Army special operations forces (ARSOF) provide strategic value to the nation through a unique set of capabilities and approaches that serve to complement not only conventional force capabilities but also those of interagency partners. Outlining this role at the October 2017 Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exposition, Lt. Gen. Kenneth E. Tovo, commanding general, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, offered, “I believe that, when mixed together appropriately – depending on the appropriate measure; depending on the requirements of the environment in a particular operational area – that we form a symbiotic whole between the conventional joint force, special operations forces, the interagency, and our partners and allies.”
To illustrate that point, Tovo led a panel discussion titled “Army Special Operations Value to the Nation.” In addition to panelists from across the ARSOF community, the 2017 gathering featured participation by Ambassador [Hon.] Geoffrey R. Pyatt, United States ambassador to the Hellenic Republic, United States Embassy, Athens, Greece, and previously assigned as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during a key period of Russian aggression.
Pyatt used his own experiences in both ambassadorial roles to highlight interaction with the special operations community.
“I start with a very simple idea,” he began, “that in a world of diffuse power and shifting threats, most of the challenges that I believe we are going to see to American national security interests in the years ahead are going to happen on the seam between diplomacy and hard power – in the gray areas. And in these gray area conflicts, my experience has been that the critical relationship is the relationship and the partnership between Special Forces and the State Department Foreign Service.”
“… most of the challenges that I believe we are going to see to American national security interests in the years ahead are going to happen on the seam between diplomacy and hard power – in the gray areas.”
Pyatt pointed to “great commonality” between the organizational ethos of Special Forces and those of the Foreign Service, noting, “It was drilled into us from our very first tours that the most important word in that organizational title was ‘foreign,’ and [we share] the same commitment to cultural understanding, local knowledge, and persistent and repeated overseas deployments in order to acquire the relationships that we need to be effective overseas.”
He noted that both of his ambassadorial assignments had taken place “in states/countries at the frontier between Europe – the Europe of values and democracy – and Eurasia, and all the challenges that arise from the Eurasian landmass,” adding, “And, although these are two very different countries in terms of their national histories and where they are now, in both places I have benefited from an extremely close partnership with SOCEUR [Special Operations Command Europe].”
Pyatt said that his experience as chief of mission had shown him “key attributes that the Special Forces bring which are useful to an ambassador and to a country team working overseas.”
“The most important is agility/speed/flexibility; the capacity to respond, as Gen. Tovo described, to a quickly breaking conflict or challenge,” he said. “The second is precision: the ability to be highly targeted in how we respond to a challenge. And the third, and critically important – and I have had a very positive experience with Special Forces in SOCEUR – on the question of chief of mission authority.
“I think that the best U.S. government interagency decision-making forum that has been invented is the overseas country team,” he continued. “It’s where we bring knowledge together and [bring] the full capacity of the United States government to bear. And I’ve been very grateful for the strong ethos that I’ve found in working with SOCEUR in terms of working with chiefs of mission and ensuring thereby that we are all aligned in terms of operations and objectives.”
Pyatt said that his experience in Ukraine involved three key elements of the partnership between Department of State and U.S. Special Forces.
“I think that the best U.S. government interagency decision-making forum that has been invented is the overseas country team.”
He explained, “The first was a fairly traditional train and equip mission, bringing Ukrainian Spetsnaz up to NATO special forces standards. This was actually a request that came directly from President [Petro] Poroshenko to then-Vice President [Joe] Biden in his very first day in office, at the inauguration. He said, ‘I’d like American help to develop “a real special forces.”’ But it was also highly customized, because it wasn’t taking a force from zero. It was taking an existing force and trying to reorient it into NATO organizational standards. The second pillar of our Special Forces program in Ukraine was an adviser requested by the Ukrainian CHOD [Chief of Defense] to help him to think about how to use this NATO model of special forces in his larger campaign plan. Again, that was a specific request from the government that SOCEUR responded to very quickly. And then the third was our MIST [Military Information Support Team].”
He characterized his experience in Ukraine as “particularly relevant,” adding, “If you look at the history of the Russian hybrid campaign in Ukraine going back to 2014, one of the defining aspects of it was the weaponization of information.
“One of the things that has always stuck with me is that, when you look back on the GRU [Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate] and Russian special forces teams [that] came into Crimea and then came into [the] Donbass [area of Ukraine] in the spring and summer of 2014, one of the very first things they did was go to the local television stations, where they pulled out all of the [transmitter] racks and plugged in ready-to-go electronics decks that were preprogrammed to bring in Russian broadcasting,” he said. “That is a signal to us of how important that informational campaign was to the overall Russian approach to hybrid warfare. The MIST team was particularly useful in the Ukrainian context at the time because it helped you take what had been a highly insular Soviet traditional military – which wasn’t very good at messaging outward – and our military helped the Ukrainian military develop a messaging and informational campaign aimed both at their own forces but also at the local communities. It was done with sensitivity. It was done with great coordination with my embassy public affairs team.”
He acknowledged a number of challenges, including an internal fear by some of his Department of State colleagues “who were worried about how we would manage the integration of the military effort with the traditional State Department informational effort. But in retrospect, it was highly effective and I think made an important and timely difference.”
“The MIST team was particularly useful in the Ukrainian context at the time because it helped you take what had been a highly insular Soviet traditional military – which wasn’t very good at messaging outward – and our military helped the Ukrainian military develop a messaging and informational campaign aimed both at their own forces but also at the local communities.”
His subsequent experience in Greece has been entirely different but equally significant in demonstrating the power of a combined team approach.
“Greece, of course, is a very different country,” he explained. “It’s a long-standing NATO ally. But also it is a country that is facing a shifting security environment with challenges and increasingly geared toward things like migration, transnational terror groups, and maritime security. These are topics which are inherently interagency in nature – they cross stovepipes – and they require coordination, in the Greek case, for instance, between the military, the Coast Guard, and the police and border forces.”
Pyatt said that the past two years had included “more than 30 Special Forces engagements” in this environment, stating, “The one thing I have taken from that experience in Greece is the great value of Special Forces as an influence multiplier, because of how these engagements have allowed us, the wider country team, to bring in all different elements of the Greek government, modeling interagency cooperation [and] fostering cooperation and trust in a way that pays dividends, both in terms of the effectiveness of our Greek allies when called upon but also in terms of developing a common understanding of threats and responses.”
He continued, “As these special forces deployments have helped to sensitize our Greek allies to American threat perceptions and American models of interagency coordination, they have also provided a venue for us to learn, to hear from our Greek allies how they see the security environment and how they are dealing with these emerging challenges. These are programs with a very, very high return on investment – bang for the buck. They don’t cost a lot of money but they get a lot done. And the result with Greece is that we are now moving into new areas of cooperation that would have been difficult or even impossible to imagine just two or three years ago in terms of our military cooperation on a broad range of issues.”
He noted that the Greek programs “have also helped to foster jointness inside the Greek system, which is critically important, as we want Greece to be a strong ally in a part of the world that crosses multiple U.S. security challenges. You look to the eastern Mediterranean, the challenge of ISIS. You look to the Black Sea and the Balkans and the challenge of Russian malign influence. And you look to the southern Mediterranean and the challenge of ISIS and instability coming up from the Maghreb and Libya in particular.
“This partnership is particularly lucrative in the Greek case because of the platform that we enjoy at Souda Bay, which is both an indispensable enabler of U.S. military operations in the eastern Mediterranean region but also a critical venue for our forces to work together and become better allies and better partners,” he said.
“These are programs with a very, very high return on investment – bang for the buck. They don’t cost a lot of money but they get a lot done.”
Finishing his thoughts “where [he] started,” he summarized, “This is a critical partnership relationship between the State Department and our Special Forces. And I am extremely grateful, at least in my own experience, for the asset that Special Forces provides to the nation in the advancement of our foreign policy objectives. I know that our Greek allies are also extremely, extremely appreciative at the quality of the cooperation that we can build in the Special Forces domain.”
Pyatt concluded, “In a world of asymmetric threats, the United States needs a flexible response. And that flexible response needs to bridge the world that I live in, of diplomacy, and the world that Gen. Tovo [and other special operations leaders] live in, of military response. And I think we’ve got a pretty good template for how we need to go forward together.”
This article was originally published in the 2018-2019 edition of Special Operations Outlook.