Special Ops Forces Are ‘Tool of Choice’

By David Litt

The U.S. special operations forces occupy center stage in today’s war against terrorism. Unfortunately, claims for their services far outstrip available supply.

This was not always the case. By the end of the war in Vietnam, the military services nearly eliminated the special operations capability of the United States. Only the foresight of a few people, the rapid escalation of terrorism in the late 1970s, and the concomitant need for a counter-terrorism force snatched special operations from extinction.

The pendulum has now swung to the other extreme. Excessive de-mand for SOF (special operations forces) troops today risks overextending a scarce and expensive resource. The United States should prioritize special operators, use them where they bring added value and preserve the flagship capabilities that the U.S. Special Operations Command has labored to develop.

SOF have played important roles in World War II, the Korean War and the war in South East Asia. Military commanders benefited from the special tactical skills that SOF brought to the battlefield in special reconnaissance, direct action, civil affairs and training foreign forces in unconventional warfare.

After the first two wars, special operations receded into the background, only to be resurrected for the next one. By the peak of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, the U.S. military had fielded seven active Special Forces groups, two SEAL teams, two underwater demolitions teams and an Air Force special operations wing.

But special operations forces also were penalized. When Americans turned their backs on the men and women in uniform, they often heaped exceptional scorn and ridicule on special operators, blaming the whole community for the failings of a few. Adding injury to insult, the military’s conventional leadership likewise disparaged special operators, viewing them as unprofessional (not conventional), uncontrollable and unpalatable. Besides, the military had lost its taste for “messy little jungle wars”—where SOF could shine, preferring to refocus attention on the Central European plains and the threat from the Soviet bear—where, it was believed, SOF would have much less, if any, relevance. Equally important in all of this was the view that funding SOF would take resources away from conventional forces.

As a result, the special operations community faced eradication. The air commandos, probably the least known to the general public of all SOF forces at the time, were almost completely disbanded. As aviators tried to sign up for non-SOF jobs, gunship crews, combat controllers and para-rescuers could hardly get in the back door of the mainstream counterparts in the conventional Air Force. Air commandos who aspired to general officer rank were bluntly and publicly advised that they “need not apply.”

Like their counterparts in Army and Navy special operations, their talents were viewed as irrelevant in the Fulda Gap.

The Navy had some use for special warfare and underwater demolition tactics, but not much, and certainly not in third-world jungles. The Navy wanted to forget the Vietnam experience and redevelop its blue-water capabilities. If the Navy could not decommission Naval Special Warfare, at least it wanted to place these units in the Navy reserve.

Much the same story existed in the Army, which not only wanted increased mechanized and armor units, but was anxious to get out of the military aid business, with a concomitant lowering of the civil affairs and foreign training activities.

The Army slashed Special Forces in the early 1970s, such that by the end of the decade only three of seven groups remained. With 3,600 Green Berets available, the groups were far from fully manned. Quality and standards plummeted in the 1970s, as new recruits were brought in to fill gaps created with the mass retirements of mature, skilled Special Forces non-commissioned officers at the end of the war.

Perhaps the greatest deficiency of all, one that had profound consequences for the United States only a few years later, was the total lack of joint training and doctrine for special operations.

Fighting to Stay Relevant
A few determined individuals scrambled to retain the SOF capabilities that would be needed to fight terrorism. To get there, they had to fight the objections of the services and their engrained antipathy for special operations. However, the SOF crusaders enjoyed some critical support among general officers, notably Gen. Edward C. Meyer and Lt. Gen. Robert Kingston.

But what really turned the tide in favor of this capability was the growing number of terrorist incidents emanating from the Middle East. The most notable of these were the Israeli raid on the Entebbe airport in 1976 to rescue the passengers of a hijacked Air France jet, and the German rescue of a Lufthansa aircraft in Mogadishu the following year. These caught the U.S. government’s attention, and President Jimmy Carter became interested in the capabilities the United States maintained in order to protect Americans from terrorism.

The 1980 failed hostage rescue attempt in Iran proved the catalyst that changed the fortunes of special operations. The teams that were pasted together to perform the rescue lacked cohesion and joint training. The operators tasked with rescuing the hostages once inside Tehran could have succeeded. The failure arose from their inability to get to the target, as the enthusiasm of the pick-up team of aviators far exceeded their capability to perform. The operation foundered in a twisted mass of wreckage at the Desert One staging base.

Following subsequent misuse of SOF in Grenada in 1983, several congressmen finally leapt into the breach. Through legislation, they pushed the heretofore reluctant military services aside, and mandated the creation of a unified Special Operations Command, responsible for all doctrine, training and equipment of special operations forces from three services, Army, Navy and Air Force.

The Congress went further. It gave the command its own separate budget, and its own authority to acquire equipment and materials peculiar to special operations.

How times have changed since the dark years of the 1970s. The public’s perception of special operations has shifted from disdain to adulation. In the 15 years since the creation of SOCOM, the command has proven itself as the vanguard of future warfare. Before jointness set in the 1990s, as mandated in the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols reform, special operations forces had already become a truly “purple” community. Before the U.S. military became accustomed to coalition warfare, SOF specialized in working with other nations’ commando counterparts. Today, the command has strong, tangible and effective inter-agency lash-ups with both the State Department and the intelligence community. In fact, there is nothing that special operators do that is not joint, combined or interagency.

The SOF creed includes the military truism that humans are more important than hardware. The operators in the field are culturally sensitive, politically aware and often multilingual.

Special operators are the forces of choice for U.S. ambassadors around the world, as embassies seek tools to fulfill U.S. government objectives. Among these are improving military-to-military relations with the host nation, especially to provide quality training to the elite forces of the nation in question, and to instill the importance of respect for human rights and subordination to civilian authority.

War Against Terrorism
There is no shortage of photographs in the media worldwide depicting Special Forces on horseback in Northern Afghanistan, collaborating with Northern Alliance forces, Air Force special operations combat controllers and high-altitude B-52 bombers.

The catalog of SOF successes in Afghanistan is long. The Special Operations Support Battalion moved into a deserted, ramshackle base in southern Uzbekistan called Karshi-Khanabad, and in a matter of a hundred hours or so had established a relatively sophisticated, well-supplied base of operations, with reliable communications and transportation facilities up and running.

Air Force special operations crews flew long resupply missions back and forth from Europe to Afghanistan. They flew 12-14 hours non-stop, air dropped bundles of equipment and supplies on narrow mountain slopes, hidden within craggy, tortuous mountain valleys, and then flew back to their European bases—over and over again.

Special operators’ exc-lusive responsibilities for strategic psychological operations (PsyOps) and civil affairs were again put the test in Af-ghanistan, as they were on the battlefields of the Gulf and the Balkans. PsyOps missions over and inside Afghanistan included the now famous broadcasting aircraft, the “Commando Solo” EC-130E (a variant of the C-130 Hercules)—transmitting mostly by radio humanitarian relief information, as well as messages designed to undermine support for the Taliban and Al Qaida.

The Commando Solo unit is the 193rd Special Operations Wing (Air National Guard) based in Harrisburg, Penn.

SOF civil affairs personnel (like the PsyOps community, mostly in the reserves and the national guard) poured into Afghanistan to help set up basic humanitarian infrastructure for populations in need—from schoolhouses to wells to hospitals. These civil affairs personnel should be the leading edge of the transition to post-conflict administration by civilian authority, whether that is the host-nation’s leaders, international organizations, bilateral donors, NGOs or a combination of these.

U.S. special operations forces, alongside other allied militaries and Afghan militia forces, continue to scour the Hindu Kush mountain redoubts of the Taliban and al Qaida, searching for wanted individuals or their remains, arms and ammunition, written documentation, computer files, cell phones and any other evidence.

SOCOM was tapped to provide trainers for the fledgling Afghan National Army. SOF personnel refurbished the training facility, assembled the recruits, dealt with the paltry equipment and ammo available and provided a program of instruction.

Afghanistan, however, is not the only setting for Operation Enduring Freedom. The al Qaida and its associated subgroups seek refuge and operate across the globe. In the Pacific region, Army, Navy and Air Force special operations personnel have been training and advising the Philippine military in its struggle against terrorists on the southern islands. In particular, the Abu Sayyaf Group has kidnapped and terrorized its way into prominence, especially on Basilan Island. In addition to the training, SOF forces, aided by Marines and Navy Seabees, have helped to promote safety and local humanitarian development.

The U.S. government has called on SOCOM to train Georgian army commandos in that Caucasian country located on Russia’s southern border. The 10th Special Forces Group has been assisting the Georgian military to set up the infrastructure. Chechen rebels have sought refuge in a remote, mountainous region of Georgia bordering the Chechen Republic in Russia, and are the cause of significant tensions. Chechen militants are a main component of al Qaida, and have been some of the fiercest fighters in Afghanistan.

SOF troops are operating in other theaters as well. Special Forces and SEAL units have trained Colombian land and riverine forces for counter-drug missions, and it is not unreasonable to expect further training requests as Colombia faces increasing turbulence and violence from insurgents and paramilitaries heavily involved in the narcotics industry.

U.S. special operations forces also have long standing experience in training the militaries of other Andean Ridge nations facing the scourge of drug production and trafficking. Civil affairs and psychological operations units remain heavily engaged in Kosovo, to help bring stability to that region. The persistence of tensions and insecurity indicates that SOF will continue to be in demand there.

Challenges for SOCOM
The U.S. government will be relying on special operations forces to combat the following:

  • Religious and ethnic fanatics in terror organizations such as al Qaida, who believe in a cause and commit violence and murder to promote that cause.
  • Traffickers in illicit and semi-licit commodities such as narcotics, weapons, diamonds and humans (typically women and children). They have money, but need customers and protection.
  • Rogue experts in the creation of weapons of mass destruction—especially chemical, biological and nuclear—and those with access to materials used in their manufacture.
  • International criminal syndicates whose job is putting these factions together for profit. They help provide protection, logistics, and cash to facilitate this nefarious commerce. Greed and ingenuity make it work.

Terrorism, meanwhile, will not be the only national security issue that the United States will encounter in this century. This nation will continue to face decisions on whether to become involved in various complex emergencies around the world, some of which might not have direct connections to the war on terrorism. Many of these situations will be fraught with ambiguities, emotions and divergent opinions about our interests. Nevertheless, international institutions, NGOs, nation-states, and human victims will look to the United States for leadership, resources and action. Once again, special operations will emerge as a tool of choice for American policy makers. The hallmark has become: if you need a job done quickly, turn to SOF.

SOCOM has long been aware of this trend, and is determined not to be surprised. The command founded a Future Concepts Working Group in 1998 to conceptualize skills, equipment and resources that SOCOM will require decades hence. Working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, national laboratories, think tanks, and many others, the FCWG identifies future flagship and operational capabilities for the SOF community. Then, taking advantage of the command’s budgeting and acquisition authorities, SOCOM’s budget and acquisition units work to concretize the futuristic concepts, and tie them to the Defense Department’s budget cycle.

The reality today is that the Special Operations Command has a limited number of forces to distribute around the world. Special operations forces cannot be mass-produced, according to another command axiom.

A few changes are in order to protect special operations capabilities and fulfill growing U.S. requirements in the war against terrorism.

First, the U.S. government needs to prioritize the missions for which the use of SOF is considered essential. Toward this end, the command has established a collaboration center at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Among other tasks, the center will serve as a clearinghouse for the services, the theater combatant commanders, and SOCOM—each of which will be represented—to coordinate recommendations to the secretary of defense on where SOF resources should be employed.

Second, the rest of the defense establishment and non-defense civilian authorities should realize that special operations forces serve U.S. national interests beyond the war on terrorism. Nobody can predict where the next catastrophe will take place. SOF must retain the agility to perform a task, withdraw, regroup and be ready at a moment’s notice for the next mission. At the same time, SOCOM must keep its eye on modernization, acquiring advanced technologies and methodologies to help achieve superiority in information operations.

Third, SOF should not be so constrained by current requirements as to prevent the command from constantly peering into the dark, beyond the leading edge of today’s military technologies, preparing for the conflicts of the next decade and beyond. SOF can also be a pioneer in procedures such as post-conflict transition to international civilian authority. Military forces continue to play an important role in helping nations rehabilitate themselves under conditions of lingering violence and instability. But at a certain point, these forces must work themselves out of a job and hand over the task to expert international and non-governmental organizations. SOF planners know how to accomplish that.

Fourth, U.S. conventional forces should continue to develop SOF-like capabilities, allowing SOF to hand off missions more seamlessly or yield missions completely to conventional forces. For example, the Air Force can better develop its combat search-and-rescue forces, the Army can perfect its ability to work with foreign forces by teaching small unit tactics and demining skills, and the Navy could enhance its capabilities in maritime interdiction and non-hostile ship boarding.

Finally, the best way to avoid overtaxing special operations forces is to develop and employ non-military capabilities for prosecuting the war on terrorism. As the administration has cautioned time and again, this war is multi-faceted, multi-dimensional and multi-national. It will require heavy investment in diplomacy, intelligence and law enforcement. The United States should reserve its military, and in particular special operations forces, for those missions to which they are best adapted and where force and violence are unavoidable.

David Litt is a U.S. ambassador who recently served as a political advisor at the U.S. Special Operations Command, in Tampa, Fla.


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