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SOCOM Year in Review 2008-2009

The year 2008 and the months following it were a time of great changes and uncertainties for the men and women of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and its various component commands. The year began with very few certainties, many unknowns, and multiple battles to fight around the globe. Only today, well into 2009, are we beginning to get a sense of what happened over the past year. The year gave SOCOM a new commander in chief in the White House and reaffirmed that the SOCOM leadership’s course of action over the past few years has been steady and sound.


Although top leadership at SOCOM headquarters during 2008 remained in place, subordinate leadership positions did see change. Adm. Eric Olson, the SOCOM commander, along with his deputy commander, Lt. Gen. Frank H. Kearney III, and Deputy Commander for Mobilization and Reserve Affairs Maj. Gen. David P. Burford, all continued to do their important work, providing SOCOM an uncommon level of leadership continuity compared with other unified commands. One other indicator of the nation’s satisfaction with America’s special operations forces (SOFs) came after the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. Along with retaining Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Obama also chose to hold on to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict & Interdependent Capabilities Mike Vickers at the Department of Defense (DoD).

Olson, a long-time member of the U.S. Navy’s SEa-Air-Land (SEAL) teams, has been operationally active throughout his career. Olson also has Silver and Bronze Stars for heroism and gallantry, highlighted by his lifesaving performance as a combat medic during the “Black Hawk Down” firefight in Mogadishu in 1993. He is a graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., and the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, Calif., and has served overseas in Tunisia and as a United Nations military observer in Israel and Egypt.

There were, however, significant changes with the various SOCOM service component commanders around the world. In November, Lt. Gen. Robert W. Wagner turned over the command reigns at U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) to Lt. Gen. John Mulholland. Mulholland, who just eight years ago was a newly frocked colonel in command of the 5th Special Forces Group (SFG), has amassed one of the most impressive combat records of any SOF leader in military history. In July, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) said goodbye to their founding commanding officer, then-Maj. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik. Replacing Hejlik, who has been promoted to lieutenant general, is Maj. Gen. Mastin M. Robeson. In addition, Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) also had a change of command, as Rear Adm. Joseph D. “Joe” Kernan handed over his duties to Rear Adm. Edward G. Winters III. Finally, Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who has quietly and capably led the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) since 2003, has been relieved by Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, a long-time Navy SEAL.

The regional SOF component commanders also were shuffled in 2008, with a number of America’s best and brightest special operations leaders being rotated into real-world contingencies across the globe. At Special Operations Command-South (SOCSOUTH – located at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla.), Brig. Gen. Charles “Charlie” Cleveland was relieved by former 5th SFG and Joint Special Operations Task Force-Iraq (JSOTF-Iraq) boss, Brig. Gen. Hector Pagan. Cleveland then moved across Florida to MacDill Air Force Base to take over from Mulholland as Special Operations Central Command (SOCCENT) commander. In Europe, another change-out took place when McRaven left to take over JSOC and was replaced by Maj. Gen. Frank J. Kisner, USAF. Kisner is one of the most experienced SOF aviators in Air Force Special Operations Command, and as a colonel commanded the aviation component of Task Force Dagger for then-Col. Mulholland in 2001.

In addition, several new SOF component commands came into being as this edition was being prepared. AFSOC was given its first numbered air force to help provide additional command and control capabilities to combatant commanders. 23rd Air Force was stood up on Jan. 23, 2008, with Brig. Gen. Richard S. “Beef” Haddad as its first commander. Haddad was himself relieved by Col. Marshall B. Webb in April, and then assigned to command Special Operations Command-Korea. With the standup of U.S. Africa Command in 2008, Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAFRICA) headquarters was also stood up in Stuttgart, Germany, under the command of Brig. Gen. Patrick M. Higgins, USA. Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan (CFSOCC-A) was stood up in early 2009, with Brig. Gen. Edward M. “Ed” Reeder Jr. in command. Reeder is a longtime SF officer, a past commander of 7th SFG, and Olson’s former executive officer. As part of Obama’s renewed emphasis on operations in Afghanistan, CFSOCC-A will be a key component in near-term U.S. strategy in the region.

One other interesting leadership story has been the growing influence and importance of SOF leadership outside of the special operations community. While the decades since the creation of SOCOM have provided enhanced and expanded career opportunities for SOF officers, their core competence across the full spectrum of military operations has made them very desirable outside of the special warfare community. Military units and organizations that would never have considered the idea of including SOF professionals in their command teams before September 11 are today clamoring to grab some of the best and brightest SOF talent for their own leadership positions.

A Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command operator oversees a raid on an enemy complex by Afghan commandos and U.S. forces in the Zerkoh Valley near Parmakan, Afghanistan, Herat Province. U.S. Army photo by SPC Curtis Loter.

When McChrystal was relieved at JSOC in August, he went straight to the Pentagon, where he ran the Joint Staff for DoD. As this publication was going to press, however, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had tapped McChrystal to command U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where, if confirmed by the Senate, he will be the point man in the fight against the Taliban. Another example is Vice Adm. Robert S. “Bob” Harward, who is now the deputy commander, United States Joint Forces Command. Another Navy Special Warfare professional who is making a name outside the SOF community is former NACSPECWARCOM boss Kernan, who stood up the new U.S. 4th Fleet for SOUTHCOM in 2008. Kernan’s 4th Fleet had a spectacular year, making new friends from Texas to Haiti with a series of successful humanitarian relief operations, along with enforcing a highly effective maritime quarantine over drug traffickers in the region. And MARSOC’s first commanding general, Hejlik, was given a promotion to lieutenant general and command of one of the Marine Corps’ most important units, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) at Camp LeJuene, N.C. Nothing better demonstrates the primacy of SOF leadership in the present than the fact that the Marines would place responsibility for their largest warfighting force in the hands of their first senior SOF component commander.

All these officers are seasoned SOF professionals, which has given them a level of leadership ability and situational awareness that is the envy of almost every other unified commander in the U.S. military. There is clearly a leadership renaissance among today’s U.S. SOF officers, something they are providing across the full spectrum of American units and contingencies worldwide. Given the numbers of SOF leaders rising out of the present U.S. conflicts, SOCOM and DoD can count on having a deep and wide “bench” when it comes time to reach out for new SOF leaders in the years ahead.

Payoff: New Capabilities

One of the defining qualities for SOCOM since its creation in the 1980s has been its ability to fund research, development, and procurement of SOF-specific equipment and services. Thanks to the Nunn-Cohen legislation passed in 1987, SOCOM has its own funding line in the DoD budget, allowing the command to buy things critical to its unique roles and missions. Many of these include small items, like lightweight high-volume patrol rations and modifications to existing systems like the M16 combat rifle, which resulted in the popular M4 carbine that is used today throughout the U.S. military.

The year 2008 was characterized by a number of the larger SOCOM Title 10 efforts becoming fully operational, and making major contributions to SOF operations worldwide.


Perhaps the most visible has been the exponential growth of SOCOM’s fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which is rapidly becoming one of the largest among all the American unified commands. AFSOC is today operating everything from the MQ-11 Raven UAV, which is small enough to be carried in the backpack of a combat controller, to the largest unit of the ubiquitous MQ-1 Predator, the 3rd Special Operations Squadron (SOS). Additional UAV systems, such as the BATMAV micro-UAV system, are so small that they could fit into a box of breakfast cereal, while the 3rd SOS is planning procurement of the new MQ-9 Reaper, an enlarged Predator with much greater range and ordnance-carrying capability.

Manned Aircraft

A major SOCOM procurement program has been an initiative by Wurster to homogenize the varied and aging AFSOC fleet of C-130-based systems around a single model of the Hercules: the C-130J. Already in use as the base aircraft for the highly successful Commando Solo aerial broadcast system, plans are now afoot to produce SOF tanker/transport and gunship versions of the Hercules in the next few years. However, within SOF aviation, 2008 will likely be remembered as the year that the multi-decade investment in tilt-rotor technology finally began to pay off, as the CV-22B version of the Osprey finally became operational.

Crew members from CJSOTF deliver RG-33 MRAP vehicles to SOTF-C. The new vehicles are state of the art combat ready assets to CJSOTF. They will be sent down range for use by Special Forces members and should help in a greatly reduced number of casualties due to IED attacks. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph W. Pfaff/FOUO.

Ground Vehicles

In the decades since Desert Storm, SOCOM units have made use of a variety of ground vehicles, from ATVs and modified light trucks to highly modified HMMWVs known as

Ground Mobility Vehicles (GMVs). While the GMVs have proven to be excellent for patrolling and general SOF operations, they have proven inadequate in occupation environments like Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly when faced with the growing threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This has resulted in SOCOM procuring two new

vehicles, specifically designed to deal with IEDs and other heavy weapons. The first, bought for the SEALs, is a five-man Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle, similar to those used in Iraq by conventional forces for patrols, convoy escorts, and other duties. More intriguing has been the acquisition of 16 Stryker Infantry Fighting Vehicles

(IFVs), each of which can carry nine fully loaded Rangers. Being used by one company in the 75th Ranger Regiment, the Stryker IFVs provide a level of mobility, protection, communications, and fire support never before seen by U.S. SOF units.


The unique requirements of SOF operations in the maritime environment have led to a major expenditure of SOCOM Title 10 dollars over the past few years, most of which have gone into supporting the conversion of four Ohio-class (SSBN 726) ballistic missile nuclear submarines into cruise missile and special operations platforms. Able to fire up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles and support up to 66 SOF personnel, the four “SSGNs,” as they are called, are all operational and conducted their first patrols in 2008, using the same forward deployed blue-gold crewing plans as were common during the Cold War.

Overall, SOCOM Title 10 funding is actually on a gradual decrease, due to several large programs like the SSGN conversions being completed.

Forces and Training


U.S. SOF has obviously done a critical job in operations since September 11, and clearly deserves additional force structure that is needed to deal with the range and number of commitments in the years ahead. The good news is that planned SOCOM-wide unit and personnel expansion is well along and still scheduled to be completed in FY 2013. In FY 2009 alone, over 1,300 military and 220 civilian personnel will be added to the SOCOM roster, which is authorized to a total of 55,890. The majority of the new personnel – more than 1,100 USASOC and 400 MARSOC – are going to new formations, including a new SF battalion and a new 4th Battalion of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) flying MH-47 Chinooks. Of the USASOC personnel, 444 are being used to form the new SF battalion, and similar manpower increases will occur each year until all five of the active-duty SF units have four such units. Many of the new civilian hires are headed down to the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), which is presently in the process of moving from Hurlburt Field, Fla., to MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa.

AFSOC is actually seeing a temporary decrease in personnel due to the retirement of the last of the MH-53 Pave Low SOF helicopters in 2008. There is also likely to be a small decrease in flight personnel assigned to operating variants of the Hercules as the new C-130Js come online with their three-man flight crews. However, the overall AFSOC personnel count is due to rise in the next decade as new units flying the CV-22B Osprey are activated. In fact, the early operations of the CV-22B have been so successful that AFSOC Commander Wurster is actively exploring accelerated delivery of the aircraft, which is tied closely to scheduled production of the Marine Corps version of the Osprey.

Another part of SOCOM that is experiencing growth and prosperity is JSOU. Led by its president, Dr. Brian Maher, JSOU is rapidly growing its curriculum and staff, especially with distance learning and other online programs. JSOU also stood up its Joint SOF Senior Enlisted Academy in 2008, which is to provide SOCOM senior enlisted professionals the chance to develop their skills and leadership in a learning environment attuned to the real-world needs of the special warfare community.

Operations and Training

While 2008 was much like the years going back to 2001 with regard to public airing of details of present-day SOF operations, which is to say very little, it is impossible not to have noted the variety of recent special operations involving U.S. units, capabilities, and personnel. Key in understanding the nature of contemporary American special operations is this simple point: that most U.S. SOF operations around the world are actually focused on training, equipping, and advisement. Nowhere has this been more obvious and successful than in Colombia, and the nation’s battle against the FARC terrorist group.

A U.S. Air Force MH-53 Pave Low helicopter from the 20th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron sits on the tarmac prior to its final combat mission at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, on Sept. 27, 2008. The Pave Low was retired after nearly forty years of service to the Air Force. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon, U.S. Air Force.

In the decade since President Álvaro Uribe was elected and put his “Plan Colombia” into effect, one of the key elements to the Colombian military’s growing success against the FARC has been a generous dose of U.S. aid funds as well as training by American military personnel. Key among these have been U.S. SOF personnel conducting what are known as foreign internal defense (FID) missions, providing training in real-world warfighting skills and professional development for personnel. SF teams, frequently from the 7th SFG at Fort Bragg, N.C., often conduct the Colombian SOF FID missions. AFSOC’s 6th SOS based at Hurlburt Field has also provided critical SOF aviation skills.

The ultimate final examination for Colombia’s emerging SOF capabilities also came in 2008, with two spectacularly successful operations that stunned the world. In March, Colombian SOF forces killed the deputy commander of the FARC, Raúl Reyes, with a precision airstrike and cross-border raid into Ecuador. In addition to killing Reyes and almost two dozen of his confederates, the Colombian forces captured intact a laptop computer packed with everything from FARC membership and donor lists to documents implicating Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in direct financial and logistical support of the insurgents. Later in 2008, the rescue of former presidential candidate and senator Ingrid Betancourt, three American civilian contractors, and 11 Colombian soldiers in a lightning snatch operation in which no shots were fired was the top news story worldwide.

The two aforementioned special operations, combined with a campaign of less public raids and counterinsurgency efforts, very nearly broke the FARC in 2008. Nobody who understands the implications of the Colombian successes of last year can help but conclude that they now have a highly competent SOF community, capable of planning and executing world-class missions in a very challenging environment. That they can today is a direct result of a decade of discreet training, assistance, and support by the U.S. government and the U.S. SOF community, of Plan Colombia and President Uribe.

In the days just prior to this book going to press, there was one more very public demonstration of U.S. SOF capability and strength: the rescue off of Somalia of Capt. Richard Phillips of the container ship SS Maersk Alabama. After a week being held hostage at the hands of Somali pirates, Phillips was saved by three near-simultaneous headshots to his captors, fired by SEALs from the guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96). Inserted discreetly, and their identities still concealed from the public, the SEALs demonstrated once again for the world that U.S. SOF warriors are quiet professionals who do their jobs well, and then quietly avoid victory laps for the media.

Friends Recognized and Remembered

The year saw two beloved aircraft, the classic MH-53 Pave Low and the AH-6C Little Bird, retired after decades of service to the nation. Both aircraft lasted long enough in service to see their replacements, the CV-22B Osprey and AH-6M Little Bird, respectively, enter service and begin proving their worth. Interestingly, the Pave Low that was sent to the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, was the oldest surviving example of the type, and actually flew on the Son Tay Raid in 1970.

One other goodbye was more human, in the form of Olson awarding the U.S. Special Operations Command Medal to outgoing Sen. John Warner, R-Va., when he left office in January 2009. Warner, who served in both the Navy and Marine Corps during World War II and Korea, was also a former secretary of the Navy. An elder statesman in the U.S. Senate, Warner was a staunch supporter of the military who gave special attention to the SOF community, especially during the critical fight to create SOCOM in the 1980s.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2009 Edition.


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