Defense Media Network

SOCOM: Finding Certainty in Uncertain Times

Like the rest of the U.S. military and the federal government as a whole, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) spent much of 2013 in a fog of uncertainty, unable to plan for a future that the administration and the Congress refused to define or agree upon. And much like the opening line of the literary classic A Tale of Two Cities, 2013 truly was for SOCOM and its component commands the best of times and the worst of times. After four years of living under the fiscal burdens of continuing resolutions, the threatened toxic effects of the Budget Control Act (BCA – better known as “sequestration”) became reality in 2013. Only the Herculean efforts of House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and their staffs allowed SOCOM and the rest of the Department of Defense (DoD) to avoid at the last possible minute the draconian fiscal cuts that were scheduled by the BCA for early 2014.

Nevertheless, 2013 was among the more difficult years on record for SOCOM, its component commands, and especially the theater special operations commands (TSOCs) and their staffs. In particular, the TSOCs endured a tough year during 2013, with the move to sequestration in the spring effectively gutting their theater engagement plans (TEPs) for most of the year.

Nevertheless, 2013 was among the more difficult years on record for SOCOM, its component commands, and especially the theater special operations commands (TSOCs) and their staffs. In particular, the TSOCs endured a tough year during 2013, with the move to sequestration in the spring effectively gutting their theater engagement plans (TEPs) for most of the year. In addition, despite the fine work of Ryan, Murray, and their staffs, fiscal years 2014 (FY 14) and 2015 (FY 15) are hardly going to be picnics compared to the steady and generous funding enjoyed by SOCOM in the last decade. The reality for SOCOM and the rest of the U.S. military is that the upside of the Ryan/Murray budget deal lies in one single quality: certainty. Despite very constricted Title 10 funding restrictions, the numbers are known, approved, and set through Oct. 1, 2015, and that is a level of budget certainty that has been unavailable for several years.

U.S. Special Operations Forces Member

A U.S. special operations forces member speaks with a villager from an overwatch position for Afghan National Army Special Forces helping Afghan Local Police build a checkpoint in Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 3, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Pete Thibodeau


2013: Challenges and Adm. McRaven’s
 Global SOF Network

A number of challenges, some from early in Adm. William H. McRaven’s tenure at SOCOM, came to the top of the command’s “to do” list. Some of these included:

  • Afghanistan – The decision by President Barack Obama to withdraw all American combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 has since been modified, with residual American special operations forces (SOF) being a possibility after 2014. This means that McRaven and his staff must coordinate and hold open the option should the next president of Afghanistan be willing to rapidly negotiate a status of forces agreement following the planned presidential run-off election in June of 2014.
  • Emerging Threats – There continues to be uncertainty over rapidly emerging threats worldwide, with continued growth and expansion of the various al Qaeda affiliates in central Africa, the rim of the Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula, and other areas of the world.
  • “Pivot to the Pacific” – The planned force realignment known as the Pivot to the Pacific is under way, with the Navy and Marine Corps beginning permanent basing changes that will eventually have 60 percent of their forces focused on the Pacific Rim.
  • Finances – The Budget Control Act of 2011, which was created to rein in federal spending, turned into sequestration in 2013, and complete chaos within DoD and the U.S. military resulted. Planned deployments, exercises, and operations had to be canceled, scaled down, or shortened, creating great difficulties for all of the regional combatant commands, including SOCOM.

Despite these challenges, the SOCOM leadership worked hard in 2013 to salvage what they could of the various TEPs created by the regional TSOCs. And despite some severe disappointments and stumbles, operational deployments still occurred on schedule, and the SOCOM staff continued to work on McRaven’s primary developmental initiative: the Global SOF Network, which is part of a larger vision SOCOM laid out in the command’s current roadmap for the rest of the present decade: SOCOM 2020.

Special Operations Forces Challenge

A U.S. Special Forces soldier joins a Philippine special operations forces soldier on a firing line to fire at short, medium, and close targets during the third annual Special Operations Forces Challenge, Fort Magsaysay, Republic of the Philippines, May 3, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Pete Thibodeau

SOCOM 2020 breaks down into four primary initiatives, including:

  • Win the Current Fight – This basically means Afghanistan in 2014, although the expanded commitment of SOCOM units and personnel in Africa, along with continued SOF operations in the Mediterranean, the Philippines, Korea, Southeast Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and Latin America, means that the command will be committed to high-intensity, deployed operations for the remainder of this decade.
  • Expand the Global SOF Network – At the heart of SOCOM 2020 is McRaven’s core vision of a fundamentally different way to increase both the effectiveness and capacity of American SOF units and operations. His concept is to mandate stronger relationship building by U.S. SOF personnel with their foreign counterparts, and then use American training expertise to assist international partner nations in expanding the “capacity” (unit size and strength) and “capability” (planning and operational training skills) of their SOF communities.
  • Preserve the Force and Families – This is a big basket of challenges and initiatives, many of which are being covered by SOCOM’s CARE Coalition. But in addition, this is an acknowledgement by SOCOM that it needs to take better care of personnel before, during, and after deployments. It also means that SOCOM families and dependents are going to need more support back at home stations, which will take a fundamental evolution on the part of the entire command with respect to how it views the “home front” during deployments.
  • Responsive Resourcing – This is subtle acknowledgement by SOCOM that the dozen years of abundant funding and resourcing for U.S. SOF are over, and that efficiency and austerity must rule the remainder of the present decade. And while the expansion program mandated during the last of the Bush-era QDRs was completed in 2013, it is unlikely that any further expansions of U.S SOF personnel and/or units will take place prior to the next decade.

In fact, McRaven is quick to point out that his major personal initiative for SOCOM envisions the creation of that Global SOF Network to better leverage American special warfare capabilities and resources. Training the military/internal security forces of partner and allied nations (known as the Foreign Internal Defense mission) has always been a specialty of U.S. SOF forces over the decades. However, McRaven wants to take this specialty to the next level, helping nations build their own world-class SOF units and communities, and integrating them into a seamless worldwide network that can then respond to emerging threats and quick-breaking incidents. Key to making this work will be an enhanced program of military-to-military relationship-building between key individuals, so that in times of rapidly developing crises, American SOF leadership and personnel already know their foreign counterparts, and can more effectively leverage the unique knowledge and skills of foreign special warfare professionals.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...