Defense Media Network

SOCOM Year in Review: 2011-2012

SOCOM Title 10 Issues

While SOCOM’s unique Title 10 budget line yearly buys everything from sniper riles to smartphones, the “big ticket” programs right now are the various aircraft acquisitions. While AFSOC is beginning to see the first airframes of its C-130J fleet, including the new MC-130J Combat Shadow II, later renamed the “Commando II,” after the classic C-46 Commando transport of World War II, it is also deep into producing the most unique SOF aircraft in the world: the CV-22 Osprey. Osprey production proceeds apace, with virtually every aircraft delivered being sent immediately into squadron use, and often very quickly downrange.

In 2011, USASOC finished its service life extension program of what has been the most important SOF aircraft of the past decade: the MH-47 Chinook. The final production units of the MH-47G variant coming off the line were delivered to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) this year. First deliveries of the new MH-60M Black Hawk began in 2011, and the Army’s new Special Operations Aviation Command is now considering a replacement for the Vietnam-era A/MH-6 “Little Birds,” along with continuing to stand up more of the new MQ-1C “Gray Eagle” unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Unmanned systems continue to be programs of great value and interest, with SOCOM becoming one of the largest operators of such systems.


Growth and End-strength

If there is a command-wide ethos at SOCOM, it can be found in the simple words, “Humans are more important than hardware.” People are the true power of SOF. The past year saw the continuation of the largest expansion of U.S. SOF strength and capability since World War II, and that growth is continuing in 2012. The SOF schoolhouses around the United States are now turning out a continual stream of new personnel, fully trained and ready to enter the fight when they reach their new units. This is especially true in the Army special Forces Group (SFGs), where the “hollowed out” A-Teams of recent history have been made whole, SF companies are back to five teams per, and a new battalion structure with greater staff and support personnel end-strength is being implemented. One SFG per year is being made more robust with this new structure, as are other SOF units within SOCOM. By FY 2013, five full active-duty SF battalions will exist where none did in 2001. That is a full 33 percent growth in SF end-strength, right when the United States needs it most. Next on the growth list will be the civil affairs community, which is scheduled for a 20 percent “plus-up” by 2017.

USASOC Demonstration

Special operations soldiers of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command demonstrate their skills during a capabilities exercise, April 25, 2012. USASOC photo

But more people mean that SOCOM needs places to put them when they are stateside, and that means using some of SOCOM’s budget for military construction and housing. The 7th SFG’s new garrison facility at Eglin AFB, Fla., is a prime example of this, and the 5th SFG’s new facilities cannot come too soon. Special Forces Command’s most-storied unit currently operates out of a decrepit collection of Cold War-era buildings at Fort Campbell, Ky. But one cannot expect that the facility modernization program is going to be continued at the present pace. Lean years are ahead for the Department of Defense, and even SOCOM is likely to feel the pinch.

This means that there are challenges ahead for McRaven and his team at SOCOM in 2012 and beyond. There still are significant shortfalls in certain SOF personnel specialties, including the U.S. Navy SEALs and Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs). Problems in recruiting, selection, qualification, and training still exist a dozen years after 9/11, and must be made good. Ranger units, among others, continue to be overcommitted to an operations tempo (OpTempo) that has never gone down since 2001. And the end-strength shortfalls and operational strains on the Reserve and National Guard components of SOCOM have gone almost completely unaddressed. Clearly, SOCOM needs continued manpower efforts to stay in the fight in the years ahead.


Downrange: Out with the Component Commands

Operationally, SOCOM had the busiest OpTempo during the past 18 months in its 25-year history, with a full schedule of combat, raids, deployment, training, and exercise operations, but SOCOM remained fully committed to training and exercises, as it has been for the dozen years since 9/11. In particular, chances to exercise and train with foreign SOF units and personnel have been taken up whenever real-world contingencies allow. Some of these in 2011 included:

• Operation Flintlock (Trans-Sahara) – U.S. Africa Command’s premier SOF exercise, Operation Flintlock provides training for joint multinational forces to improve information sharing at the operational and tactical levels across the Saharan region, and development of improved military-to-military collaboration and coordination.

Jackal Stone 2011

Naval special operations forces operators from Norway, Romania, Ukraine and the United States conduct a visit, board, search, and seizure demonstration during a Jackal Stone 11 multinational special operations forces exercise, being held at Constanta Military Harbor Sept. 17, 2011. The purpose of the exercise, being held in Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine, was to enhance special operations forces capacity and interoperability between the nine participating nations, while simultaneously building cooperation and partnerships. Courtesy photo – Photo approved for official public release by SOCEUR PAO, Master Sgt. Donald Sparks

• Operation Foal Eagle (Republic of Korea) – Foal Eagle is an annual large-scale exercise focused on rear-area security and stability operations, along with onward movement of critical assets to the forward area, special operations, ground maneuver, amphibious operations, combat air operations, and maritime action group operations.

• Fuerzas Comando (Latin America/Caribbean) – Fuerzas Comando is a military skills competition between top military, police, and SOF teams from across the Western Hemisphere. Security forces from 19 countries have taken part in Fuerzas Comando, promoting military-to-military relationships, increased interoperability, and improved regional security.

• Operation Jackal Stone (Europe) – Coordinated by SOCEUR, Jackal Stone is designed to give U.S. SOF units the capacity to exercise the capabilities of current and future partner nations, and to promote interoperability between the participating forces.

• Operation Panamax (Panama) – One of the few fixed-scenario, legacy exercises still being run today, Panamax annually has SOF units from 17 partner nations, including Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Panama, and the United States training together in an exercise simulating a multinational effort to defend the Panama Canal.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. SOF personnel are staying busy training up SOF warriors for both those nations. In the Philippines, JSOTF Philippines continued training work, conducting an exercise in July to build the maritime interdiction skills of the Philippines Navy SEAL teams. JSOTF – Philippines also ran a number of MEDCAP/veterinary clinics in 2011.

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