Lt. Gen. Kenneth E. Tovo was commissioned from the U.S. Military Academy into the infantry in 1983. After serving his initial tour with the 82nd Airborne Division, Tovo completed the Special Forces Qualification Course and transferred to Special Forces. He served as a Special Forces detachment, company, battalion, and group commander in the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne). Tovo’s additional assignments included serving as a plans officer with 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta and Joint Headquarters Center (NATO); aide-de-camp to the commander, Stabilization Force, Bosnia; chief of staff, U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC); deputy commanding general, Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR); deputy commanding general, 1st Armored Division/U.S. Division Center, Iraq; commanding general, Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT); and commanding general, Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan and NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (CSTC-A/NTM-A). Most recently, Tovo served as the military deputy commander of U.S. Southern Command in Miami, Florida. Tovo’s operational assignments include the first Gulf War, refugee relief operations in Northern Iraq, noncombatant evacuation operations in Sierra Leone, peacekeeping operations in Bosnia on two occasions, five tours in Iraq, and one tour in Afghanistan.
Special Operations Outlook: In a panel discussion at the October 2017 AUSA Annual Meeting, you outlined how the men and women in Army special operations forces – ARSOF – provide strategic value to the nation through a unique set of capabilities. Can you talk a little about that strategic value?
Lt. Gen. Kenneth E. Tovo: U.S. Army Special Operations Command [USASOC] provides the premier special operations forces [SOF] of choice for worldwide employment across the spectrum of conflict. We operate and fight as a joint force with operators and units serving as nodes in a global network. Each node contributes to greater SOF awareness of transregional trends, opportunities, or threats in support of joint force commanders, ambassadors, or other elements of the U.S. government. Our forces provide a suite of invaluable tools to the nation. ARSOF members deliver tactical, operational, and strategic value through what we call our four pillars of capability: an indigenous approach, precision targeting operations, developing understanding and wielding influence, and crisis response. Through these pillars, we offer strategic options that allow senior leaders to exploit emerging opportunities or to address a range of threats. Our soldiers are specifically selected and trained to endure the mental and physical rigors of operating in austere environments, bringing capabilities that are rapidly deployed, scalable, and have worldwide reach.
Can you talk about the four complementary capability sets? What are they and how do they support national objectives?
The four complementary capabilities – indigenous approach, precision targeting operations, developing understanding and wielding influence, and crisis response – are coupled with tailorable mission command nodes and scalable force packages that are low-signature and employ a small footprint. They are particularly suited for employment in politically sensitive environments.
We operate and fight as a joint force with operators and units serving as nodes in a global network.
Indigenous approach. Our forces are comprised of Special Forces [SF], Psychological Operations [PSYOPS], Civil Affairs [CA], Army Rangers, and other special operations troops. Many of our personnel and formations are regionally aligned. They employ advanced language skills and a high level of cultural and regional expertise. We live among, train with, advise, and fight alongside people of foreign cultures. We achieve effects on an enemy or an environment by working through or with indigenous partners. We think this indigenous approach provides a low-cost, high-impact option. It is a different way to view challenges to regional stability, viewing them as problems to be solved by empowered populations living in the region, using core tasks such as foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, and advise, assist, and accompany activities.
Precision targeting operations involve kinetic and non-kinetic direct action and counter-network activities enabled by SOF unique intelligence, targeting processes, and technology, to include ARSOF rotary-wing capabilities, armed unmanned aerial systems, and psychological operations. Precision targeting operations create precise physical and psychological effects and can be used to collapse human or physical networks through deliberate targeting of critical nodes. Precision targeting operations are employed against uniquely difficult target sets that may require operating in uncertain or hostile environments, careful and focused application of force, and significant intelligence and operational preparation. These operations are executed by highly trained, rapidly deployable, and scalable ARSOF personnel and formations that are employed to buy time and space for other operations to gain traction, such as transforming indigenous mass into combat power.
Our forces provide a suite of invaluable tools to the nation. ARSOF members deliver tactical, operational, and strategic value through what we call our four pillars of capability: an indigenous approach, precision targeting operations, developing understanding and wielding influence, and crisis response.
Developing understanding and wielding influence are essential aspects of the value ARSOF capabilities provide joint force commanders and the nation. The SOF network of personnel, assets, and international partnerships represents the means to obtain early understanding of emerging local, regional, transregional threats, and/or where opportunities exist for advancing U.S. objectives. The SOF network provides capabilities needed to influence outcomes in all campaign phases and especially in conflict short of overt war. Engagement worldwide allows ARSOF to develop long-term partner-nation relationships, and an advanced understanding of complex environments. Operating in culturally and politically complex environments requires ARSOF personnel to be adept at interacting and coordinating with multiple agencies and partners. Institutional training and education programs unique to ARSOF, along with long-term, regionally aligned employment, provide the expertise necessary to understand complex environments and the ability to influence people and circumstances.
The SOF network of personnel, assets, and international partnerships represents the means to obtain early understanding of emerging local, regional, transregional threats, and/or where opportunities exist for advancing U.S. objectives.
Crisis response, provided through CONUS and OCONUS stationed alert forces and persistently deployed and dispersed units, provides national decision makers with agile, tailorable, and rapidly employable ARSOF formations necessary to respond to emergencies unilaterally or in concert with our network of partners. These forces provide options to rescue people under threat, to recover sensitive materials, to provide humanitarian relief, or to address other short notice contingencies. ARSOF crisis response capabilities leverage the SOF network and partner-nation relationships established before crisis occurs. Persistent engagement develops relationships and the advanced understanding needed in times of crisis for ARSOF to effectively employ unilateral capabilities and those created during partner-force development. Through ARSOF crisis response, a small number of operators can rapidly address emergencies in an effort to enable host-nation solutions to local or regional security challenges.
ARSOF has evolved over the last 17 years of conflict. Do you see that evolution continuing into the next decade?
After more than 16 years of war, the operational effectiveness of ARSOF remains high. We have acknowledged that the future operating environment will continue to evolve with highly adaptive state and non-state adversaries seeking to challenge the status quo and our national interests. USASOC has refocused our training priorities to remain ready for the global counter-VEO [violent extremist orginization] mission, while also building and sustaining readiness for peer and near-peer threats, in both armed conflict and the competitive space short of war. Preventing or deterring hybrid conflict short of all-out war is demanding. It requires persistent forward engagement at points of vulnerability around the world. It requires soldiers to understand the political, cultural, and geographic complexities of austere operating environments and the unique challenges faced by our allies and partners. It also requires an advanced understanding of adversaries and how they are evolving in an effort to shift the competitive space to their advantage. In order to meet these requirements and to counter irregular and conventional warfare threats of the future, USASOC will continue to provide the nation with a portfolio of complementary capabilities enabled by institutional and operational agility.
We have acknowledged that the future operating environment will continue to evolve with highly adaptive state and non-state adversaries seeking to challenge the status quo and our national interests.
Can you talk a bit about how USASOC’s capabilities and approaches serve to complement conventional force capabilities?
In 2015, USASOC initiated efforts to improve the way in which conventional forces and SOF elements function together in training and operating environments. These efforts continue and build upon successes achieved in past years and through combined training around the world, including integration at the three Combat Training Centers, at warfighter exercises, and in professional military education, to name a few. In recent years, the U.S. Army has fielded forces for advise and assist missions by assigning elements from within brigade combat teams [BCTs] to fill partner capacity-building requirements, a mission the Army has had for more than 40 years. There is a capability gap when it comes to dedicated forces trained and available to meet geographic combatant command [GCC] partner building capacity demands. The U.S. Army is moving to address this through the establishment of security force assistance brigades [SFAB]. The SFABs will provide dedicated force structure to institutionalize the Army’s commitment to SFA and to meet GCC SFA demands without deconstructing the BCTs or degrading readiness. ARSOF is positioned to enable SFAB success through training efforts like providing SF, CA, and PSYOP cadre to the MATA [Military Advisor Training Academy] course, running the SFA Foreign Weapons Course at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, and other collaborative initiatives specifically designed to train conventional U.S. Army personnel.
Have the evolving USASOC capabilities been reflected in new supporting platforms?
USASOC is constantly evolving to meet the demands of the future operating environment. Our strategic framework is a time-phased approach and depicts our enduring mission responsibilities that extend across three time horizons, which include: ready the force and position them for the demands of the current operating environment; mature the force and advance ARSOF capabilities to meet mid-term demands; and invest in the future force by developing capabilities to meet challenges of the future operating environment. Regular assessments that include bottom-up feedback and top-down guidance will enable us to continually evaluate where we are and determine where we need to go.
Do you believe that USASOC is “right-sized” for current and projected operational tempos? If not, why not?
ARSOF employs empowered soldiers and integrated units capable of delivering ARSOF cross-functional teams across the range of modern warfare challenges, and leverages adaptive and innovative institutional capabilities to provide the joint force an enduring competitive edge over our nation’s adversaries. Recently approved growth will help fill critical personnel gaps and will assist us in maintaining a sustainable readiness model, making USASOC formations even more capable of supporting combatant commander directed missions.
USASOC is constantly evolving to meet the demands of the future operating environment.
How do you see the USASOC mission evolving in the future?
USASOC’s enduring mission is to man, train, equip, educate, organize, sustain, and support all Army special operations forces. USASOC 2035 Strategy objectives call for the development of technology, training, and other solutions to address current and future capability gaps. The future operating environment continues to evolve with highly adaptive state and non-state adversaries seeking to challenge the status quo of our national interests. The forms of conflict employed by adversaries in the future are expected to be hybrid in nature, blending conventional, irregular, and informational and cyber capabilities, and will more often challenge the stability of regions through indirect means. ARSOF will continue to play a key role in obtaining early understanding of emerging threats and in deploying a suite of capabilities to deter threats, control escalation of crises, and buy time and space for holistic solutions that call upon all elements of national power.
Will those missions require new capabilities?
We still have a number of initiatives in development that are related to personnel management, doctrine, training, and equipping. We will continue these initiatives as we take the next step to identify and obtain capabilities required by our formations in the future. Some specific capabilities we’re looking at include our next generation of rotary-wing aviation and unmanned aerial systems [UAS], counter-UAS, WMD tracking, mobility, and counter-integrated air defense systems. USASOC Strategy 2035 and the Campaign Plan that operationalizes it are designed to adapt to changing demands over time.
USASOC’s enduring mission is to man, train, equip, educate, organize, sustain, and support all Army special operations forces.
Are you able to identify any recent activities that bring a special sense of pride to your organization?
While there are numerous activities that bring a sense of pride, our indigenous approach capability is one in which our soldiers establish, develop, and advise partner forces. This is a deliberate effort that follows a methodology honed over the years of SOF capacity building in nations around the world. The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, or CTS, is a good example of successful partner forces. The CTS is a force established and developed by Army Special Forces in a capacity-building effort that started in 2003 and extends through today. The effort began with two battalions and grew into three Iraqi special operations brigades, a force generation institution, and a division-level command structure. Over years of engagement, Special Forces trainers established an initiative-based organizational culture in the CTS, driven by a will to win. The effort prepared the CTS to face ISIS and to transform their operating methodology to win against the new threat.
CTS forces were originally built and trained for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency precision raids. The fight against ISIS required the CTS to transform into a combined arms maneuver force that employs indirect fires and armor in a synchronized manner. They successfully made the transformation and continue to refine their tactics, techniques, and procedures based on lessons they learn from each battle with ISIS.
Today, the CTS consists of about 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and stands as the Iraqi government’s force of choice to lead attacks to retake cities from ISIS. Cities liberated by the CTS include Tikrit, Haditha, Ramadi, Hit, and Fallujah, and CTS played a key role in the recent liberation of Mosul. Partner capacity building takes time. Quality forces that endure and succeed cannot be created quickly. This was one approach in which we saw great successes.
Where are the greatest challenges of operating on a global basis?
Some of the greatest challenges include a constrained future operating environment, characterized by peer, near-peer, and non-state competitors, technologically advanced threats, ubiquitous surveillance, artificial intelligence-enabled battle networks, globally scaled and interconnected information, and the increasing relevance of people and populations in competition and conflict.
Partner capacity building takes time. Quality forces that endure and succeed cannot be created quickly.
Any other takeaway messages you would care to share about ARSOF?
ARSOF elements consistently fill more than 60 percent of all U.S. SOF deployments worldwide, deploying in more than 70 countries on any given day of the year, representing a force of approximately 33,000 and more than half of the nation’s SOF. In an era of uncertainty, ARSOF must continue to provide the nation with a portfolio of complementary capabilities to address future hybrid threats. ARSOF capabilities allow each of our soldiers to make and keep a promise to our nation – to protect the nation without fear, without fail, without equal.
This interview was originally published in the 2018-2019 edition of Special Operations Outlook.