Special Operations Commander Defends Consolidation Efforts, Lays Out Future Strategy
The U.S. Special Operations commander on May 2 defended efforts to consolidate management of SOF during a forum hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. During brief remarks and a subsequent panel discussion, McRaven made the case that SOCOM was a valuable component of the U.S. military that, while unique in its abilities, is both dependent on and inextricably linked to conventional forces.
Special operations forces are not rogue gunfighters who fly around outside the purview of commanders of conventional forces, McRaven explained. They must follow rules and each unit is ultimately must obey orders from the military’s geographic combatant commander of the area in which they operate. The distinction, and the future relationship of SOCOM with conventional forces has created some confusion in the public eye, on Capitol Hill and within the military, McRaven said.
McRaven sits atop the SOF organizational structure. He oversees the recruitment, training and deployment of SOF around the world. But once overseas, those forces are commanded by a “theater SOF commander,” who reports directly to the geographic combatant commander in charge of an entire area of operations. Historically, the SOCOM commander, who is headquartered stateside, has had no institutional relationship with theater SOF commanders.
“While they were SOF folks, at the end of the day we didn’t provide them with all that much money,” McRaven said. “We didn’t provide them with any guidance. We didn’t really equip them. … They were kind of on their own to … support the geographic combatant commander.”
Before Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta left office, he signed an order placing those theater SOF commands under McRaven’s combatant command, while still reporting to the geographic combatant commander. This co-management arrangement has given McRaven influence over how SOF units operate in various parts of the world.
Reiterating the point that he does not have direct operational control, McRaven said. “I don’t command and control anything from U.S. Special Operations Command. We don’t do anything that doesn’t have the approval of the State Department mission to the host country or the combatant commander responsible for that country.”
At any given time, there are 11,000 special operators deployed to 78 countries around the world. At the moment, about 9,000 of those personnel are in Afghanistan, but that concentration will not be the norm past the prescribed drawdown of U.S. troops by 2015. As SOF units spread out and begin to operate in isolated territories in smaller numbers, “knitting them together” will become more important, McRaven said.
“We have had special operations forces out around the globe for decades,” he said. “Now we have the ability, through communications technology to be able to knit this capability together.”
Although special operations were prioritized in the Obama administration’s 2012 defense strategic guidance, McRaven said his forces are not immune to sequestration cuts.
“Make no mistake about it, the budget will affect us either directly or, as it affects the services it will affect us,” McRaven said. “We don’t do anything that doesn’t have a service component to it and this is something that is frequently misunderstood.”
“Part of what I’m trying to do is provide capability forward. … I am putting the world’s finest special operations forces out with the geographic combatant commanders,” McRaven said. “If they perform well and there is a demand signal, then frankly the requirement for Special Operations Forces I think is better understood. It is easier to defend my budget, in all honesty.”
It has become McRaven’s responsibility to oversee the transition from the commando missions that have marked SOF’s performance in two hot wars to gentler tactics of engagement and partnership building with allies.
“The counterterrorism piece, the direct-action piece of what we do is a very small piece of our portfolio,” McRaven said. “In fact, what I think is a more important part of what we do is building partnership capacity … our day to day interaction with our allies and partners around the globe.”
Instead of kicking down doors and capturing or killing terrorists on behalf of other nations, SOF units will transition to a support role where they prepare indigenous forces to stamp out terrorism on their own. The strategy also follows the administration’s wish to avoid large-scale engagements abroad in favor of targeted, “small-footprint” operations where allied militaries shoulder the burden of fixing their own problems, McRaven said.
“Combating terrorism to me is, how do we partner … so those countries can deal with terrorism at almost a law enforcement level so that it doesn’t become regional and it doesn’t become global?”
While SOCOM has gained a reputation based on feats special operators have accomplished in recent years, McRaven was careful to say that it is not a panacea for what ails the world. Diplomacy and development should be surged to combat a hotbed of terrorism, followed by a plea to indigenous forces to deal with the problem. When those options fail, and only then, should SOCOM be asked to use force.
“Direct action should always be the option of last resort,” he said. “But sometimes we’re the only tool available … and if you reach for it, you are going to get a certain result.”
Photo Credit: Army