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SOCOM: 2012 Year in Review

The year 2012 was a special one for SOCOM. While it continued its nearly worldwide fight against terrorism and extremism, it also celebrated several important anniversaries: the 50th anniversaries of Army Special Forces and the Navy’s SEAL teams, the 70th anniversaries of Army Rangers and Marine Corps Raider Battalions, and the 25th anniversary of the Special Operations Command itself. It also marked a change of leadership for U.S. Army Special Operations Command when Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland Jr., after having served three years in the post, relinquished command to Lt. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland. It was a busy year, with personnel conducting a wide variety of missions, night and day, in Southwest Asia. It was one of growth and change, with Naval Special Warfare (NSW) deploying for the first time a female Cultural Support Team and Air Force Special Operations Command launching the 24th Special Operations Wing to meet the growing capability demand. And it had its share of controversy, with a former SEAL who participated on the Osama bin Laden raid releasing his firsthand account of that mission, and a small group of active-duty SEALs providing technical support to a video game company, for which they were disciplined.

A coalition force member speaks with a villager during a presence patrol in Farah province, Afghanistan, Dec. 16, 2012. The coalition forces conducting the presence patrol are deployed to train and mentor Afghan National Security Forces in their area. Afghan National Security Forces have been taking the lead in security operations, with coalition forces as mentors, to bring security and stability to the people of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Pete Thibodeau

A coalition force member speaks with a villager during a presence patrol in Farah province, Afghanistan, Dec. 16, 2012. The coalition forces conducting the presence patrol are deployed to train and mentor Afghan National Security Forces in their area. Afghan National Security Forces have been taking the lead in security operations, with coalition forces as mentors, to bring security and stability to the people of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Pete Thibodeau

The year kicked off with ceremonies on Jan. 1 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Navy SEALs. Starting with two teams, SEAL Team One based in San Diego, Calif., and SEAL Team Two in Little Creek, Va., NAVSPECWARCOM has grown to now include five Naval Special Warfare Groups, 10 SEAL teams, a SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team, three Special Warfare Units, several training centers, two Logistics and Support Groups, numerous detachments and three Special Boat Teams. Over those 50 years, SEALs have conducted many memorable, and many still classified, missions – their greatest possibly being the 2011 mission that ended the life of Osama bin Laden.

While “kinetic” operations such as the bin Laden raid grabbed headlines, U.S. special operations forces (SOF) continued the more common, and arguably more important and effective work, of the “indirect approach” around the world. Population-centered counterinsurgency (COIN) in areas such as the Philippines have garnered major success, and such efforts are arguably worth more investment so that the nation can avoid spending even more, in both blood and treasure, later. The vital indirect approach included training and exchange programs and international and joint exercises in 2012. Foal Eagle, Fused Response, Emerald Warrior, Joint Combined Exchange Training, Eager Lion, Jackal Stone, and Fuerzas Comando continued the global COIN and foreign internal defense training that is the “new normal.”

March was a particularly busy month for exercises, when three – Foal Eagle, Fused Response, and Emerald Warrior – were on the schedule. In Foal Eagle, held in March at Jinhae Harbor on South Korea’s southeastern coast, U.S. Navy SEALs from Naval Special Warfare Group 1 (NSWG 1) based in Coronado teamed with Republic of Korea (ROK) SEAL Team 3 and a crew from the 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Regiment, to conduct ship visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) antipiracy drills.

Over a two-day period, the teams performed fast-rope drills in the day and night, rappelling quickly from an MH-47 Chinook hovering about 10 feet above the exercise ship’s deck, then fanning out to thoroughly search the vessel for “pirates.” With international global piracy being a major threat that won’t go away anytime soon, training like this is essential.

Republic of Korea Navy SEALs from the Korean Naval Special Warfare Brigade assault the aft deck of the AOE-59 Hwacheon - a Korean naval refueling vessel - in Jinhae Harbor, Republic of Korea, March 20, 2012, as part of Foal Eagle 2012 - a multinational, joint-service exercise focusing on tactical-based warfare throughout the peninsula of Korea. Both U.S. and ROK Navy SEALs fast-roped out of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter and conducted visit, board, search, and seizure training to demonstrate the interoperability between the two forces. U.S. Army photo by Capt. Michael Odgers

Republic of Korea Navy SEALs from the Korean Naval Special Warfare Brigade assault the aft deck of the AOE-59 Hwacheon – a Korean naval refueling vessel – in Jinhae Harbor, Republic of Korea, March 20, 2012, as part of Foal Eagle 2012 – a multinational, joint-service exercise focusing on tactical-based warfare throughout the peninsula of Korea. Both U.S. and ROK Navy SEALs fast-roped out of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter and conducted visit, board, search, and seizure training to demonstrate the interoperability between the two forces. U.S. Army photo by Capt. Michael Odgers

As might be expected, getting aboard a ship ASAP is essential. “Mike,” one of the U.S. Navy SEALs participating in the exercise, said, “If we do it right, we can get 15 guys onto the ship in 30 seconds or less.”

Lt. (senior grade) Lee, a platoon leader from ROK SEAL Team 3, noted the importance of the international aspect of the exercise. “It’s critical to share tactics like this to make sure we’re on the same page and I hope to have similar training like this in the future.”

NSWG 1 Commander Van Wennan, participating in his second Foal Eagle exercise, agreed. “The VBSS has been the primary focus of the last two exercises. We teach and learn from them – really a two-way street. We’ve had a long relationship with the ROK Naval Special Warfare community and we hope to sustain that relationship for a long time to come.”

Fused Response, held March 1-9, was a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored exercised designed to build upon the command’s relationship with the Guyana Defense Forces (GDF) and improve military skills and the ability to respond to security challenges, including transnational organized crime and illicit trafficking of humans, drugs, and other contraband. 2012’s exercise was the largest yet, with about 200 GDF personnel and 350 U.S. military personnel participating. “We were exposed to a lot of training,” Sgt. Maj. Cleveland O’Brien of the GDF Special Warfare School said. “We got a clearer idea of how to conduct a mission, so in the event that something should happen in our own country, we know how to plan and execute the mission.”

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...