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Worldwide SOF: Evolving to Meet Emerging Threats

In recent years, special operations forces (SOF) in many countries have moved from being a peripheral element of national security to being a central one. In today’s world, SOF units are bulwarks against terrorists, guerrillas, and narcotraffickers. Worldwide SOF now matter more and are being tasked with more challenging missions. As a result, even combat-experienced forces are now looking at new organizations, equipment, and tactics.

Of late, the most significant impact on worldwide SOF has been the power of the U.S. special operations model. The model of U.S. SOF has influenced counterparts worldwide, even those with their own traditions and combat-proven capabilities. This reflects the participation of SOF in the U.S.-led coalition efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, as well as the global interaction and training by their American counterparts. This has happened in parallel to the rise of an integrated headquarters for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) SOF. Worldwide, NATO and coalition SOF continue to demonstrate their capabilities – in Libya in 2011 and Mali in 2013 – even without the U.S. participation that is part of their operations in Afghanistan.

In the United States, SOF has carried much of the burden of both kinetic operations against terrorism and the training and interaction with friendly armed forces that have marked U.S. global security engagement since 2001. In 2010, Adm. Eric T. Olson, then the commander of SOCOM, stated that his command was working in 77 countries, including six considered “at risk.” The number increased to 79 by 2012.

Influenced by these changes, or their own reaction to a changing security environment, more countries have established joint SOF organizations. A range of non-kinetic missions requires investment and training; in a world dominated by a 24-hour news cycle, SOF kinetic action will have to be finely tuned. Specialized equipment, such as upgraded helicopters, reliable, long-range communications, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have revolutionized SOF capabilities. But other changes in the world are presenting challenges. Countries experiencing cuts in defense spending and force structures will find it attractive to rely on SOF to compensate, but this may not prove feasible.

 

SOCOM: Global Partner and Model

Afghan special forces

Afghan special forces await NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s visit to Camp Morehead, Afghanistan, April 12, 2012. ISAF photo by Maitre Christian Valverde, French Navy

The U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has been both a partner and a participant in these worldwide changes. SOCOM’s capabilities and successes over the past decade have been the result of much investment and hard-earned experience, a model of organization and the use of technology even to the most battle-hardened SOF worldwide. Despite the looming U.S. budget crisis, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta identified U.S. SOF as among the top priorities for investment. In a Feb. 6, 2013, speech at Georgetown University, Adm. William H. McRaven, the current SOCOM commander, was not bragging when he said, “Today’s special operations forces are the finest the world has ever seen.” In the United States, SOF has carried much of the burden of both kinetic operations against terrorism and the training and interaction with friendly armed forces that have marked U.S. global security engagement since 2001. In 2010, Adm. Eric T. Olson, then the commander of SOCOM, stated that his command was working in 77 countries, including six considered “at risk.” The number increased to 79 by 2012.

The United States has made an effort to reach out to foreign SOF. For the United States, there has been an increasing perception that encouraging highly capable foreign SOF communities meets U.S. policy interests in three broad areas: being able to defeat mutual threats; being capable of participating with the United States in coalition warfighting and antiterrorist campaigns; and being an effective participant in training, planning, and operations alongside U.S./multilateral/bilateral alliance structures. McRaven has emphasized the international outreach of his command to foreign SOF communities. “We’re trying to teach other nations how to deal with their own problems so they don’t grow violent extremists,” he said.

The strengthening of the U.S. Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs), organic to each regional combatant command (CCMD), has allowed for building on-the-ground relationships with the leadership of friendly SOF communities based on knowledge of their unique situations and conditions. This includes U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), the last CCMD to establish a TSOC, with relations with SOF in Mexico (where naval SOF is being developed with U.S. assistance) and other neighbors being presented as an important part of its mission. The U.S. Special Operations Liaison Officer program now provides links with 13 partner SOF communities. In spring 2012, SOCOM’s international SOF week in Tampa, Fla., brought together representatives from 96 countries, with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an after-dinner speaker highlighting the gatherings’ importance. All this is part of McRaven’s “Global SOF Initiative” program, designed to build relationships, capability, and capacity within U.S. partner nations and allies in the coming years of austere budgets and declining resources.

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