TACOMA, Wash. — As U.S. special operations forces undergo a shift in responsibilities and a surge in personnel, a heated debate has developed about their future priorities.
On the one hand are supporters of the “direct action” role of special operations forces to fight terrorist networks. But a growing number of experts argue that these skilled operators should be more focused on unconventional missions such as internal defense, which involves assisting and training foreign forces to fight against an insurgency.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who believed that rooting out and killing terrorist leaders was the key to crushing the insurgency, was one of the leading advocates of direct action.
Rumsfeld put the U.S. Special Operations Command in charge of synchronizing the global war on terrorism, and he also set in motion plans to increase the size of the force.
SOCOM, meanwhile, has been criticized for giving short shrift to lower intensity, irregular warfare tactics.
“The institutional culture of SOCOM is so firmly fixed in favor of ‘kicking down doors’ … that it is doubtful that any amount of outside pressure … will change the dominant mindset very much,” Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism, unconventional threats, and capabilities.
Boot cited a retired special forces colonel who said that most of the leadership and planning staff have come from the direct action side, which has left SOCOM “unbalanced.”
Direct action forces have no understanding of unconventional warfare, said Boot. “To the degree that they are starting to develop an appreciation for it, it is only as an enabler for DA operations.”
Another special forces officer complained of “total U.S. SOCOM preoccupation with raiding … and absolutely none on low intensity conflict,” said Boot.
To some extent, the emphasis on direct action plays to preconceived notions about the nature of special operations.
“If I asked you … what special operations are, what movie would you point to?” asked Wade Ishimoto, senior advisor to the assistant secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict.
In most people’s minds, the question stirs up images of stealthy elite forces prowling through the night, hurling grenades over walls and heroically engaging an adversary in a fireworks sparking assault.
Ishimoto asked the question to prove just this point. Special operators enjoy a certain reputation; they are thought of as warriors who fight to kill with great menace.
“Knife in the teeth, go get ‘em” is the stereotype, Ishimoto said in a recent interview. This may help explain why there is such a focus, even a preoccupation with direct action missions, he suggested.
Many of the celebrated military achievements in Afghanistan and Iraq have come straight from the direct action portfolio, including the capture and killing of major al-Qaida operatives. These accomplishments have given direct action proponents all the more reason to favor an increased focus on raiding, but critics say these missions fail at producing lasting results in the war on terrorism because they only slightly cripple a widespread network of insurgent cells.
“The immobilization of major enemy leaders proved to be only temporary setbacks for a large scale, decentralized terrorist movement. Making real progress … will require accomplishing much more difficult, less glamorous tasks …” Boot said.
Less exciting missions such as fostering relationships with local populations and training regional law enforcement have thus far been shortchanged by SOCOM in favor of “sexier SWAT style raids,” he said.
“Our people need to have unconventional warfare skills because essentially that’s how smaller groups of bad guys operate,” Ishimoto said. “If we have knowledge of how to engage these groups, we can teach these skills to other countries.”
Transferring this knowledge to foreign partners will help them stop the insurgency and will further prevent the spread of wider conflict, Ishimoto said.
These skills fall under the foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare categories of special operations core tasks.
The nine core tasks include civil affairs operations, counter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, direct action, information operations, foreign internal defense, psychological operations, special reconnaissance and unconventional warfare.
Air Force Special Operations Command defines foreign internal defense as developing programs to help civilian and military agencies “free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness and insurgency.”
Unconventional warfare is “a broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations,” which includes guerilla warfare, subversion and intelligence activities, among other missions.
Ishimoto and Boot believe internal defense and unconventional warfare are long-term solutions to address global instability because the United States cannot commit resources to crush every insurgency through direct action attacks.
“It will always be necessary to rely in great part on locally recruited soldiers and constables,” Boot asserted.
Ishimoto agreed. “The United States simply does not have enough people in uniform.”
With the planned boost in personnel mandated by the quadrennial defense review, SOF expects to grow to 58,000 people from 48,000 today, which represents just 2 percent of the U.S. military.
This relatively small force would best be used for unconventional warfare missions, Ishimoto said.
Support for indirect approaches to the global war on terrorism has become evident in Congress, Ishimoto said.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who chairs the terrorism, unconventional threats and capabilities subcommittee, voted to allocate $23.3 billion to special operations. His legislation favors indirect action work and irregular warfare support and recommends that unconventional warfare be made a top priority at SOCOM.
There are some indications that changes are being made within the special operations community, Ishimoto said.
He sounded an optimistic note about the new commander of SOCOM, Vice Adm. Eric Olson, who replaced Army Gen. Bryan Brown. Olson, former commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, had great success in unconventional operations in Asia, Ishimoto said.
Air Force Special Operations Command is also taking steps to implement more irregular warfare training and missions. A specialized AFSOC unit that focuses on foreign internal defense is doubling its ranks, the Air Force said. Plans call for it to be fully staffed by October.
The unit is part of the 6th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla. It is dedicated to training and assisting foreign aviation forces, said Maj. Christopher Jacobs, director of organizational growth and requirements for the 6th SOS.
Air Force special operators train foreign partners to fly and maintain their assets. When necessary, the trainees join coalition forces during multinational contingencies and crises, Jacobs said in an e-mail to National Defense. The squadron works in every major theater of operations, he said, and has trained forces in Iraq.
Right now the unit consists of 160 airmen and is authorized to grow to 229, Jacobs said. New trainees are currently arriving every week. Each advisor has to go through a lengthy qualification process that can take up to a year, Jacobs explained. These airmen are trained in regional politics and culture and they all have some level of foreign language proficiency, he said.
The need to find alternatives to direct action necessitated this approach to fighting terrorism, he noted. Aviation foreign internal defense gives the Air Force the chance to reach its goals through less invasive means.
“We cannot simply go into a friendly country’s territory and conduct action without serious consequences,” he said. “By advising and assisting friends and allies on how to better take care of problems within their own borders, we can achieve our objectives and help them maintain their national sovereignty.”
These policies are key to winning the war on terrorism, Ishimoto said, and they are in opposition to what Rumsfeld was trying to achieve. The plan to hunt down and kill al-Qaida operatives in sovereign countries was flawed, Ishimoto argued.
“The moment we go into another country’s airspace or land mass without their permission, we have in fact committed an international act of war. That can be justified in the international bodies if it were clearly in our self defense, but it would be ridiculous for us to go after mid-level, even a couple of high level people other than Osama Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri and claim self defense.”
Ishimoto offers that there is a time and a place for direct action, but he believes that the situation should be carefully examined for other alternatives.
“The need for direct action depends on the situation,” Ishimoto said. “The overall priority is determined by where you think regionally and country wise you need the heaviest involvement.”
To elucidate this point, Ishimoto posed a hypothetical situation.
If the United States made any incursions into Somalia, he said, decisions would be made about the type and scope of involvement.
“We can use … cruise missiles, Predator strikes, AC-130 gunships, small raids, but that’s all direct action. On the other hand, we know Somalia can be somewhat isolated. There are countries around it where we can work with the Kenyans on border security, we can work with the Ethiopians,” Ishimoto explained.
Training foreign partners to gather intelligence and counter threats allows them to solve problems within their own borders and at the same time can be a vehicle for achieving U.S. objectives.
All of the nine special operations core tasks are useful skills, but priorities must be balanced in order to employ the limited cadre of special operators in the most effective way.
“In order for them to have better effect, we’ve got to change the rules of the game.”
Please email your comments to BWagner@ndia.org