Like other years of this first decade of the 21st century, 2009 was a busy one for the “quiet professionals” of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). But instead of being able to maintain their low profile and discreet movements, 2009 began for SOCOM’s warriors with one of the most spectacular media events of the year. Capt. Richard Phillips, ship’s master of the American-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama, was being held hostage by a band of Somali pirates in the western Indian Ocean. After being thwarted in their attempt to take over the ship, the pirates had taken Phillips as a hostage and left aboard a ship’s lifeboat, which was quickly surrounded by U.S. naval vessels, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Then on April 12, things began to turn deadly. The pirates were growing restless and one of them turned a weapon on Phillips, apparently preparing to kill him.
However, before the weapon could be fired, the crisis ended with three near-simultaneous, precision sniper shots into the heads of the Somali pirates by a trio of U.S. Navy Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) operators. Their faces never seen and identities remaining hidden even today, the SEALs then quietly packed their gear and returned to base with the discretion expected of SOCOM. This amazing act of marksmanship, firing from the rolling, pitching deck of the guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) was just the most visible sign of the growing strength, mobility, and capability of SOCOM and its components, as they enter their 10th year of combat against global terrorism since the attacks of 9/11. In short, the wars of the first decade of the 21st century have highlighted American special operations forces (SOF), and their reach has become global.
Along with combating Somali pirates, Taliban fighters, al Qaeda terrorists, and other threats, 2009 saw SOCOM growing and prospering, while remaining fully engaged and most often downrange. New aircraft and weapons systems are regularly entering service, including state-of-the-art UAVs. Most important of all, the selection, qualification, and training of new special warfare professionals has entered a time of continued growth, something America urgently needs as it heads into a second decade of war on terrorism.
Leadership, Lessons Learned, and Training
For a command with more than 54,000 military and civilian personnel, SOCOM’s organizational structure is surprisingly lean. Although SOCOM’s fiscal year 2010 budget submission envisions a growth of 2,349 billets (military and civilian) command-wide, the headquarters staff at MacDill Air Force Base (AFB) in Tampa, Fla., is actually being cut by 11. The four-star commander, Adm. Eric T. Olson (USN), who is on his second command tour at SOCOM, is assisted by a three-star deputy commander, Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney (USA). In fact, with only three commanders since 9/11, SOCOM has been the most stable major command in the U.S. military, something valued by presidents and the Pentagon during wartime.
SOCOM established a new Directorate for Science and Technology (S&T) early in FY 2009 within the Acquisition & Logistics branch. The S&T Directorate is organized with divisions for technology discovery and strategic planning, applied research, technology development, demonstrations and experimentation, technology exploitation, and capability transition. In addition, SOCOM is continuing to evolve both its Joint Special Operations University, which is getting ready to move to MacDill AFB from Hurlburt Field, Fla., and its Lessons Learned Program, which now is a permanent part of the command’s organizational structure and budget.
Observers and journalists unfamiliar with American military history, laws and traditions sometimes refer to SOCOM as a “fifth service,” parallel to the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. In fact, U.S. Special Operations Command was born on April 16, 1987 as a new unified command mandated by Congress in the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, and the Nunn-Cohen Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 1987. Uniquely among the Unified Commands, SOCOM has its own pot of money under Title 10 of the U.S. Code to develop and buy new equipment (having its own budgetary authority through a Major Force Program (MFP-11: “the jewel of SOCOM” line item in DoD’s budget). But it draws on all the services for personnel, along with its own force of civil servants. Another small but critical pot of money that enables SOCOM’s worldwide activities is called “Section 1208 (Support to Foreign Forces).” Section 1208 authorizes the DoD “to reimburse foreign forces, groups, or individuals supporting or facilitating ongoing counterterrorism military operations by U.S. special operations forces.” While the Obama administration did not request any changes to Section 1208 authority, the bill increases Section 1208 funding from $35 million to $40 million for FY 2010.
Growth is always a challenge for special operations, since SOF personnel and units cannot be mass produced, and cannot be created after emergencies occur. In his 2009 SOCOM Posture Statement, Olson noted that “SOF cannot grow more than three to five percent per year in those key units and capabilities that must be developed within our own organizational structures and training pipelines.” This goal is being rapidly met, thanks to the growth plan mandated and confirmed in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). In every SOCOM component command, there is steady and measured growth ongoing as this edition goes to press. From new squadrons of CV-22 tilt-rotor transports being formed to new battalions of Special Forces soldiers standing up, America’s special operations forces are becoming stronger and more dominant than at any time in history.
SOCOM continued its drive to support modernization of allied SOF forces in 2009 when they signed a new memorandum of understanding with the Polish armed forces during the NATO meeting in Krakow, Poland, in February. 2009 also saw SOCOM’s Joint Special Operations University hosting the Sovereign Challenge conference with more than 130 personnel from 50 countries, focusing on creating strategies to combat terrorism. There also was time in 2009 to remember past achievements, including the 20th Anniversary of Operation Just Cause, the 1989 invasion of Panama. Just Cause was SOCOM’s first major joint operation following its creation, and showed the potential of SOF in future conflicts. From the rescue of businessman Curt Muse (Operation Acid Gambit), to the destruction of Manuel Noriega’s private jet and yacht by Navy SEALs, SOF units performed ably throughout.
Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC)
Headquartered at Hurlburt Field, Fla., AFSOC is one of the 10 Air Force major commands. Led by Lt. Gen. Donald C. Wurster since November 2007, AFSOC has approximately 16,000 active, Reserve, Air National Guard, and civilian personnel. Wurster is a command pilot with more than 4,000 flying hours in both combat search and rescue (CSAR) and special operations aviation aircraft. Maj. Gen. Kurt A. Cichowski (a command pilot with more than 3,400 flying hours) is vice commander, and Michael P. Gilbert is the command chief master sergeant. Some important subordinate units (under the umbrella of the 23rd Air Force, which stood up at Hurlburt on Jan. 25, 2008) include:
•1st Special Operations Wing (Hurlburt Field, Fla.)
•27th Special Operations Wing (Cannon AFB, N.M.)
•919th Special Operations Wing (Duke Field, Fla. This Reserve unit provides MC-130E aircraft supporting U.S. SOCOM helicopter refueling requirements.)
•352nd Special Operations Group (Royal Air Force Mildenhall, U.K., is the Air Force component for Special Operations Command-Europe.)
•353rd Special Operations Group (Kadena Air Base, Japan, is the Air Force component for Special Operations Command-Pacific.)
•720th Special Tactics Group (Hurlburt Field, Fla., trains, organizes, and equips the 800 combat controllers, special operations weathermen, and pararescuemen for special tactics squadrons.)
•18th Flight Test Squadron (Hurlburt Field, Fla., with a detachment at Edwards AFB, Calif.)
Cannon AFB, in the remote northeastern corner of New Mexico, has proven to be a particularly important asset for AFSOC in recent years. In 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure commission recommended that Cannon Air Force Base be closed. Fortunately, the expansion of Air Force special operations came to the rescue. With superb flying weather and excellent infrastructure, Cannon is an ideal location for AFSOC basing and training. The base itself sits on 3,789 acres of land, and the Melrose Range training area is 60,010 acres. Operations on Melrose Range also cover an additional area of 2,500 square miles of airspace.
A vital recapitalization program for AFSOC is the replacement of the wide variety of aging C-130 airframes that make up a large portion of the force structure. The venerable “Herky Bird,” which first flew in 1954, recently set a record for the longest continuous production run of any military aircraft in history. Funds are currently budgeted for replacement of the 37 oldest aircraft with new production C-130J “Super Hercules” models. The Air Force also awarded a $470 million contract in mid-June 2008 to Lockheed Martin for six modified KC-130J aircraft for use by Special Operations Command. These C-130J variants will replace aging HC-130s and MC-130s. With modern digital avionics (including head-up displays for each pilot) the J-model significantly reduces crew requirements – typically, two pilots, one loadmaster, and one crew chief – no navigator or flight engineer. An additional 15 J-model birds are scheduled to be purchased to replace the oldest of the AC-130 gunships; this time armed with air-to-ground missiles and a 30 mm cannon.
In addition, 2009 saw the CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor proving its worth in both Marine and AFSOC service. The first operational CV-22 was delivered to 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla., in January 2007, with a total of 50 CV-22 aircraft scheduled to be delivered by 2017. In late 2008, AFSOC deployed four CV-22 aircraft of the 8th Special Operations Squadron to Bamako, Mali, in Africa to support Flintlock 09, a training exercise designed to build relationships and to enhance Trans-Saharan nations’ ability to patrol and control their territory. The exercise marked an important milestone for the CV-22s as their first operational deployment. Since that time, Osprey operations have continued to grow in significance and complexity, taking their place alongside other tactical rotorcraft in combat across the globe.
One more unique event occurred within AFSOC in 2009. In June, the 3rd Special Operations Squadron (SOS-the “Dragons”), which moved to Cannon AFB in 2008, won the award as AFSOC’s top squadron in 2008. What makes this so very special is that the 3rd SOS flies the MQ-1 Predator UAV that has proved so effective and deadly since 9/11. Every month in 2008, the Dragons flew more hours than the rest of AFSOC combined, and have done so with the largest UAV force in the U.S. Air Force. AFSOC is also standing up additional UAV units, including the 2nd SOS, an Air National Guard unit that will fly the new MQ-9 Reaper.
Another decoration of note in 2009 went to Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner, a combat controller who earned an Air Force Cross for his actions in the Shok Valley of Afghanistan in 2008. In addition, three Bronze Stars and seven Air Force Combat Medals were awarded to combat controllers of the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron in a ceremony held at Hurlburt Field in October. Finally, 2009 saw another first in AFSOC: a female squadron commander. Lt. Col. Brenda Cartier assumed command of the 4th SOS, which flies the AC-130U “Spooky” gunship.
Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC)
Historically, the Marines have been a bit skeptical about SOCOM. After all, if you ask any Marine, you will be reminded that all Marines are “special.” But since its establishment in February 2006, MARSOC has stepped up to the manifold tasks of being a SOCOM component with customary dedication and professionalism. Based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., MARSOC has a strength of about 2,500 Marines and sailors. The command is led by Maj. Gen. Paul E. Lefebvre, who became its third commander when he relieved Maj. Gen. Mastin M. Robeson on Nov. 20, 2009. The command sergeant major is Richard W. Ashton.
MARSOC now includes five major subordinate units:
•The Marine Special Operations Advisor Group
•1st Marine Special Operations Battalion (at Camp Pendleton, Calif.)
•2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion (at Camp Lejeune, N.C.)
•The Marine Special Operations Support Group
•The Marine Special Operations School
MARSOC took over its own purpose-built headquarters facility during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in April 2009. That month also saw another important milestone, when 50 Marines graduated from the first MARSOC Individual Training Course.
Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM)
Naval Special Warfare Command is located near San Diego, Calif., at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, and is commanded by Rear Adm. Edward G. Winters, III, USN, who assumed his duties on Sept. 5, 2008. Winters’ deputy commander is Rear Adm. Garry Bonelli, USN. NAVSPECWARCOM has about 5,400 active-duty personnel, including about 2,450 SEALs and 600 Special Warfare Combatant Craft crewmen, plus some 1,200 reservists.
NAVSPECWARCOM is organized into six major components:
•Naval Special Warfare Center (Headquarters and Schoolhouse – Coronado, Calif.)
•Naval Special Warfare Group 1 (SEALs – Coronado, Calif.)
•Naval Special Warfare Group 2 (SEALs – Little Creek, Va.)
•Naval Special Warfare Group 3 (SEAL Delivery Vehicles (SDVs) – Coronado, Calif.)
•Naval Special Warfare Group 4 (Special Boat Teams (SBTs) – Little Creek, Va.)
•Naval Special Warfare Group 11 (Naval Reserve SEALs – Coronado, Calif.)
For a command that traditionally shuns publicity, 2009 was a year of highly visible success with the aforementioned rescue of Phillips on April 12. On Aug. 14, the lifeboat from this incident was placed on display at the U.S. Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Fla. Columbia Pictures has reportedly acquired the rights to make a film for possible release in 2010 about Phillips and his rescue. Another positive indicator of NAVSPECWARCOM’s performance in combat was the award of a Silver Star to Chief Petty Officer Mitchell Hall, a SEAL, for actions in al Anbar province in 2007.
NAVSPECWARCOM units participated in a number of specialized training operations in 2009, showcasing their maritime SOF skills. As part of Operation Northern Edge in June, SEALs from the west coast exercised with the Army’s Task Force 49 in the largest exercise held on the vast Alaska training ranges. In November, members of Special Boat Team 20 spent three weeks assisting crewmen from the USS Peleliu (LHA 5) and USS Dubuque (LPD 8) hone their boarding tactical skills prior to a scheduled deployment. Special Boat Team 22 crews also received a visit from the Romanian Navy’s chief of staff Adm. Gheorghe Marin – who was being hosted by Bonelli – while training at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
Along with their achievements during combat operations, NAVSPECWARCOM personnel also participated in a number of disaster/humanitarian efforts in 2009. When a devastating tropical storm struck the Manila area in late September, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, members of Navy SEAL teams and Naval Special Boat Teams 12 and 20 attached to the task Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, responded, working to rescue people from rooftops, deliver food, and distribute medical supplies. Joint task force rescue teams launched two F-470 Zodiac boats into the floodwaters and transported people to evacuation shelters 24/7.
U.S. Army Special Operations Command – Airborne (USASOC)
Headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C., USASOC is led by Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, Jr., who assumed command on Nov. 7, 2008. USASOC’s deputy commander is Brig. Gen. Raymond P. Palumbo, while Command Sgt. Maj. Parry Baer serves as the top-ranking NCO.
USASOC has seven main components:
•U.S. Army Special Forces Command (popularly known as “Green Berets”);
•John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (the “school house” for Special Forces);
•75th Ranger Regiment;
•160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (the “Nightstalkers”);
•Special Operations Support Command;
•4th Psychological Operations Group; and
•95th Civil Affairs Brigade.
Although the demanding cycle of combat deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other venues dominated 2009 for USASOC, the year saw Army special operations warriors training, fighting, and conducting humanitarian assistance missions around the globe. They also took some time to celebrate their 20th birthday as a major Army command in December. 2009 saw impressive growth in the structure of USASOC, with 3rd Special Forces Group standing up its 4th Battalion, and the activation of the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion.
USASOC personnel received their share of combat decorations durin the year, including a pair of Silver Stars awarded to Staff Sgt. Linsey Clarke and Master Sgt. Anthony Siriwardene of the 3rd Special Forces Group for actions in Afghanistan in February. In addition, Staff Sgt. Michael Morton, a squad leader in the 75th Ranger Regiment, received a Silver Star for his own actions in Afghanistan.
Regional SOF Components
While the service components of SOCOM select, train, and organize SOF units, it is the SOF component commands of the unified combatant commands that actually package and take them into battle. As such, each of the unified combatant commands has its own SOF component, commanded by a senior special operations officer who provides command, control, and support for deployed special warfare units. 2009 was perhaps their busiest year of the past decade, as they provided SOF units for a wide variety of operations, from training and battle lab experiments to combat and disaster/humanitarian relief operations.
Special Operations Command Joint Forces Command (SOCJFCOM)
Headquartered in Norfolk, Va., Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) evolved from U.S Atlantic Command (1947-1999). JFCOM has a strong SOF-centric focus, as show by the fact that the current deputy commander of JFCOM is Lt. Gen. Keith M. Huber, USA, whose unconventional warfare assignments included a tour as a Special Forces Operational Detachment team leader in Panama. He served two tours as a field advisor in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and as the chief of operations for the United Nations mission in Haiti. JFCOM’s deputy commander until 2009 was Vice Adm. Robert S. Harwood, a career SEAL who was the first commander of Task Force K-BAR in Afghanistan.
The Special Operations component of JFCOM is located in Suffolk, Va., and performs key tasks that include:
•Train joint task force and geographic combatant commanders and staffs;
•Train theater SOF units and joint special operations task forces commanders and staffs;
•Collect and report operational insights and lessons learned;
•Support JFCOM missions specified in the Unified Command Plan (mainly to be the “transformation laboratory” for developing testing and training new concepts); and
•Facilitate JFCOM-SOCOM interaction and cooperation.
The leadership of SOCJFCOM passed from Army to Air Force for the first time in July 2009 when Col. Wesley L. Rehorn, USA, relinquished command to Col. David A. Mullins, USAF. Mullins is a 1984 graduate of the Air Force Academy and a command pilot with more than 6,500 flying hours. One of Mullins’ tasks will be to standup a JFCOM Irregular Warfare Academic Center of Excellence to apply the work of many academic institutions studying counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, stability operations, unconventional operational methods, and hybrid warfare.
Special Operations Command – Central (SOCCENT)
With ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a strategically vital area of responsibility wracked by many other conflicts, SOCCENT faces immense challenges. Army Maj. Gen. Charles Cleveland commands more than 7,000 personnel, and serves as the senior special operations advisor to Gen. David Petraeus, the CENTCOM commander. SOCCENT Forward is located in Qatar, with SOF in Afghanistan under a Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force headquartered near Bagram air base north of Kabul, and camps near Kandahar in the south and Khost in the east. Requirements of operational security make SOCCENT understandably publicity-shy (their CENTCOM Web page is blank), but there are a few events of note in 2009 that were made public, particularly in Iraq.
As American forces continued their drawdown in 2009, improving the security forces of Iraq has been a priority within Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula (CJSOTF-AP) through foreign internal defense (FID) missions. In 2009, this included two Special Forces A-Teams working with the Iraqi Emergency Response Brigade to professionalize their selection and training programs. Similar CJSOTF-AP FID missions were conducted with Iraqi SWAT teams and the Iraqi 9th Regional Commando Battalion in al Anbar province. CJSOTF-AP also worked closely with personal security details, which have the critical mission of protecting the new leaders of Iraq in the post-Saddam era.
Special Operations Command – Europe (SOCEUR)
Headquartered at Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, SOCEUR is responsible for SOF readiness, targeting, exercises, plans, joint and combined training, NATO/partnership activities, and execution of counterterrorism, peacetime, and contingency operations. The commander of SOCEUR since May 2008 has been Maj. Gen. Frank Kisner, USAF, a command pilot with more than 5,000 flight hours. He will be relieved in 2010 by Maj. Gen. Michael Repass, USA, the present commander of U.S. Army Special Forces Command. Permanent SOCEUR components include:
•352nd Special Operations Group (USAF – Royal Air Force Mildenhall, U.K.)
•Naval Special Warfare Unit 2 (Panzer Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany)
•1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Stuttgart, Germany)
•SOCEUR Signal Detachment (Stuttgart, Germany)
SOCEUR is an active component of the forces assigned to fight in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and contributed forces to both in 2009. This included Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 10th Special Forces Group, which fought a vicious two-day firefight in Afghanistan in April. Teamed with a Romanian Special Forces unit, Bravo Company personnel earned two Bronze Stars and seven Army commendation medals for their actions. 2009 also saw the 65th anniversary of D-Day (June 6, 1944), with 300 airborne troops from SOCEUR jumping as part of the celebrations.
Special Operations Command – South (SOCSOUTH)
Based in Miami, Fla., U.S. Southern Command is responsible for 31 countries and 10 territories in Latin America and the Caribbean. SOCSOUTH is the special operations component of SOUTHCOM, responsible for special operation missions throughout the area of responsibility. SOCSOUTH commands, controls, and executes more than 75 SOF deployments per year, with an average of 20 missions in 12 countries at any time. Army Brig. Gen. Hector E. Pagan commands SOCSOUTH and is an experienced special warfare officer with combat experience in both Southwest Asia and Latin America. SOCSOUTH has four permanently assigned operational units:
•Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group
•Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment
•Naval Special Warfare Group 2 – Detachment South
•A Joint Special Operations Air Component
Over the past decade, SOCSOUTH has been among the most busy and successful of America’s SOF components, with a particular emphasis on the FID mission. SOCSOUTH’s long-term FID effort with Colombia has broken the back of the FARC insurgency over the past five years, with the added benefit of building a world-class SOF force for the host nation. This focus on FID has led to the yearly Fuerzas Commando competition, the sixth of which was hosted by Brazil in 2009. Twenty-one countries sent teams to what is rapidly becoming the pre-eminent SOF skills competition in the world today. In addition, MARSOC has begun to make itself felt in SOUTHCOM, with a 2009 marksmanship FID mission to the Dominican Republic by MSOG-2’s Marine Special Operations Team-8.
Special Operations Command – Pacific (SOCPAC)
Headquartered in Hawaii, U.S. Pacific Command has the largest geographic area of responsibility of any of the Unified Commands. SOCPAC, the special operations component of PACOM, is led by Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus, who assumed command at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii, in June 2009. He is a career SEAL officer, with multiple joint SOF duty assignments. Special Operations Command Korea (SOCKOR) is an important sub-component of SOCPAC. During wartime, SOCKOR combines with the Korean Special Warfare Command to form the Combined Unconventional Warfare Task Force. U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard S. Haddad assumed command of SOCKOR in April 2009. “Beef” Haddad is a command pilot with more than 5,000 flight hours, and has spent his entire career flying various models of the C-130 Hercules.
Other SOCPAC units include:
•1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Torii Station Garrison, Japan)
•353rd Special Operations Group (USAF-Japan)
•Navy Special Warfare Unit One (Guam)
•Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P – Camp Navarro,
JSOTF-P has been active in the region since early 2002, and has been extremely successful in its FID-based mission of supporting the Philippine government in its effect against Islamic insurgent groups like Abu Sayyaf. Much of their efforts in 2009 centered on community outreach in the southern Philippines, along with training in critical skills like bomb/improvised explosive device (IED) disposal. Sadly, JSOTF-P lost two Special Forces soldiers from 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group, to an IED in September, the first killed by such a weapon in the Philippines.
Special Operations Command – Africa (SOCAFRICA)
In August 2007, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) stood up a transitional headquarters that became the basis for SOCAFRICA. In August 2009, SOCAFRICA held its first change of command, when then-Col. (now Brig. Gen.) Christopher K. Haas, USA, relieved Brig. Gen. Patrick M. Higgins, USA, at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany. While SOCAFRICA is still in the process of maturing, one component of AFRICOM has been active since 2002: Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).
CJTF-HOA is presently the only permanent U.S. military presence on the African continent, located at Camp Lemonnier in the small east African nation of Djibouti. CJTF-HOA hosts a variety of SOF personnel, and is commanded by Rear Adm. Brian L. Losey, USN. Losey has operational experience in both SDV and SBTs, as well as the SEALs. In the words of its Mission Statement:
“CJTF-HOA employs an indirect approach to counter violent extremism. We conduct operations to strengthen partner nation and regional security capacity to enable long-term regional stability, prevent conflict and protect U.S. and coalition interests.”