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SOCOM at 25: The Future

Part 4 of 4

Undoubtedly, SOCOM will be called upon to do a lot more for the nation, with a few thousand more men and women operating in an environment of both constrained resources and heightened expectations.

With 66,000 soldiers and civilians, SOCOM’s budget remains below $11 billion in FY 2012, slightly less than 2 percent of the total Department of Defense (DoD) funding base. Several thousand new billets will be filled over the next few years, but the SOCOM budget will not rise in proportion. So the elite of the U.S. elite will still be a force multiplier: relatively under-resourced and strategically over-committed.

Adm. William H. McRaven, USN (SOCOM’s commander), has spent the past decade engaged in combat, and when he wasn’t fighting, he was inventing the interagency structures that SOCOM now uses to interface with the rest of the national security and intelligence establishments. Perhaps the most visible combatant commander since Gen. David Petraeus, USA (Ret.), McRaven has given the public a persona on which to project their enthusiasm and curiosity about special operations. This is a role that he clearly does not relish, but one that he does not take lightly.

A few weeks after he was sworn in as SOCOM commander, McRaven was in the Pentagon telling the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he had the privilege to be commanding the best trained, most experienced, most well-resourced special operations forces (SOF) in the history of the planet. SOCOM has spent the past 10 years learning, often the hard way, how to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat terrorist networks; it has tested the limits of human endurance, as well as the stress that military families can reasonably bear. McRaven set his expectations high.

Special Forces In Afghanistan

A U.S. Special Forces soldier from Special Operations Task Force-East scans the mountainside for potential threats during a battle in the Barge Matal district, Nuristan province, Afghanistan, May 20, 2011. The fighting occurred while the 2nd Commando Kandak and U.S. Special Forces conducted a clearing operation to rid the area of insurgents and demonstrate the reach of the Afghan government. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Justin Morelli

Presidents and their advisers since Ronald Reagan have relied upon SOCOM and the Special Mission Units (SMUs) of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in particular, as an immediate global striking mechanism. In the future, SOCOM will deploy more than 12,000 SOF soldiers, sailors, and airmen overseas to strategically placed “Lily Pad” bases to operate near denied areas. Theater combatant commanders will be able to call on them, more, to solve urgent problems that call for unique skills, and presidents will be able to call upon an expanded national missions force to focus on the conjoined problem sets of counterproliferation and counternarcotics. Both have the potential to eclipse terrorism and violent extremism as potentially existential national security threats, and SOCOM is the likely “go-to” force that will be called to deal with them. In addition, SOCOM units and personnel will be commingling and co-mixing with general purpose forces. Indeed, the next generation’s joint billet may well be a headquarters or downrange assignment at JSOC, whose footprint continues to expand.

By 2013, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) will have increased the number of its ready battalions 20 to 25 percent from just five years ago, owing to a heavy demand for indigenous foreign internal defense (FID) missions. The U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and the Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) have focused on achieving operational fluency with new platforms and technologies. The Air Force’s CV-22 Osprey has been relatively successful, while NAVSPECWARCOM’s efforts at an Advanced SEAL Delivery System have been less so. In the short term, however, no SOCOM component command will have the materiel support it will need to operate at full strength – which constitutes about 650 “teams” (including SEAL platoons, special tactics teams, and Operational Detachments-Alpha [ODA], three U.S. Army Ranger battalions, and a number of SMUs.

How then, to keep America’s SOF units truly special – capable, adaptable, and ready? In a word, policy. The shock of Sept. 11, 2001, allowed for an easy transition into the role of counterterrorism, but the next dozen years did not generate an equivalent event to react against. Only a series of diffuse irregular forces (jihadism, displaced peoples migration, the global narco-trade, etc.), and quasi-menacing nation-states (China and perhaps Russia), along with traditional enemies of the United States (Iran, North Korea, potentially Syria) presently stand on the scene to threaten America. Clearly in the near term, a smaller proportion of SOCOM deployments will fall under the U.S. Central Command’s purview. Most likely, Southern Command (for counternarcotics), Pacific Command(for counterterrorism and a variety of missions related to North Korea and China), and the joint task force in the Horn of Africa will see corresponding increases.

Special Forces In Afghanistan

Coalition special operations forces prepare to board CH-47 Chinook helicopters as part of a two-day presence patrol with Afghan Commandos from the 9th Kandak in Sar-e Takht village, Farah province, Feb. 27, 2012. SOF personnel work with 9th Kandak Commandos to protect local communities and eradicate insurgent activity in the region. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Kyle McNally

Still, Congress has spent little time devising a coherent force posture that fits SOF and SOCOM within the framework of these challenges, and the way the interagency processes have evolved to think about them. But it is no secret to close watchers of SOF that the command’s presence in Washington, D.C., is more muscular than it ever has been. In Arlington, Va., SOCOM has a Joint Interagency Intelligence Task Force for national-level missions, as well as a command post for SMUs. As Congress has grown more interested in the scope of SOCOM’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, the authorizing and oversight committees have asked for more information, both as a way of keeping watch over the powerful entity SOCOM has become, and as a way to proactively help the command with needed adjustment to legislation and authorities. McRaven and his deputies now brief more members of Congress on SOCOM missions of all types than ever before. His relationship with the intelligence and armed services committees is rock-solid and mutually respectful.

Having presided over much of the recent military intelligence convergence on the battlefield, McRaven will certainly work in the future to institutionalize so-called “Title 60” operations, where traditional intelligence collection and covert action conducted by the Central Inteligence Agency (CIA, under Title 50) will meld seamlessly, with Congress appropriately informed. In 2005, Congress expanded SOCOM’s authorities under the large umbrella of “operational preparation of the environment” to such an extent that intelligence officers can recruit informants and directly train foreign fighters to act as paramilitary proxies to (specifically) combat terrorism. Clearly, new rules are going to be needed, given the range of competing authorities and the significant ramp-up of intelligence-gathering activities.

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