In Game of Strategy, SOCOM Outsmarting Conventional Military
Of the three primary missions the Defense Department expects to tackle in the coming decade — protect the homeland, work with allies to increase global security, and prepare for a major conflict — at least one is being cornered by U.S. Special Operations Command.
The Pentagon’s forecast of how the military will fight wars in the future — detailed in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review — continues to hammer on the idea that U.S. forces can’t do it all, and should train foreign allies to help fight insurgencies and terrorist groups.
All branches of the military do some form of “security cooperation” work with foreign allies, but SOCOM is likely to become a “bigger planner” in this area, said John R. Deni, a professor of security studies at the Army War College and a former political adviser to U.S. military commanders in Europe.
SOCOM leaders have been out in front of the conventional military advocating for this mission, and are now financially in a better position to do it, Deni said last week during a panel discussion hosted by the Reserve Officers Association.
“Special ops is one of the few growth industries in the Department of Defense,” said Deni. In its 2015 budget request, the Pentagon is calling for reductions of conventional forces but is proposing that special operations forces increase from 67,000 to 69,700. That is a slight drop from two years ago, when the Pentagon had sought a SOF force of 72,000.
The U.S. Army also is seeking to play a bigger role in the business of training foreign allies, which the Pentagon calls “building partner capacity.” The Army unveiled a plan last year to form specialized units that would be assigned to work in different regions of the world. But it is doubtful that the service — facing its worst budget crunch in decades — will be able to support this, Deni said. “How is the Army going to fund its regionally aligned force initiative?” he asked. “The Army is trying to get more regionally engaged, but whether and how this is funded will have a lot to do with whether the United States will be able to build partner capacity.”
SOCOM’s growing influence inside the Pentagon over the foreign-troop training mission has been years in the making, said Russell Rumbaugh, defense budget analyst at the Stimson Center.
Over the past two decades, SOCOM has expanded its expertise from the original Special Forces “Green Beret” adviser to become a specialized trainer of foreign counterterrorism units, Rumbaugh said. “SOCOM breeds other special units,” he said. “It’s an incredible force multiplier. Each SOF team gets me another five SOF teams around the world, and they can draw on American ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance]. That’s a really potent force.”
The case for greater SOCOM involvement in training foreign troops has been a major talking point of its commander, Adm. William McRaven, since he took over in 2011.
“I believe the future of U.S. special operations will be in helping to build partner capacity with those willing nations who share our interest,” McRaven said during a hearing of the House Armed Services subcommittee on intelligence, emerging threats and capabilities. “No nation alone can stem the rise of extremism, we need our friends and allies more now than ever before," he told the panel last week.
McRaven has appealed to lawmakers to continue funding SOCOM’s efforts under the so-called 1208 authority. Section 1208 of the 2005 National Defense Authorization Act allows the Defense Department to reimburse foreign forces participating in counterterrorism operations that are led by SOCOM.
“I would tell you, 1208 is probably the single most important authority we have in our fight against terrorism,” said McRaven. “It allows us to build forces to train them, to equip them, and to do so, well I think we have the right amount of oversight.
Building partner capacity is a “growth industry,” he said. Current funding for the 1208 program is about $50 million, and it should be increased, said McRaven. “I know the demand signal out there is even larger than that.”
Deni predicts the Defense Department will have a tough time securing funding for these programs.
“We need all the services to be playing in this game, building partnership capacity, security cooperation,” he said. “All services have been engaged in this for 25 years at least. It’s become a primary mission of the military.”
But whether the military, outside special operations, can maintain its commitment to building foreign forces is an open question right now, he said. Most of the funding for partner capacity now comes from the regional combatant commanders, Deni noted. “They have to pull together a variety of pots of money to get forces from the United States to their theaters.” The Army intends to make those forces available, “but the funding to actually get them to do things is up in the air,” he said. “They need some help to make that happen.”
Whether McRaven’s pitch will help move the needle remains to be seen, he said. “I hope so. I don’t think the evidence is there yet.”
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, like other senior military leaders, is a strong proponent of foreign-troop training programs.
“We're building partner capacity in many different areas, training foreign armies. … We’re helping to build a multinational, joint interagency, intergovernmental, multinational solution to Africa, and I think we play a huge role,” he said last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think ground interoperability, multilateral exercises, building partner capacity is all going to be important as we look forward to the uncertainty that we see across the Middle East.”
Despite the soaring rhetoric, there is an innate cultural bias in the defense establishment against “shaping” activities that do not yield obvious or immediate results, Deni said. “They are not as sexy as acquisition, modernization and end-strength issues.”
With the military — and the Army particularly — facing deep spending cuts next year, combatant commanders could see less funding for international training exercises, said Deni. “We should be putting more emphasis on shaping activities. I’m concerned we are not doing that.”
Besides money, another hurdle for SOCOM as it tries to expand its international reach is the political risk associated with training foreign troops.
SOCOM can, from scratch, build a highly capable military unit to combat terrorists overseas, Rumbaugh said. “Those guys, however, are not Americans. What happens when they take their skills and do something we don’t like, like kill priests, or run a sectarian war, despite the efforts SOCOM is taking to avoid such outcomes?” he asked. “You can see the flaw baked in.”
Military analyst Maren Leed, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautioned that SOCOM might have a difficult time persuading lawmakers that these programs work. “Building partner capacity is intuitively appealing,” she said. “But you don’t know when it works and when it doesn’t, or how long it lasts. We have successes that have turned into failures, and we have the opposite.
We have no organizing theory, no systematic understanding of what the relationship is between shaping activities and outcomes,” she said. “Talk about high risk.” The U.S. military should try to prevent conflicts as much as it can, but that is not a fundamental mission of the armed forces, said Leed. “When there is a fire, you need a fire department.”
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who chairs the House panel that heard McRaven’s testimony, seemed struck by SOCOM officials’ forceful advocacy of partner-capacity building programs. “It takes a while to help develop some of these capacities and so we don't want to be so excited about it,” said Thornberry.
Regardless of where one stands on this issue, SOCOM deserves credit for its coherent message about how it sees the future, said Ben FitzGerald, of the Center for a New American Security.
“While the Army has an identity crisis, if you look at SOCOM, it has a very clear view of the future and what it’s going to do about it,” he said.
Having a strategy is commendable, Leed noted, but world events tend to get in the way. Russia's military incursion in Ukraine is the latest example of an unexpected crisis that has thrown the credibility of the quadrennial defense review into question. “Nobody was foreseeing this even two months ago,” she said. Since 2012, the Pentagon has been trying to do this “pivot,” Leed said, referring to the military’s plan to shift focus to Asia. “The pivot is turning into a pirouette … from the Middle East, to the Pacific, and now also Europe. This world is not cooperating with our strategy.”