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U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Year in Review

Completing the Circle

Our review of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in 2010 and early 2011 begins with events of a more recent nature. On May 1, 2011, personnel of SOCOM’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) raided a large private compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, north of Islamabad. There, Special Mission Unit (SMU) personnel shot and killed al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden in his bedroom, along with a number of confederates within the compound. After verifying the identity of bin Laden and doing a sensitive site exploitation (SSE) of the residence, the SMU personnel took bin Laden’s body and the SSE materials and returned to base. Though one aircraft (apparently an MH-60 Black Hawk) was lost during the operation, no U.S. personnel were lost, and the mission is considered a full success. Within hours, bin Laden’s body was buried at sea from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). This action concludes the search for bin Laden, and is the culmination of a cooperative effort by U.S. special operations forces (SOF), law enforcement, and the intelligence community that actually predates 9/11. But this is just the most visible operation of SOCOM, which had another truly impressive year in 2010.

SOCOM began 2010 by doing something few people in the general public would have imagined: helping open a portal to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to enable the rest of civilization to save its citizens following a deadly earthquake. The country was Haiti, which suffered a magnitude 7.0 earthquake near the capital city of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010. Estimates of deaths ran into the hundreds of thousands, with the destruction of homes and public buildings running into the millions. It was a catastrophe of unimaginable scale, and the citizens of Haiti needed help fast. Enter the SOF personnel of SOCOM. Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH), the SOF component of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), arranged for an Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) team to be dispatched to Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport near Port-au-Prince just 26 hours after the first notice of the event. Quickly, the team worked to open runways and prepare the airport for flying in relief supplies (see “Haiti: Initial Entry Force,” which appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2011 Edition). Within days, teams from around AFSOC and other components of SOCOM were on the ground, opening the first relief portals to the stricken nation. Most of the air traffic control was run from a folding table set up alongside the runways by a AFSOC combat controllers exposed to the weather and dust from all the demolished buildings nearby. Thanks to the hard work of all these American SOF professionals, the world got its first toehold back in Haiti in a relief effort that continues today.

The relief effort in Haiti was just the first and perhaps most public of SOCOM’s operations and achievements. That said, it was also a year of change in the command, acquisition achievement, end strength growth, and most of all, full engagement downrange.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Johnny Rivas, with the 801st Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, performs operational checks on an AFSOC CV-22 Osprey aircraft during Exercise Emerald Warrior at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., March 7, 2011. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. DeNoris Mickle, 1st Combat Camera Squadron

For several years, SOCOM has had a surprisingly stable leadership in the Pentagon, at SOCOM Headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., and at the various SOCOM component commands. 2010 was a year for inevitable change to start within the U.S. SOF community, much of it due to promotions to positions of greater responsibility. Such was the case for the position of assistant secretary of defense (ASD) for special operations/low intensity conflict & interdependent capabilities (SO/LIC&IC), which was held by the Honorable Michael G. Vickers until he was nominated and confirmed to be the new under secretary of defense for Intelligence in early 2011. His reported replacement is Michael A. Sheehan, a West Point graduate who is a noted author and counterterrorism expert and previously served in the Army Special Forces (SF). If Sheehan is nominated and confirmed, he continues the recent trend of having the ASD for SO/LIC&IC be a SOF professional with strong credentials in other areas of unconventional warfare.

On the military side, the long and successful career of Adm. Eric T. Olson, USN, is about to come to a fitting close. After two terms as the SOCOM commander, Olson will retire in 2011, having been the first Navy SOF professional to ever be appointed to three- and four-star rank. The first naval officer to command SOCOM, Olson has earned his respect the hard way, showing leadership in combat and within the halls of power. The U.S. SOF community has been lucky to have him as its leader. Olson’s designated replacement, however, is another well-known Navy SEAL with excellent credentials: Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, USN. McRaven, a lifelong naval SOF professional, currently commands the JSOC, and has had tours commanding the Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) and Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR). There have been other changes within the SOCOM leadership as well. These include:

  • Joint Special Operations Command. As mentioned earlier, McRaven is presently scheduled to take over command of SOCOM some time in 2011. His designated replacement at JSOC is Maj. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, USA, who is presently awaiting Senate confirmation and promotion to lieutenant general.
  • Air Force Special Operations Command. After the retirement of Lt. Gen. Donald C. Wurster, USAF, in late 2011, the command of AFSOC will be handed over to Lt. Gen. Eric E. Fiel, USAF. Fiel currently is the vice commander, Headquarters, U.S. Special Operations Command, Washington, D.C.

Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland,Jr., USA, still continues to command U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), while Rear Adm. Edward G. Winters, III, USN, is leading NAVSPECWARCOM, and Maj. Gen. Paul  E. Lefebvre, USMC, is running Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command (MARSOC). Mulholland and Winters, however, will likely see their reliefs named some time in 2011.

There also is another set of commands in the American SOF community; those associated with regional special operations components of Unified Combatant Commands. There is a regular rotation between SOCOM’s headquarters and service components, the regional SOF components, which continued in 2010:

  • Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR). 2010 saw a major change at SOCEUR, with the elevation of Maj. Gen. Frank Kisner, USAF, to head the new NATO Special Operations Command in Brussels. Kisner’s replacement at SOCEUR was Maj. Gen. Michael Repass, USA, who previously had commanded U.S. Army Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. This major strengthening of U.S. SOF leadership at EUCOM Headquarters at Brussels on the 50th birthday of the command is already paying significant benefits for American operators downrange, and will likely continue to do so.
  • Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH). After some great years under Brig. Gen. Hector Pagan, command of SOCSOUTH was taken over by Rear Adm. Thomas L. Brown, II, USN. Brown takes over a regional SOF component that has made huge strides in the last decade, and will likely continue to do so in the decade ahead. From counternarcotics operations to foreign internal defense (FID) missions, SOUTHCOM has been a laboratory for new SOF missions and ideas, many of them relevant to other fights/operations worldwide.
  • Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) – Horn of Africa (HOA). Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, while not technically the SOF component of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), is the largest and most well-established SOF organization in the region. In 2010, command of CJTF-HOA passed to Rear Adm. Brian L. Losey, USN, and he has been commanding operations ranging from anti-piracy to hunting al Qaeda affiliate leaders in places like Somalia.

At other regional SOF commands, the existing command personnel continued to do their vital work, especially at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Maj. Gen. Charles Cleveland, USA, continued to oversee Special Operations Command-Central (SOCCENT), while Col. Christopher K. Haas, USA, is commanding Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA). Downrange, in Afghanistan, Vice Adm. Robert S. “Bob” Harward, USN, commands Combined Joint Interagency Task Force 435. CJIATF 435 is assisting the Afghan government with the transition to self-sustaining Afghan law institutions that are compliant with Afghan and international law. And out in the vast reaches of the Pacific Command, Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus, USN, has continued to command Special Operations Command-Pacific, with its own fights in places like the Southern Philippines. Fortunately for the American SOF community, right now the U.S. military has a very “deep bench” in its leadership pool, something that is set to pay dividends in 2011 and into the future.








SOCOM Title 10 Issues
One of the most powerful features of the Nunn-Cohen legislation that created SOCOM in the 1980s was their statutory independence laid out in what today is part of Title 10 of the U.S. Code. Along with their own Unified Combatant Command (COCOM) and commander, and the ASD for SOLIC, SOCOM also gained several other special powers. Since 2002, SOCOM has been allowed to form and lead its own Joint Task Forces (JTFs), a power normally limited to regional COCOMs like CENTCOM and Pacific Command (PACOM). This has proven to be an invaluable ability over the past decade, as SOF JTF commanders have proven to be among the most talented and imaginative in the U.S. military.

The other major Title 10 asset of SOCOM is money. More specifically, a SOCOM-specific funding line in every Department of Defense (DoD) budget, which is controlled by the SOCOM commander and ASD for SOLIC. This Title 10 line of funding has been used for all variety of SOF-specific procurement and services, from nuclear submarine conversions to services contracts for support at SOCOM Headquarters. In many ways, it may be the most powerful and proactive tool SOCOM wields in bureaucratic battles at the Pentagon.

So, what did SOCOM buy in fiscal years 2010 and early 2011? Quite a lot actually, all of which is going to enhance the command’s ability to support SOF warfighters downrange in the tough years ahead. With the Navy’s SSGN conversion completed, and the ill-fated Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) officially terminated with the destruction of the sole prototype due to a battery fire, the material needs of the Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) have transitioned to the surface (see related article). There is a replacement program for ASDS, but it is some years from actual procurement. The other SOCOM service components were also very busy buying and delivering new gear in 2010.

For decades, AFSOC has soldiered on with a mixed fleet of the oldest C-130 Hercules-based systems (AC-130 Spectre, MC-130 Combat Talon, etc.) with all the resulting problems that fact delivers. Low reliability and availability due to shortages in spare parts, persistent airframe/system maintenance, and the highest operations tempos (OPTEMPOs) of any C-130-based unit in the USAF meant that AFSOC was headed for a crisis if a roadmap could not be developed to replace the elderly Hercules variants in AFSOC service.

The answer came in the form of a new-generation Hercules, the Lockheed Martin C-130J. Completely re-engineered with digital flight systems, new engines, transmissions, and propellers, and a reduced three-man crew, the -130J was exactly the aircraft needed around which AFSOC could build its fleet of large airframes in the early 21st century. An early acquisition of C-130Js by the Pennsylvania Air National Guard for the 193rd Special Operations Wing (SOW) at Harrisburg, Pa., as the carrier platform for the Commando Solo broadcast package proved extremely successful. So much so that Wurster at AFSOC made a bold planning decision for his command: to create an all-C-130J fleet for tanker/transport/gunship missions.

This visionary plan has begun to come to fruition during 2010, with Lockheed completing the first new MC-130J Combat Shadow for rollout and testing in 2011. This will be the first of 15 new Combat Shadow II aircraft (which may go eventually to a total of 37), which will ensure tanker/transport services for AFSOC and the rest of SOCOM until the middle of the 21st century. But the really big news on AFSOC’s new C-130J force in 2010 came on the gunship side of forces. By late 2010, AFSOC had finalized plans to order 16 new-production C-130J airframes based on the new Combat Shadow IIs from Lockheed Martin to recapitalize the gunship community.

In the meantime, AFSOC went back to its classic roots of “self help” to create a deadly new variant of the gunship, the C-130W Dragon Spear program. In partnership with L3 Communications and the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, Ga., eight MC-130Ws were fitted with weapons and sensors. Dragon Spear is derived from a similar package developed for use on Marine Corps KC-130 tankers, and is composed of a modular package consisting of sensors, a sideways-firing 30 mm Mk. 44 Bushmaster cannon, and a pallet on the rear ramp for launching up to 10 Standoff Precision Guided Munitions (SOPGMs). The SOPGMs are a story unto themselves, composed of a mix of Northrop Grumman GBU-44 Viper Strike and Raytheon Griffin air-to-surface missiles, both of which weigh in at less that 50 pounds. On Dragon Spear, these are fired out the rear loading hatch anywhere in the 180-degree hemisphere underneath the aircraft. It is expected that the new-build AC-130Js will likely carry a derivative of the Dragon Spear package.

Marines with U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, jump from a C-130 during a parachute exercise aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., Dec. 15, 2010. Marines who are basic parachutists and beyond must complete annual jump requirements in order to maintain their jump status and proficiency. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Kyle McNally

While AFSOC is just beginning the acquisition of their C-130J fleet, they are in the middle of procuring the most unique SOF aircraft in the world: the CV-22 Osprey. Osprey production is moving along nicely, with virtually every aircraft delivered moving into immediate use downrange. And USASOC has finished their service life extension program of what has been the most important SOF aircraft of the past decade: the MH-47 Chinook. Back in 2001, the entire campaign in northern Afghanistan hinged on just six MH-47E airframes, which were able to get over the mountains into places like Bagram and Mazar-e Sharif. 2010 saw the final production units of the MH-47G variant coming off the Boeing production line in Philadelphia, Pa.

Another new area of interest is SOF-specific space assets in low-earth orbit (LEO) to directly support warfighters on the ground downrange. SOF units have been using resources like the global positioning system (GPS) and portable satellite communications (SATCOM) terminals since before 9/11. What they have not done previously is to develop and procure space assets, which provide specific services and capabilities to ground-based SOF teams and personnel. That has been changing rapidly over the last several years.

One of the most popular new tools for SOF operators in the field has been Unattended, Ground-Based Sensor Networks (UGBSNs). Easily deployed and concealed, and composed of various kinds of lightweight sensors (thermal imagers, motion detectors, seismic monitors, etc.) linked via wireless local area networks (LANs), UGBSNs have been used to monitor choke points and transit routes on the battlefield, along with key areas of towns and villages without requiring human intervention other than repositioning and battery replacement. The problem for operators, however, has been covertly collecting all the data collected by the UGBSNs, so that intelligence analysts can use it to formulate militarily useful information like targeting points and estimates of enemy strength. Enter the NanoSatellite.

Down at the Von Braun Laboratory in Huntsville, Ala., the staff of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SDMC) have been developing a new kind of data relay satellite – one which is small, lightweight, inexpensive, and easily deployed. About the size of a loaf of bread, NanoSatellite operates in LEO after launch and deployment. It then can fly over an area seeded with UGBSNs, collecting their recorded data and relaying the information packets to a small ground station that can be operated out of a small headquarters like a Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) Tactical Operations Center (TOC).

One of the prototype NanoSatellites was recently “piggybacked” on a SpaceX Dragon/Falcon 9 test launch, where it performed exactly as designed with great success. A UGBSN was deployed discreetly in the parking lot of the Von Braun Laboratory, where it watched the SMDC employees come and go. The NanoSatellite then downlinked the data packets to a small data terminal in Colorado Springs, Colo., proving that the simple little system had real operational worth downrange. In addition, a whole range of new launch deployment options is being developed for NanoSatellite, from the Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane to an innovative new field-deployable launch vehicle developed from hardware used in the Army’s MLRS/ATACMS artillery systems: NanoMissile.

Growth and End Strength
One of the genuine shortcomings of SOCOM at the time of 9/11 was that its end strength, organization, and equipment were badly structured for a long-term, worldwide campaign. Part of the problem had been the “hollowing out” of high-tempo combat units like SF and SEAL teams. In the case of the SFGs, the hard decision to consolidate down to four “A-Teams” per company was just one consequence of this. In the case of organizations like AFSOC, they had suffered for decades under a gradual erosion of aircraft and billets, thanks in part to their own service attempting to marginalize their efforts. The Marine Corps was not even a player at SOCOM, having convinced lawmakers during the negotiations for Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen to let them keep their own SOF capabilities in the shape of Force Reconnaissance and the Marine Expeditionary Units (Special Operations Capable), or MEU(SOC)s. A quarter century and several wars later, things are finally coming around for U.S. SOF.

2010 saw the continuation of the largest expansion of U.S. SOF strength and capability since World War II. In particular, the growth of SOF schoolhouses around the United States is now turning out a steady stream of personnel, fully trained and ready to enter the fight when they reach their new units. This is especially true in the Army SFGs, where the “hollowed out” A-Teams have been made whole, companies are back to a full strength of five teams, and a new battalion structure with greater staff and support personnel end strength is being implemented. One per year, the SFGs continue to be made more robust with this new structure, as are other SOF units within SOCOM.

This does not mean that there are not challenges ahead for McRaven and his team when they take over command at SOCOM in 2011. There still are shortfalls in SEAL recruiting/selection/qualification, and training, which need to be made good. Ranger units continue to be over committed, in an OPTEMPO that is not going down anytime soon. And the strains on the Reserve/National Guard components of SOCOM have gone almost completely unaddressed. A planned 2011 Roles and Missions Study by DoD will hopefully note these problems and begin the long bureaucratic process of resolving these issues in the coming decade.

Downrange: Out with the Component Commands
Operationally, SOCOM has been heavily tasked during 2010, with a full schedule of combat operations, deployments, training, and exercises. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Haiti demanded much of its available strength in early 2010, with AFSOC and civil affairs (CA) activities dominating the work there. As it turned out, language skills from SOF warriors originally from Haiti, especially from MARSOC, proved vital to the relief effort. Clearly, throughout 2010, some of the most heavily booked resources have been the EC-130J Commando Solo aircraft of the 193rd SOW, which operated everywhere from the Caribbean to Afghanistan. The 193rd has also been a major player in Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya in early 2011, where its broadcasts are a key component of the U.S. commitment to ongoing NATO operations there.

If there is anything good SOF warriors love, it is the chance to go downrange and practice their craft. While SOCOM has been fully committed for the past decade, it is also taking time for more exercises and training evolutions where possible. In particular, chances to exercise and train with foreign SOF units and personnel have been taken up whenever real-world contingencies allow. And 2010 had some interesting SOF activities going on beyond the battlefields. This has ranged from the new 27th SOW at Canon AFB, N.M., running their first CAPEX (capabilities exercise), to the Joint Special Operations University holding its first Senior Enlisted Academy.

A member of ODA 3336 suppresses enemy gunfire from the roof of his objective during Operation Cold Steel in the Helmand province, Afghanistan. Army photo by Sgt. Jason Carter Army

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. SOF personnel are staying busy training up special operations warriors for both those nations. Camp Moorehead, outside of Kabul, has become a center for training the new Afghan National Army commandos, which are rapidly becoming SOF professionals in their own right. In the Philippines, JSOTF-Philippines continued their training work, conducting an exercise in July to build maritime interdiction skills of the Philippine Navy SEAL teams. JSOTF-Philippines also ran a number of MEDCAP/veterinary clinics in places like Sulu in concert with Marine Landing Battalion Team 5. SOCEUR had 10th SFG conduct CAPSTONE training with Poland, Latvia, Romania, Croatia, Ukraine, and Lithuania in September during Operation Jackal Stone, the third consecutive year of this exercise. SOCSOUTH participated in PANAMAX 2010, with U.S. SEAL teams exercising with SOF personnel from Brazil, Colombia, Panama, and Peru. SOCSOUTH also continued their highly successful Fuerzas Commando-series of exercises in the Dominican Republic in 2010.

There was one more significant event for the warriors of SOCOM in 2010, one that was long overdue given their contributions since 9/11. On Oct. 6, President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to the family of Special Forces Staff Sgt. Robert James Miller of the 3rd SFG (see related story, page 138). Miller was killed during a vicious firefight in Kunar province in Afghanistan on Jan. 25, 2008. During that firefight, Miller charged a series of Taliban positions on a mountainside, taking the fight to the enemy while protecting his team, calling out enemy locations to his team and exposing himself to enemy fire. Eventually, Miller was wounded and killed, but not before saving the lives of his team and their Afghan partners on the patrol. He was the first SF soldier to receive the decoration since the 1990s.

SOCOM began 2011 as it did 2010: helping mitigate the effects of a terrible disaster on a population that was stunned, hurt, and is still suffering. The magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011, north of Tokyo, Japan, with effects and consequences still emerging as this story goes to press. Some of America’s first responders were SOCOM professionals, who along with their brothers and sisters from the other services, federal agencies, and our partners worldwide, are working to live up to the motto of the Green Berets, De Oppresso Liber (“To Free the Oppressed”). Airmen from the 353rd Special Operations Wing helped open a pair of key runways in northern Japan to help fly in critical relief supplies, equipment, and personnel. And so it goes. …

This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations: 2011-2012 Edition.


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