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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Success Can Breed Overstrain for Special Operations Forces
Success Can Breed Overstrain for Special Operations Forces
By Sandra I. Erwin

They are competent beyond belief. But at what point do U.S. special operations forces become too much of a good thing?

That was one of the questions at hand during last week’s hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee.

Since the May 2011 Osama bin Laden raid, U.S. special operations forces have basked in the limelight, which is well deserved, said Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., the newest HASC member who replaced Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But the glowing publicity, in the long run, could be detrimental to SOF troops if they become the go-to guy every time the nations faces a national security challenge, Barber said. “Now everybody knows how good these folks are, and the temptation is to have them do everything because they can do whatever they put their mind to so well.”

Lawmakers ought to be worried about this, said Barber. “How do we ensure special operations stays special?”

Something for Congress to watch, he said, is the extent to which the U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan will be dependent on SOF taking over most responsibilities, said Barber. “Are we are moving towards a situation where special operations is going to run the country, from a military standpoint?”

A panel of military analysts testifying at the hearing all appeared to see eye-to-eye on the issue.

“I think that is one of the concerns uppermost in the mind of the SOF leadership, and the danger of overstretch is real,” said Linda Robinson, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Robinson said it would be folly to assume that SOF alone can take charge of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan after general-purpose forces depart in 2014.
Special Operations Command leaders worry that SOF duties in Afghanistan have not yet been defined, she said. If their responsibilities are contained to just counter explosives and precision-guided drone strikes, SOF units would be able to handle it, Robinson said. But the training of Afghan forces will require more manpower than just SOF, she added. Most likely, what the United States will need is a “blended SOF-conventional force combinations [that will] extend the reach of SOF and help them avoid overstretch.”

People forget that much of the success of SOF forces in Afghanistan could not have been achieved without help from foreign allies, said Robinson. “And these are very important force multipliers, if you will. … Within Afghanistan, they have to make, I think, some hard decisions about where geographically to focus.”

Christopher Lamb, research fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, said a predisposition to call on SOF to quell crises should be expected, even in instances when conventional forces might be better suited. “Not long after 9/11, there were cases of special operations forces being used for what I considered inappropriate missions, such as [searching for] improvised explosive devices or personal [VIP] protection missions that were not the best use of our special operations forces,” said Lamb. Another development that resulted in more frequent SOF deployment was the emphasis on “security assistance,” which is military-speak for training foreign troops. “There was a shift after 9/11 from security assistance being a collateral mission to it being a core mission. And that has an advantage and a disadvantage,” Lamb said. “The advantage is that SOCOM now has the responsibility for recommending whether general purpose forces or special operations forces conduct a security assistance mission. … But if it invites the services, the general purpose forces, to back away from security assistance and forces SOCOM to carry more of that load itself, I would consider that a poor use of our special operations forces' talent.”

SOF are an “incredible capability,” Lamb said. “It doesn't have to be used on the scale it is, I think, to achieve the political effects that we would desire.”

Jacqueline Davis, executive vice president of Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, cautioned that none of the NATO leaders at the alliance’s recent summit in Chicago specifically answered the question of what duties might be assigned to U.S. special operations forces.  “There is the assumption that much of the burden of what will occur after 2014 will fall to special operations forces,” Davis said. “And indeed, we have created a new command and control structure for Afghanistan to facilitate the post-2014 period.”

None of the United States’ NATO allies has yet defined its roles, either, she said. “The French have made some pretty ambiguous statements in Chicago. I have head my German friends make statements about 2014. That's just it. … In Poland, they're created a SOCOM-like organization to promote SOCOM and to keep its commitment in Afghanistan. But now, with the government change in Poland and the tensions between the president and the prime minister, they are now reconsidering whether or not those units should be pulled back in under the Army, just to perform direct- action missions and not do the training in direct engagement missions that would be required in Afghanistan.”

Bottom line for U.S. special operations forces: Be prepared to carry the lion’s share of the Afghanistan mission, Davis warned. “There's a lot of uncertainty, and that uncertainty, called Afghanistan post-2014, impinges quite fully upon the future of SOF and SOCOM planning.”

SOCOM, with an annual budget of more than $10 billion, expects to grow in size from 63,000 to 71,000 personnel in the coming years, but even that might not be enough to keep up with a rapid expansion of responsibilities, analysts said at the hearing.

In January, the Obama administration unveiled new strategic guidance that calls for increased focus on the Pacific and the Middle East and proposes substantial cuts to U.S. ground forces. A Congressional Research Study published in March warned that this "new strategic direction has the potential to significantly affect U.S. SOF. Of potential concern to Congress is that with fewer general purpose forces, SOF operational tempo might increase."

Even if SOCOM budgets grow, there are limitations on expansion because of stringent qualification and training standards, said the CRS report. "In addition, little is known about how SOF would be employed under this new strategy and if it even has the ability to take on new mission requirements. ... An examination of proposed force structure in relation to anticipated requirements could prove useful to Congress."

Obama’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance says special operations forces will increasingly be relied upon to "help address national security threats and challenges on a global scale ... given their ability to operate in a wide range of environments and undertake tactical actions that produce strategic effects," said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, director of the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


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