In recent conflicts, special operations and conventional forces relied heavily
on increased cooperation and mutual support. Consequently, it may be time for
the Joint Forces Command, the U.S. Special Operations Command and the services
to consider changes in future training and planning, to better reflect present
and future scenarios.
Previously, joint SOF and conventional forces planners properly focused on
“deconfliction” of operations when needed. But combat operations
in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated that there was a great degree of SOF-conventional
force integration at all levels as well.
The capstone manual for employment of SOF is Joint Pub 3-05, Doctrine for Special
Operations Forces. It serves as the overarching reference for application of
SOF capabilities. The newest edition of JP 3-05, released in December 2003,
has gone a long way in addressing doctrinal shortcomings in the previous version,
but areas in need of greater emphasis still remain, as well as means of implementation
for planning and training considerations.
Joint Pub 3-05 states that, among other things, SOF missions are conducted
independently or in conjunction with conventional forces. Also on this topic,
JP 3-05 says special operations can be conducted in support of a conventional
force’s tactical objectives when doing so will be critical to the achievement
of strategic or operational objectives by that conventional force.
Another change to the role of SOF in conflicts is the direct result of the
September 11 attacks. SOCOM transformed from a supporting command to a supporting
and supported command, with the commander of SOCOM now having full responsibility
for the conduct of the global war on terrorism. Within this context, special
operations are conducted as an independent campaign, as an overarching strategy
incorporating the geographical combatant commander’s individual theater
campaign plan. However, doctrine for conventional force support to SOF, as conducted
in Afghanistan, is lacking or non-existent.
Throughout Operation Enduring Freedom, assets from conventional forces that
SOF traditionally would have played a supporting role to regularly supported
SOF. Army forces were used to secure SOF bases, and a Navy aircraft carrier
served in direct support of SOF operations. Special Forces and Air Force SOF
employed strategic and operational-level air assets in tactical roles. Rangers
parachuted into objective Rhino long before the Marines occupied it as their
base, and Army Special Forces seized the U.S. Embassy and used an Explosive
Ordnance Disposal detachment from the Army 10th Mountain Division to clear it,
prior to turning it over to the Marines.
Lessons learned from SOF actions in Afghanistan were applied in Iraq, parceling
out large portions of the area of operations to SOF forces, but this time in
support of the Combined Forces Land Component Command. Western Iraq fell almost
exclusively to SOF, with SOF in the north again, working with indigenous forces
to set conditions for introduction of conventional forces.
To facilitate these activities, SOF in theater is, by doctrine, placed under
a joint force special operations component commander, or under a joint special
operations task force. JP 3-05 details the various levels of liaison that SOF
is responsible for to better employ SOF at all levels of command within the
JTF. These include a special operations coordination element to Army corps and
Marine expeditionary forces, special operations command and control elements
at the division level, and added liaison elements below these levels as necessary.
The purpose of these elements is to advise, deconflict and coordinate SOF activities
with conventional forces command elements, and when necessary serve as a C2
element within the area of operations. JP 3-05 addresses liaison between SOF
and conventional forces as a SOF responsibility at all levels, but has little
information on reciprocal conventional liaison to SOF, which is needed when
the supporting-supported roles are reversed as they were in OEF.
Current conventional service doctrine on employment of SOF is limited. The
most significant problem is that the majority of doctrine and traditional planning
has primarily focused on coordination and deconfliction of SOF and conventional
assets. No official reference, traditional training, or formal planning framework
exist that address true SOF and conventional force integration within the theater
in any significant detail. According to current doctrine, SOF and conventional
forces operations are conducted primarily in parallel, but this is not how it
is occurring today. Both doctrine and training need to reinforce what has been
learned on the battlefield.
All over Iraq and Afghanistan, SOF and conventional force areas of operation
are overlapping, if not identical. In routine operations, a common operating
picture of the presence of SOF and conventional forces can prove very useful
beyond just deconfliction and fratricide prevention. For instance, a SOF element
confronted by an enemy threat that exceeds its capabilities could call upon
a local conventional unit rather than call for its present headquarters for
reinforcement. Correspondingly, a conventional unit that runs into problems
as a result of a cultural or language barrier could call upon a local SOF element
to help resolve the situation.
Augmentation for specific missions is also becoming more common in both directions.
Without a doubt, the very best example of this is the efforts to capture all
three Husseins in Iraq. In the attempted capture of Uday and Qusay Hussein in
Mosul, the 101st Airborne provided the cordon force, while SOF initially served
as the search force. In the capture of Saddam Hussein, the 4th ID provided the
cordon force, and again the search force came from SOF.
The premise that SOF liaison is for deconfliction and coordination, and not
integration, indicates that long-term integration of SOF and conventional forces
below the JTF is not seriously considered an operational method. The lack of
detailed discussion in conventional force manuals reinforces this shortfall,
compounded by the assumption that SOF-conventional force liaison is a SOF responsibility.
A clear example of this disconnect is in the Army’s newly published Stryker
manuals where SOF liaison is stated specifically not to be for physical integration.
Recent examples of SOF and conventional force integration have met with success,
but have not been without problems. Issues of organizational culture, lack of
understanding of roles and capabilities, doctrinal shortcomings, and training
deficiencies have created friction between SOF and conventional forces—resulting
in failures to exploit potential, missed opportunities, and in some cases, fatal
errors. Anyone who reads news articles or popular accounts of SOF in history
will find that a gap, if not a chasm, can exist culturally between SOF and conventional
forces. By their nature, the two are fundamentally different. As such, the communities
of conventional and unconventional warriors view each other at times with unease,
and in worst cases, disdain. However, in a world of scarce resources, cultures
Manpower becomes a significant issue. SOF’s small numbers and high degree
of specialization make it difficult to allocate internal resources for their
own physical security. SOF elements find it necessary to locate within conventional
force bases or use conventional forces for security purposes. This has created
challenges. In one case, a conventional platoon was sent to secure the base
of an Army Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha in Afghanistan. The ODA
instructed the platoon that as part of the defense of the location, the platoon
was to conduct local security patrols outside the perimeter, a requirement of
this role. This proved completely unacceptable to the conventional unit’s
headquarters, and the patrols were discontinued. Another conventional force
unit was sent to serve as the Quick Reaction Force for a SOF command element,
but the release authority for the QRF was retained at the higher command of
the conventional element, and not delegated to the SOF unit it supported.
There are times when SOF and conventional forces do not understand what the
other does, and thus do not seek to communicate and integrate capabilities.
After-action reviews from both Iraq and particularly Afghanistan indicate that
had the conventional forces better understood SOF capabilities and employment
considerations, they would have integrated them more and earlier.
The first step to fixing problems and capitalizing on successes lies simply
in awareness. Joint Forces Command, SOCOM, and the services are aware of these
issues and are seeking means to address them. However, traditional planning
and employment for integration at the JTF level is no longer the reality. Training
driven by the old doctrine of assumed separation of operations below the JTF
level is not meeting the needs of current operations.
The issue of integration also stems from one of the greatest challenges confronting
SOF—there just are not enough assets to meet all the demands.
SOF and conventional force integration is occurring in ways not seen before,
yet is still not effectively addressed in doctrine. For that reason, the lessons
learned from operations must be institutionalized. Situations where lack of
knowledge resulted in less effective employment are not acceptable. On the job
training and discovery learning while conducting operations is a worthy reflection
of the services’ agility and flexibility, but other mechanisms exist to
better prepare commanders.
As most integration of SOF and conventional forces occurs within the land component,
Marine, Army, and SOF training needs to incorporate instruction on this at all
levels. Junior and mid-level Non-Commissioned Officer and Initial Officer Entry
education courses should be teaching the basic capabilities and missions of
SOF forces with whom they will interact on the battlefield. The Marine Amphibious
Warfare School and Army Captains Career Courses, particularly in the combat
arms, need to reinforce this instruction and further discuss how units at their
level may be employed in an integrated role with SOF. This instruction could
be as little as an hour, and reinforced with incorporation of SOF assets in
practical planning exercises. The same holds true for instruction of SOF at
this level at the Special Forces Course, Navy SEAL Course and AFSOC training
of Special Tactics Squadron personnel.
Command and Staff Colleges should place greater emphasis on the role of integrated
SOF employment not only at the JTF level, but examine employment options at
lower echelons as well.
Beyond instruction, practical training also must take place. Brigade Combat
Training Program exercises in the Army can incorporate aspects of these scenarios.
Potential exists for full practical implementation of SOF and conventional forces
at the Joint Readiness Training Center and the Army’s National Training
Center (which is moving towards becoming the Joint National Training Center).
With this greater knowledge of SOF units and procedures, conventional units
could send liaisons to SOF command elements, lessening the burden on overstretched
SOF elements. This would benefit the conventional force providing headquarters
by having access to information and resources that they normally would not.
When the idea of conventional forces sending liaisons to special operations
forward bases was raised recently at the JFK Special Warfare Center, despite
operational security considerations, the idea received wide acceptance. A possible
solution to provide consolidated training for conventional force personnel designated
as potential SOF liaisons is to have a course at the Joint Special Operations
University, or taught by mobile joint training teams.
Integration of SOF and conventional forces is happening on the battlefield
now. Changes in education and training are needed to reinforce the successes
and mitigate shortcomings. The changing nature of conflict, limited resources,
broad operational scope, and increased operational tempo require all assets
be employed to the greatest effect and as efficiently as possible. More effective
integration of SOF and conventional forces is a step towards this end.
This article was adapted from Army Maj. William J. Carty’s essay “An
Unconventional Look at Training and Education to Improve Conventional and SOF
Integration.” Carty is a student at the Naval War College, College of
Naval Command and Staff.
His paper won the National Defense Industrial Association-Special Operations
and Low Intensity Conflict Division and Joint Special Operations University
2004 Essay Contest.
The contents of this paper reflect the author’s personal views and are
not necessarily endorsed by SOCOM, the Department of the Army, the Naval War
College or the Department of the Navy.