Elite War Fighters Brace For 'Asymmetric' Combat
The unconventional warriors known as special operations forces expect to be busier than ever in the foreseeable future. The reason, officials say, is that military contingencies will increasingly require multifaceted war fighters-with skills to handle both combat and non-traditional endeavors.
Although small by comparison to the conventional force, these elite military units are in high demand, says Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, USA, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), based at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida.
"Our tempo of operations is high," he told a Senate panel. Last year, special operations teams were deployed in 144 countries, conducted 17 crisis response operations, completed 224 joint combined exercises for training in 91 countries, and performed 194 counter-drug missions in more than 20 countries. They also were involved in humanitarian de-mining efforts in 11 countries.
About 10 percent of SOCOM's 47,000-strong force is deployed around the world. According to Schoomaker, that represents a threefold increase in missions since 1991.
The Army's specialized units include the Special Forces, the 75th Ranger Regiment, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, psychological operations, and civil affairs units. The naval component-the Navy's Special Warfare Command-includes sea-air-land (SEALs) teams, special boat units and SEAL delivery units. The Air Force has special operations squadrons for fixed and rotary wing aircraft, special tactics squadrons, a foreign internal defense squadron, and a combat weather squadron.
Officials predict special operations forces will become more relevant to U.S. military missions because they can respond to a wider spectrum of crises than conventional forces. Special operations forces, however, cannot replace conventional forces when the situation calls for overwhelming military power.
During a recent visit to Air Force special operations aviators at Hurlburt Field, Florida, Schoomaker said the only "certainty in the future of warfare is that security challenges will be more ambiguous and will follow less traditional paths."
The 1994 war in Chechnya is often cited as a model for the typical conflict that the United States is likely to face. Chechnya is a tiny, mainly Muslim, southern republic of the former Soviet Union that decided to break away from Russia's rule in 1994.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered about 40,000 troops into Chechnya in order to crush the secessionist drive. What was planned as a quick campaign turned into a long and costly war, in which the outnumbered rebels dealt heavy blows to demoralized Russian soldiers.
These "asymmetric" opponents such as separatist rebel groups, insurgents, and terrorists are dreaded by Pentagon war planners because they are unpredictable and difficult to prepare against. These are enemies who won't attack U.S. strategic strengths, but will instead target U.S. vulnerabilities with unorthodox measures such as chemical or biological weapons, Schoomaker said. "That's the future. More Chechnyas," he asserted.
Growing demand for special operations forces by theater commanders and an accelerating pace of deployments, said Schoomaker, are straining the command. Much like the major military services, SOCOM officials fear that higher rates of deployments against a backdrop of declining budgets are hampering force readiness and morale.
Funding constraints also are delaying the modernization of weapons and platforms as well as the acquisition of new systems, officials said.
"We are suffering as much as the services are. We are all straining under the fact that we have old systems and it's costing us a lot to maintain them," said Harry E. Shulte, SOCOM's acquisition executive.
"You are chasing your tail ... because you can't afford to buy new systems," he said in an interview.
In Fiscal Year 1999, SOCOM received $3.4 billion. About $500 million is spent on procurement of new systems and $155 million on research and development. The rest goes to base operations, maintenance, and personnel expenses.
Even though SOCOM has its own checkbook and can directly go to Congress to request funding, it is still heavily dependent on the major services for key weapon systems that it, alone, could not afford to develop.
"We try to leverage R&D money that the services and other agencies such as DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) are investing. We look for ways to leverage what they are doing into something we can use," Shulte said.
SOCOM is looking for "leap-ahead technologies" that will result in revolutionary systems. Examples are miniature robotics and non-lethal weapons, he said. Other emerging technologies the command seeks include low-observable/masking technologies, smarter weapons, long-range precision capability, and information technologies.
The goal, said Shulte is to piggyback on the technology investments made by the military services. "We want to do things uniquely but that doesn't mean we don't want to cooperate with the other services."
Underpinning the command's procurement plan are the CV-22 tiltrotor aircraft for the Air Force and the advanced SEAL delivery system.
The Air Force Special Operations Command will get 50 CV-22s. They are designed to perform long-range, night and all-weather infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply missions. They will also conduct medical evacuations and selected rescue and recovery operations.
The CV-22 has the speed of turboprop aircraft but can hover like a helicopter. Shulte estimates the cost of upgrading the Marine Corps' MV-22 to the CV-22 configuration is about $5 million to $6 million.
The upgrade involves extra fuel tanks, terrain following and terrain avoidance multi-mode radar, advanced sensors, electronic warfare equipment, and a suite of integrated radio frequency countermeasures. Delivery of the first CV-22 by contractors Bell Helicopter Textron, Fort Worth, Texas; and Boeing Helicopter, Philadelphia, is scheduled for 2003.
The program recently completed a critical design review, which was the last of 12 scheduled demonstrations.
The advanced SEAL delivery system is a 65-foot mini-submarine that will conduct clandestine insertion and extraction of a SEAL squad into hostile locations. The contractor, Northrop Grumman Corporation, Annapolis, Maryland, expects to deliver the first submersible this fiscal year.
To protect the fleet of C-130 cargo planes from infrared missiles, SOCOM also is investing in the directional infrared countermeasures program (DIRCM), which is a high-priority project despite scheduling problems, said Shulte. DIRCM is a joint program with the United Kingdom and the prime contractor is Northrop Electronic Systems International, Rolling Meadows, Illinois.
"That program has had some difficulty. It's 18-24 months behind schedule," said Shulte. More tests are planned this month, he added. "If they go well we'll make a DIRCM production decision this spring." SOCOM is looking to buy 59 systems. "There's a possibility that we'll put DIRCM on CV-22," Shulte said.
SOCOM also is following developments in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
"We are not developing our own UAV," he asserted. The command "does not believe in having a special operations forces UAV." But, he noted, "that doesn't mean we may not want to put a sensor on someone else's UAV.
"We are not interested in operating UAVs. We might be interested in using them but not interested in owning them. We might develop sensors that may be used with UAVs," Shulte said.
The funding shortages in the procurement arena have forced SOCOM officials to revamp the organization in order to cut costs.
About a year ago SOCOM reorganized so the logistics function came under the acquisition function. "We have some pretty aggressive logistics guys now," said Shulte. "We want to run our systems smarter so they don't drain the budget ... The challenge is to reinvent logistics to free up money for modernization. We are doing the same as the other services."
A case in point is an asset visibility and information exchange database for SOCOM users to research the availability and status of equipment. Shulte said the system will be up and running at the end of this fiscal year. The savings come about through efficiency, he explained. SOCOM, for example, has many radios that need repair. But each component is being serviced by different contractors. "So when we have this database on line we can consolidate contracts and bundle requirements and get a better price to get them fixed."
Despite the financial crunch, experts predict special operations forces will continue to fulfill its missions and will successfully adapt to new demands such as counterproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
"Essentially, special forces are not doing anything differently from what they've done in the past," said retired Maj. Gen. Hugh L. Cox III, who served as commander of Air Force special forces in the early 1980s.
"SOCOM has always been a jack of all trades," he said in an interview. Changes in missions and operational demands are not new to special operations forces. "We overstudy these situations," said Cox. "Technology is especially a force multiplier in special forces because they are small and demand good intelligence."
He does not believe SOCOM will get disproportionately more funding than the other services, even if the tempo of operations accelerates. "If they get an increase it will be to reflect the counterproliferation [of weapons of mass destruction] mission," Cox asserted.
But because money is tight, the competition for dollars is a way of life at SOCOM. According to Cox, interservice rivalries are intense.
"Since 1987, when SOCOM acquired the status of an acquisition agency, the process began to compete for resources," he noted. "The competition is real and has an impact on their capabilities to do their mission."
There's also been a tendency to accuse the commander of favoring his own service, Cox related. Interservice cooperation exists, however, in the form of a "healthy exchange between Army and Air Force in tactics, techniques, and procedures."
"Talking to special forces around the world, the message I get is that what is eating their lunch is the peacetime engagement commitments such as de-mining and humanitarian relief," said retired Air Force Col. Thomas E. Davidson, a consultant based in Vienna, Virginia. He was the assistant deputy chief of staff for plans, policy, and operations at the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) in the early 1990s.
"Are leaders putting back the resources to accommodate the full spectrum of operations? This has been a problem as long as I can remember," said Davidson.
Special operations forces are often called upon because they can do so much with so little, he added. "They are inexpensive and they are a smart way to use the force. The regional commanders use them as forward presence.
"If a significant portion of their daily tasks are peacetime duties, then training or other activities have to give." When Davidson was at AFSOC, "we were sacrificing a lot of our future to save our present. Our tradeoffs were highly significant."ND