FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. – U.S. Special Operations Command is growing. From 48,000 personnel today, its numbers are expected to increase to 58,000 in the coming years. But how will they be used?
Since the so-called global war on terrorism began after 9/11, resources, recognition and prestige for the command has risen.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was a big fan. He saw a large role in the new war for special operators, whose commando skills were well suited for kicking down doors and capturing or eliminating terrorists.
But six years into what he dubbed “the long war,” Rumsfeld is gone. In his place, is Secretary Robert Gates, an advocate of “soft power.”
“Kinetic” or “nonkinetic. “Direct or “indirect.” The terms generally divide the skill sets of special operators into two categories. Are these special operators best used as highly trained commandos who swoop in to a remote terrorist safe house and capture a “high value target?” Or should they be fighting to win over the hearts and minds of local populations and training allies’ small units to conduct counterterrorism missions?
A consensus is emerging that special operations troops — many of whom in recent years have focused their attention on hunting down terrorists — will be spending increasingly more time training foreign troops to fight insurgencies and helping rebuild war-torn countries, experts said.
“We recognize that there’s been a strategic shift away from the direct action, episodic kinds of tactics, which have their place, but frankly, in this particular kind of war … we take more of a full spectrum approach,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Kelly Snapp, now subject matter expert with the Defense Department’s irregular warfare support group.
The military has to learn to navigate the enemy’s human terrain and understand his strategy and organization rather than just focusing on striking tangible targets, Snapp said at a Lodestar Group special operations conference here.
But special operators “may not be doing quite as well as far as overcoming those challenges,” he said.
Michael Vickers, the newly appointed assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, is also an advocate of “indirect” approaches and “unconventional warfare,” which is defined in special operations doctrine as the training and advising of surrogate forces to conduct guerilla warfare, subversion, sabotage and intelligence activities.
Vickers, speaking in an interview, said that unconventional warfare has recently moved close to the top of the SOCOM core task list.
The nine core tasks include civil
affairs, counter-proliferation, counterterrorism, direct action, information operations, foreign internal defense, psychological operations, special reconnaissance and unconventional warfare.
Vickers said that “direct” actions employed in counterterrorism — offensive measures to preempt, deter or respond to terrorism — and “indirect” unconventional warfare are the top two priorities right now, but that the order changes over time.
Vickers was once a Central Intelligence Agency special operator himself, who in the 1980s, was closely involved in an “unconventional warfare” operation that supplied weapons and training to insurgents who were seeking to boot the Soviet army out of Afghanistan. His exploits are documented in the book and recent movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
Although there has recently been greater emphasis placed on unconventional warfare and other indirect approaches, Vickers said that doesn’t necessarily mean special operations forces will conduct fewer direct action missions. Both capabilities are sometimes needed on an equal basis, he said.
Special operators could train allies’ small units — known as foreign internal defense — in the same day as they conduct civil affairs mission, — for example, a medical humanitarian mission, he explained.
“Softer or indirect action can’t stand on its own,” he said.
For many special operations soldiers that are trained in both direct and indirect action, those skills “blend seamlessly,” he added.
As officials try to find the right balance between these mission sets, changes will not come quickly, but instead will be part of a longer evolution over the course of several years, Vickers said. The surge in personnel will keep going until 2012 and by then, SOCOM’s priorities may have shifted once again.
Not surprisingly, current conflicts are fueling the debate.
“Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are different than other not-at-war countries. As we migrate from combat zones to others, we will continue to evolve,” Vickers said.
Meanwhile, experts have criticized Special Operations Command for shortchanging indirect missions for direct action operations. Out of this, there has also been talk among officials and analysts about developing a joint unconventional warfare command.
Vickers advocated the idea in a 2006 testimony to the House subcommittee on terrorism, unconventional threats and capabilities, but has since backed away from directly endorsing such a plan.
“The additional importance of unconventional warfare might warrant a new command … but it is one of several options floating out there,” he said.
Some suggest that the command idea is a ploy to get more funding.
“I think it is a bit about getting equal resources and priority within special operations forces,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Anthony Van Pelt, now a technical recruiter with the Wexford Group.
A group of generals first came up with the idea of creating a command that would make unconventional warfare equal to direct action because there was a “misguided belief that direct action receives more resources and priority,” he told National Defense. Other experts are cautious of a new command, for fear that it would only eat up more resources without creating any new capability.
“I’m a little skeptical on that [suggestion of a new command],” said retired Army Lt. Gen. William Tangney, former SOCOM deputy commander. “The reason I’m a little skeptical is because any time you get a new command, all you get is another damn headquarters.”
In addition, boosting unconventional warfare is a difficult undertaking, because its importance has not yet been made clear, Tangney posited.
“The problem with unconventional warfare is … it’s not really understood outside of this community. And it’s not totally understood within the community. It’s understood within Army special forces. And few places outside of that.”
Unconventional warfare has just recently been emphasized in the Marine Corps Special Operations Command.
The newly created command is slowly learning how to conduct unconventional warfare missions, but that was not a skill set that was highlighted when the command became operational in 2006, said Marine Corps Special Operations Command chief Maj. Gen. Dennis Hejlik.
“When we first stood up, we [MARSOC] were very heavily into direct action,” he said during a media roundtable in Washington. Marines did not focus on indirect tactics until given specific instructions from the SOCOM commander.
The growing emphasis on indirect approaches is not new to Army Special Operations Command. Its leaders argue that they have had these skills since well before 9/11. As Tangney said, unconventional warfare is well understood within the command and has been performed for more than 60 years.
When U.S. forces went into Afghanistan at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, news reports focused on direct action air strikes, but it was less known that Army special operations forces used unconventional skills to enable those attacks, said Col. Hans Bush, director of Special Operations Command public affairs. Soldiers partnered with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to launch a training campaign for foreign forces that eventually helped topple the Taliban, he explained.
Civil affairs, information operations and psychological operations are also considered to be part of the overall indirect approach to fighting wars and all are seen as growth areas for special operations forces, Bush said.
Snapp’s research group is working with these personnel to “develop full spectrum engagement strategies.”
Civil affairs units — which cultivate relationships with local authorities and populations and conduct infrastructure redevelopment and disaster response — have been moved from SOCOM to the conventional Army Reserve Command, as directed by the Quadrennial Defense Review, Bush said during an interview. However, most of these forces were already in the reserves before the transfer.
The sole active duty unit — the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion — remained with Army Special Operations Command.
In a move that reflects the growing need for this capability, the 96th battalion has recently expanded into a brigade, said Maj. Gen. Thomas Csrnko, commander of Army Special Forces Command.
Csrnko hopes the planned growth will help improve civil affairs, an area where special operations has been weak, he said at the conference.
“If we had to grade ourselves on the application of civil affairs, I think we’d give ourselves a pretty low grade.”
The soldiers bring a great capability to the battlefield, Csrnko said, but they have been overused and burned out.
“We used a lot of that up in the early stages of this persistent conflict. So if we had to do it all over again, we would probably have done a better job of taking that capability and apply it to the most critical requirements on the battlefield at that time instead of deploying it all out there for use.”
The bottom line, however, is that there are simply not enough civil affairs personnel, he asserted.
Information operations is another indirect action capability that is being increasingly emphasized.
Officials say that U.S. forces are far behind some terrorist organizations in the field of information operations, which is defined as disrupting an adversary’s flow of information while defending one’s own.
“We are not trained up to standards” in information operations, said Hejlik.
Please email your comments to BWagner@ndia.org