As the United States continues to pursue the war on terrorism, special operations
forces increasingly will be relied upon, for their unique skills in unconventional
warfare and urban combat, said the former deputy chief of U.S. Special Operations
“I wouldn’t say we won [Afghanistan], but certainly our forces
were major contributors, because they were trained to operate in this kind of
environment,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. William Tangney, who was deputy
commander of USSOCOM from 2000 until 2002.
If future battles take place in urban environments, special operations forces
will play a key role, Tangney told National Defense.
“Urban warfare tends to become a squad fight versus a company fight,
because your lines are broken, communications are very difficult, and it tends
to become very non-linear. … It tends to become very much like the prototype
of the modern battlefield, which is non-linear and non-traditional,” he
“If you look at Afghanistan, [it was] a very non-traditional battlefield.
You were able to leverage technology to assist the operator on the ground, to
allow that operator to function in very dispersed areas, in relatively small
Special operations forces are organized into “small units, which places
them in situations where there’s a premium on the ability of the individual
soldier, sailor or airman to make sound decisions in a timely fashion in situations
of great stress and ambiguity,” Tangney said.
“I started off in this business when I came back from my first tour in
Vietnam in 1969,” Tangney said. Originally commissioned an artilleryman
when he graduated from the Citadel, he spent his first tour in Vietnam in the
4th Infantry Division, as a forward observer. Later, he was assigned to the
10th Special Forces group at Fort Devons, Mass.
In 1970, Tangney went back to Vietnam, with the 5th Special Forces group, and
worked with MACSOG (Military Assistance Command Studies and Observation Group).
“It was the unconventional warfare organization that conducted cross
border operations in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam. It was a cover organization
for cross-border reconnaissance,” he said.
Tangney said he has seen many changes in the way special operations have been
conducted over the past 35 years. “When I came in, in Vietnam, we were
kind of on a high, although we had nothing that really approaches the capability
we have today. Then, we had a period of time in the 1970s when that capability
was allowed to erode. It wasn’t until we suffered the failure in the desert,
during the Iranian rescue operation in 1980, that sufficient attention began
to be paid to this business,” Tangney said.
The 1980 Desert One fiasco led to a comprehensive reexamination of the entire
national capability in special operations forces and the establishment of USSOCOM.
The creation of a four-star combatant command, with its own funding line and
an acquisition authority similar to that of the conventional military services
“has allowed us to develop the quality forces that we have today,”
Tangney was reluctant to criticize Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s
reported decision to re-examine USSOCOM’s acquisition authority and study
options to transfer the command’s buying power to the major services.
He characterized Rumsfeld’s move as an example of the Bush administration’s
attempt to transform the way the department does business. The defense secretary,
said Tangney, “continues to examine roles, missions and functions of SOCOM,
and everybody else at the Defense Department. It’s been a very dynamic
and energetic administration.”
In Tangney’s opinion, the success achieved by USSOCOM is proof that the
organization does not need major management changes, he said. “I think
we have quality leadership within the special operations community. I think
we have the best force, the best joint force that I’ve seen in 35 years
of service. And I think they’re very capably and ably led by a very talented,
innovative, bright, insightful group of general officers and senior enlisted
from all the services.”
In the war on terrorism, Tangney said the role for special operations remains
important and fluid. “Not all wars are the same. The functions that you
fulfill are pretty much prescribed by the battlefield on which you have to fight.
… What we have is a non-traditional battlefield and a non-traditional
opponent, which have to be dealt with in unorthodox, unconventional, and non-traditional
ways. That plays to our strengths.”
Tangney now works at EER Systems, in Tampa, Fla. The firm does engineering,
information security and other consulting work for military agencies, including
“About 20 percent of our total volume is defense management services.
About 35 percent is in the information technology sector. About 28 or 29 percent
in aerospace engineering, with the bulk of that being out on the West coast
in support of China
Lake and other customers. Intelligence community services is somewhere around
7 or 8 percent.”