Three decades ago, a campaign for the future of the U.S. military was being fought in Washington, D.C. Upon this battle depended the future of the American armed forces, and how they would fight for more than a generation. Like all wars worth fighting, it was fought by a small band of idealists. In this case, however, the idealists’ sworn enemies were those in their own country more than happy to accept a mediocre status quo. And finally, were the battle to be lost, America would lose the piece of its armed services it would most need in the wars of the early 21st century: special operations forces (SOF).
Awakening: Vietnam and After
It is sometimes hard to remember what a gut-wrenching national experience the Vietnam era was for the United States. Not since the Civil War had America been so ideologically divided as it was over Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and Watergate. And seemingly taking the blame for all these ills was the U.S. military. It was not fair or right, but that was the way it was in the late 1970s. Ironically, the final U.S. military action, the bloody Battle of Koh Tang Island in 1975, was conducted by helicopters that would become the MH-53 Pave Low SOF airframes and would serve into the first decade of the 21st century.
With those responsible for the political decisions of Vietnam either dead or in public exile, the only visible entity for a disillusioned American public to blame was its military. It took the national shame of the Iranian hostage crisis and Ronald Reagan being elected president for America to once again be supportive of its military. But that alone did not make America’s armed services a credible fighting force. And that is where the story really begins. The late 1970s was an unlikely time to begin a period of innovative military thinking in the United States, but that is exactly what happened. One of the key characters in this intellectual revolution was a freshman Republican U.S. senator from Maine, William S. Cohen, who had already served three terms in the House of Representatives prior to taking his senate seat in 1979.
Gaining assignments to both the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee, Cohen got an especially good look at the military and intelligence communities at the end of the 1970s, a time when both were in bad shape. Like a number of young legislators, then-Sen. Cohen had a desire to rebuild America’s national security, a movement led by the legendary Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, D-Wash., Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Barry M. Goldwater, R-Ariz. Fortunately, there was in Congress and around Washington, D.C., at the time, a group who tried to educate each other and exchange ideas. Today, Cohen remembers the Military Reform Caucus with fondness.
“As early as 1979 or 1980, there was a group of us on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees called the Military Reform Caucus,” Cohen said in an interview, “and it had people like Newt Gingrich, Gary Hart, and myself, along with a bunch of other folks, that were interested in military affairs. It really wasn’t a caucus as such, not getting together as a group or anything like that, but a loose affiliation of like-minded people saying, ‘Let’s challenge the way we are doing business, and see if we can do it better. Let’s see if we can’t get ahead of the curve, and see if we can’t do things differently than today. At least examine them and see if there is merit to changing what we are doing today.’”
Unfortunately, not everyone in Washington was happy with such an open conversation on the composition and structure of the American armed forces. The senior leadership of the armed services watched with concern as caucus members spoke to groups, appeared on television, wrote books and articles, and generally got people thinking about defense in general, and SOF in particular.
“I was rather surprised to find out that I, and those of us who went out and spoke about defense reform to the Rotarians and all the other service clubs, would about a week later find a high-level officer from one of the services coming out publicly and really criticizing us for our views,” Cohen said. “I remember thinking, ‘We’re trying to get a dialogue going. We’re not trying to disrupt things, we want to examine things!’ They were keeping track of all of us, where we were and what we were saying, and it struck me that ‘something is wrong with this picture.’”
It was the wake-up call that Congress in the 1970s and 1980s was not just going to hand the military a blank check without major changes to the way they fought and did business.
Rock Bottom: Desert One to Grenada
While Cohen and his peers were having their first real discussions on the potential of SOF in a reformed U.S. military, the spectre of the post-Vietnam cuts came back to haunt America. In November 1979, Iranian “students” occupied the American embassy complex in Tehran and took the entire staff hostage. Then, just weeks later, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in a surprise airborne and armored assault, which took the entire world by surprise. For the United States, it was the beginning of an involvement in Southwest Asia that continues to this day.
The most immediate issue, the hostages from the American Embassy in Tehran, became the problem for an ad hoc Joint Task Force (JTF) at the Pentagon. The JTF’s hope was that the Army’s newly commissioned counterterrorism force, known as Special Forces Detachment-Delta (SFD-D), could be inserted into Tehran, free the hostages, and be extracted to freedom. Technically what became known as a “Special Mission Unit” or SMU, and also known as the “Delta Force,” SFD-D had just come online the day before the hostages, were taken, and went to work to get ready. However, as good as SFD-D was, it was a long way to Tehran, and getting the SMU in, and then retrieving them and the hostages, proved to be beyond the capabilities of the U.S. military in 1980.