New Administration May Take Special Operators Back to Roots

By Stew Magnuson
U.S. Special Forces soldiers perform drills in Kabul province, Afghanistan

Photo: Max Goldberg (Army)

Barack Obama chose MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, to deliver one of his final speeches of his presidency to address his record on counterterrorism.

The home base for both Central Command and Special Operations Command played a key role during the eight years his administration fought the forces of radical Islam.

He gave credit to special forces for beating back the Islamic State in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

“We took the fight to ISIL in both Iraq and Syria, not with American battalions but with local forces backed by our equipment and our advisors and, importantly, our Special Forces,” he said.  
Special operations forces over the past two administrations have been used mostly as “door kickers” — commandos charged with targeted capturing or killing of so-called high-value targets.

While that is an important part of what special operators do, experts interviewed said the elite forces may find themselves under the Trump administration returning to their roots as advisors and trainers for foreign forces.

The Obama administration relied heavily on special operations forces with a “small footprint” approach to tackling terrorism, said Linda Robinson, senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corp., and author of the book, “One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare.”   

Part of that strategy — especially in Iraq and Afghanistan — involved capturing and killing terrorist leaders in order to take down their networks’ nodes. However, there are limits to this so-called “whack-a-mole” approach, SOCOM leaders have acknowledged.

“There is only so much you can get out of killing and capturing leadership, because they can be replaced, and have been replaced,” Robinson said. There is no end game using this strategy, she noted.

The second part of the small footprint approach is to rely on indigenous forces to not only help suppress terrorist networks, but to also provide local and ongoing capacity to do those kinds of operations. The biggest emphasis on this approach has been in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it has also been employed in places such as Yemen, East Africa, Colombia and the Philippines, she said.

Jonathan Schroden, director of CNA’s special operations program, said at least for the foreseeable future, putting special operations forces against the terrorism problem would likely continue.

CNA gathered together a group of six former special operations commanders, a former assistant secretary of defense and a few dozen active duty officers to talk in a closed setting about the future of SOF.

One of the group’s conclusions was that the forces were still going to be primarily focused on countering terrorism, at least for the first year of the new administration.

“The last thing a new president wants is a new terrorist attack on U.S. soil during [his] first year in office. It would completely derail their political agenda,” he said. The group was convened prior to the November election. It produced a report, “Advice from SOF on the Use of SOF for the Next Administration.”

As time goes on, the leaders concluded that a resurgent Russia and China, and the threats they pose might result in a reprioritization of the use of SOF to shape the environment around those countries as well as Iran and North Korea.

However, President Donald Trump has signaled a detente with Russia, Schroden noted. “That could significantly change the foreign policy environment we find ourselves in if that’s the direction we go,” he added.

Schroden said: “SOF has been increasingly set against the counterterrorism problem set over the past 15 years, and as a result of that, you have seen a greater shift of resources and emphasis towards the set of missions that fall under the rubric of surgical strike. What has atrophied to some extent are the missions that fall under special warfare, which is training foreign militaries, operating with them openly or clandestinely, and the sort.” This approach has had a revival in Syria, but unconventional warfare is still a relatively small percentage of missions, he said.

Robinson added: “There are all kinds of legitimate critiques about relying on locals, but the one thing is they are there, they stay there and they don’t really cost us that much,” she said. That is preferable to some than funding larger military expeditions, she noted.

Robinson noted that retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, secretary of defense nominee, doesn’t come from a special operations background. “He is not associated with or known for advocacy or emphasis or overreliance on special operations forces.”

“I would believe with Mattis as secretary of defense, there will be an equal emphasis on what the conventional forces need to be doing and preparing for and it could be in some cases combined with special operations forces,” she added.

Trump probably doesn’t have a lot of experience or detailed knowledge of SOF. “Why would he?” asked Schroden. “As he learns more about it, he will become enamored with them in the same way that past administrations have,” he predicted.

Steven Bucci, a former Army Special Forces officer and deputy assistant secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration for homeland defense and defense support to civil authorities, said Mattis will understand that SOF doesn’t win wars “but it sure sets up the conditions for getting ahead of them, helping win them when you’re in it, and transition from the war to normal relations.”

Democrats have tended to favor the use of special operations forces, he said. They prefer the small footprint and having a lot of “bang for the buck,” said Bucci, who is now a visiting fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

“President Bush used SOF a lot. But the Obama administration took it much further than that. It depended almost completely on the SOF folks,” he said.

Bucci would also like to see special operations forces return to their unconventional warfare roots. There will always be a need for “door-kickers” for surgical strike missions, but the other skills have atrophied, he said.

It has reached a point where commando units were overused, he added.

“SOF can do lots of stuff and do a lot of things better than lots of other people, but they can’t do everything,” he said.

A U.S. Special Forces team member trains
with a Serbian anti-terrorist unit.
(Defense Dept.)

Elite units, as their star continues to rise, are eventually asked to do missions they can’t handle. Then, there are a lot of casualties. That didn’t happen under the Obama administration, but there is a risk. “My concern for the past couple years is that they are trending in that direction,” Bucci said.

A reliance on SOF has led to a force that has been stretched thin, with previously unheard of operational tempos. It was a main cause of concern at the CNA meeting. After 15 years of expansion, the force stands at about 69,800 personnel.

“I don’t think anyone disagrees that they have been rode hard and put up wet,” said Bucci. “The op-tempo is just insane.”

Special operators have been spending most of a typical year deployed overseas, which puts a strain on their personal lives and retention efforts.

Something has got to give, said Bucci. “It’s real, it’s valid and it’s killing people, literally and figuratively, and we need to do something about it. Your two options are to get more people to do more missions, or do fewer missions. I think you will see under Trump some ratcheting back of those missions,” he said.

While that may be the case, Schroden said, the demand for their services is likely to remain high and is probably going to increase. There are two schools of thought for solving the problem of exhausted special operators, he said. “There is a debate in the SOF community about whether or not you can grow the size of our SOF any further without reducing overall standards.”

One camp at the CNA discussion said it was possible, but SOCOM would have to put more resources toward recruiting in order to generate much larger numbers, and expand the schoolhouses, to increase the overall pool of candidates.

That would lead to a much larger pool to gain a smaller percentage of a much larger base.

“But that is easier said than done,” Schroden said. It will require more funding and more infrastructure.

One camp said they have hit a ceiling. They cite the Navy’s Sea-Air-Land, SEAL, teams as an example. It is a challenging training course to make it through and has a high drop-out rate. Reducing standards would result in SEAL teams that are less qualified, they contended.

Bucci said if the Trump administration decides to trim missions, he hopes it chooses wisely. He cited examples where leadership decided to cut back certain special ops missions or regional specialties, only to regret it later.

“If we don’t have enough people with those kinds of skills — the languages, the area specialization, the relationships — it’s really hard to do those tasks,” Bucci said. “You just can’t spin that up in a month. … I hope we don’t lose force structure because it is really hard to rebuild it.”

Robinson said the nearly 70,000 personnel and $10 billion budget is about right for the way special operations forces are being used today. “However, I don’t think we are going away from an era in which SOF is heavily used,” she added.

Some parts of the forces are particularly stressed, including women members, units working in Syria and Iraq, and civil affairs and psychological operations specialists, she said.

As for the latter two, they are often left out of the picture, but are in high demand, the experts said.

Civil affairs units serve as liaisons between SOF or conventional forces and local governments and assist them during times of peace and war. They also assist local governments in rebuilding after conflict.

SOCOM civil affair units are increasingly being asked to carry the burden for the entire military in this specialization as other services are divesting in this capability, said Schroden.

They are also shifting from a post-operations reconstruction force to one that is helping shape potential areas of conflict beforehand. They are increasingly being asked to serve as liaisons in countries where Russia and China are vying for influence, he added.

They “help build connections with local officials and powerbrokers to show that the U.S. military is more than just trigger pullers,” he said.

Psychological operations, now known as military information support operations, MISO, also offer a skill set to the conventional forces, but they are underused, according to Bucci. They provide messaging to populations or enemies, and sometimes misinformation campaigns to confound enemies.  

“The conventional guys did not use them effectively in [Iraq] in my opinion,” Bucci said.

“We have more of them now than we ever have before … we ought to be leveraging guys so our shooter guys in conventional units don’t have to do that,” he said.

“It’s a war for the mind and those guys are the mind soldiers,” Bucci added.

There is a huge deficit in strategic messaging in the U.S. government, Robinson said, and while MISO tends to operate on a more tactical level, there is growing demand signal for their services.

“Both information ops and civil affairs have to receive more attention. Not just resources, but thinking about how they incorporate new technology and operate more effectively,” Robinson said.

Bucci added: “Special Operations gets used all the time. Peace, war, it doesn’t matter.” Trying to figure out the future of SOF is important. “It’s a pretty darn significant capability for our country."

Topics: SOF Training, Special Operations, Combating Terrorism

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