels here.

Related: How To Fix Special Operations, According To A Former SOCAFRICA Commander »

There is a big lesson here for the Special Operations community: It needs to pull up its sleeves and become better at managing and preparing its senior leaders. The organizational nepotism, JSOC-centric, advocacy-based go along to move along, a game-of-thrones leadership selection process is hurting the SOF enterprise. And it is responsible for putting unprepared SOF service members in harm’s way without the proper leadership and resources.  This results in casualties and lack of senior leader accountability.

But someone had to take the fall, so they served up General Hicks, which was convenient, knowing he was retiring, and this action would have little negative effect on his career.  It also serves as an optic to “We took action against a GO” deflecting the responsibility from higher GO and civilian leadership levels.

The real responsibility for the botched handling of the Niger mission resides several levels above the SOCAFRICA Commander and cascades down to the 0-6 level. Here are the mistakes senior officers made, and for which they should be held accountable:

  1. Inadequate Pre-Mission Training (PMT) and a failure by the GO level HQs to ensure their deploying teams were ready
  2. Inadequate in-theater transition and failure of the SOCAFRICA Commander to ensure this was accomplished.
  3. Failure to battle track their tactical forces and poor mission planning
  4. The Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense failed to provide the proper resources to validated requirements of our SOF Forces conducting missions in Africa
  5. AFRICOM and SOCOM are also accountable and responsible for lack of resourcing, failure to understand the operational environment, and ensuring their deploying team was ready for their mission.

Brig. Gen. Bolduc is a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. During his 32 years of active duty, he received 2 awards for valor, 5 Bronze Stars and 2 Purple Hearts and survived numerous firefights, a bombing, and a helicopter crash.

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