Special Operations Forces Look for Right Mix of Hard and Soft Power
The U.S. Special Operations Command is hosting itsannual gathering of top brass, civilian leaders and private-industry suppliers this week near its headquarters in Tampa, Fla., amid debate over the proper role of commando forces as instruments of national security.
SOCOM Commander Navy Adm. William McRaven has been leading a messaging campaign to try to convince Washington policy makers that special operations forces in the post-Afghanistan era should spend more time advising and training foreign allies, rather than engaged in combat directly.
Influential Washington think tanks — theCouncil on Foreign Relations and theCenter for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments — published separate studies that essentially echo McRaven’s ideas and call for a re-examination of SOF roles.
“Many people are not aware of what they [SOF] can do,” said Linda Robinson, a scholar who specializes in special operations and wrote the CFR study. After a decade during which they became the face of the U.S. fight against terrorists, SOF are seen primarily as killers who jump out of a helicopter in the middle of the night and strike their targets, Robinson said. To be effective in the long term, however, operators should return to their roots as advisors and trainers of foreign troops, McRaven and Robinson have argued.
SOF have underappreciated skills that could help prevent wars, Robinson said. Navy SEAL raids and precision drone strikes alone, she asserted, will not be enough to tackle future national security challenges.
McRaven is seeking to shift resources from direct combat to so-called “indirect” operations that involve training allied militaries. He has proposed that forward deployed SOF — called “theater special operations commands” — report directly to U.S. SOCOM rather than to regional commanders. McRaven insists this is not a power grab, but rather an attempt to better train operators in support of geographic commanders. Currently about 5 percent of SOF are assigned to theaters. The majority of the 67,000-strong command is based in the United States and reports directly to SOCOM headquarters, in Tampa. The command is projected to grow to 71,000 members by 2018.
Barely mentioned in the discussion over SOCOM’s future roles is the health of the force. SOCOM officials have been concerned that the current pace of operations is taking a toll on troop morale and mental health. About 12,000 special operators are deployed in 75 countries. More than half are in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration’s strategic guidance to the Defense Department calls for further expansion of SOCOM ranks. But Robinson doubts that the command can grow much further. “This is the high water mark, would be my guess,” she said.
Many operators, meanwhile, are reaching their breaking point. “The U.S. special operations war machine has been honed sharp after a decade of fighting, but it is becoming increasingly dull by the day, in large part due to the stresses placed on U.S. war fighters and their broken families,” said Brandon Webb, a former Navy SEAL, author and blogger. “We are in a perpetual, self-declared war on terror, with no end in sight” in North Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East, Webb wrote in a blog post. In conversations with Webb, junior and senior operators revealed that they are “worn out and not sure what they’re fighting for anymore,” he said. Washington owes them a “coherent foreign policy strategy.”
Despite McRaven’s push to de-emphasize direct-combat actions as the primary mission of SOF, he faces an uphill battle. Indirect operations, also known as “foreign internal defense” have a bad rap in many SOF communities because they are associated with counterinsurgency, Robinson said. McRaven is not calling for an end to raids, she cautioned. “He simply wants to rebalance.” Robinson acknowledged that indirect operations also are a tough sell in Washington because they are protracted efforts that could take years to deliver results.
In a study unveiled May 10 on Capitol Hill, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments endorsed McRaven's call for rebalancing SOF missions. At a time of declining military spending, SOCOM has been spared so far of significant cuts. But its $10 billion a year budget is not likely to grow. As a result, said the CSBA study, it makes sense for SOCOM to focus on training allies so they can take on more of the fighting. “SOF provide cost-effective options to decisions makers, but they can’t do everything.”
It remains to be seen whether McRaven’s efforts to boost the advise-and-train portion of SOCOM’s portfolio gains traction. Congressional Research Service analyst Andrew Feickert noted that the direct-versus-indirect approach debate has gone on for years. “With the projected end of NATO involvement in Afghanistan in 2014 and the growing belief that the U.S. defense budget will be in a relative state of decline for the foreseeable future, it might be prudent to reexamine the emphasis placed on the indirect approach,” he wrote in a CRS report.
McRaven is expected to continue to press his case this week at the 2013 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference.
Just two years after SEAL Team 6 captured and killed Osama Bin Laden, “this is a perfect moment in the post Bin Laden era to pivot away from the extreme focus on drones and unilateral raids to let the special operations community use an indirect approach,” Robinson said. “McRaven is serious about this,” she said. “This is really the fork in the road that Washington faces. Will it take a more balanced approach or not?” Special operations leaders, said Robinson, “need some clarity in Washington on what the best use of special operations forces are."
Photo Credit: Defense Dept.