At the risk of sounding trite, the fin de siècle of the 20th century was one of enormous transition. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, it seemed that the Cold War, which had dominated world politics for more than four decades, would finally – and peacefully – come to an end. The consequences were mind-boggling. Euphoric talk of a “peace dividend” – a cutback on Cold War-era defense expenditures – began being heard in the halls of power. But there were some who looked past the historic headlines, and what they saw was anything but a pacific sight. One month later, in December 1989 at the First Annual Symposium, SO/LIC Division, American Defense Preparedness Association in Alexandria, Va., Assistant Secretary of Defense James R. Locher III warned, “We as a nation will be tempted to conclude that peace is a global phenomenon, which it clearly is not.” He went on to say, “Armed conflict continues in Afghanistan, Angola, El Salvador, the Philippines, Cambodia, and the Andean Region. While the last decade has seen a dramatic shift from totalitarian regimes to freely elected governments, more than 40 insurgencies continue around the world.”
Conventional forces, configured to fight nation-states like the Soviet Union and its allies, were ill suited for this new reality. The last decade of the 20th century would reveal that the best weapon in America’s arsenal to overcome the challenges presented by low-intensity conflicts and military operations other that war – what has since been termed the “new normal” – was special operations.
“The coming decade will, in particular, place a major share of the responsibility for preserving our national interests squarely on the doorstep of those involved in special operations and low intensity conflict.”
– James R. Locher III, Assistant Secretary of Defense (Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict) Dec. 4, 1989
At the time Locher made his speech, he had about 20 years’ experience in both the legislative and executive branches of the government. Crucially, he had been instrumental in crafting the two landmark pieces of legislation that reorganized the military command structure and established Special Operations Command (SOCOM), popularly known as the Goldwater-Nichols Act and the Nunn-Cohen Amendment. He would remain active in matters concerning special operations and low-intensity conflicts until he left government service in 1993, at which time he received the Department of Defense Medal of Distinguished Public Service, the department’s highest civilian award. But Locher’s warning was not universally embraced by the powers then in place.
Though Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen had made the necessary legal and administrative changes, changing attitudes and a culture that had consistently downplayed or marginalized special operations forces (SOF) would take time.
That fact was emphasized when, on Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, annexed it as Iraq’s “19th province,” and appeared poised to invade Saudi Arabia. President George H.W. Bush responded with his “line in the sand” speech that called for Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, to order his army to leave Kuwait or be forced out militarily. Upon receiving permission from King Fahd to use Saudi Arabia as a base, Operation Desert Shield, the defense of Saudi Arabia by coalition forces led by the United States, began.
Central Command (CENTCOM), one of six regional warfighting commands and established in 1983, was responsible for the area that included Iraq and Kuwait. Its commander in 1990 was Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Unfortunately for SOCOM, as a result of some unfortunate experiences in the Vietnam War, Schwarzkopf disliked special operations forces. Because of Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen, Schwarzkopf was legally required to include a SOF component in his plans for Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm (the offensive campaign against Iraq).
SOCOM Commander Gen. Carl Stiner saw the conflict as an opportunity for special operations to really prove its mettle under the new command structure, but he was stymied by Schwarzkopf’s negative bias. Schwarzkopf was determined to keep the number of special operations troops as low as possible, and they would operate on a short leash. Ultimately, out of almost a million coalition troops used in Operation Desert Storm, only about 9,000 special operations troops were deployed. In addition, whereas other command officers on Schwarzkopf’s staff were flag officers, Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) Commander Jesse Johnson was a colonel, and thus the lowest man on the command totem pole.
Ironically, because of their rapid deployment capability, language skills, international joint operations expertise, and reconnaissance and communications experience, SOF units were among the first troops Schwarzkopf dispatched to the region. Though few in number, SOCOM was well represented. The most notable units included SEAL Team Two, a Special Boat Unit, 5th Special Forces Group, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and their support units. The tasks assigned these units ran the gamut: reconnaissance, training, and liaison with other nations’ forces, psychological warfare, and civil affairs, and they acted both independently and in coordination with conventional forces.