Defense Media Network

SOF Successes Refine Future Plans

“This is a real opportunity to give you a glimpse of what we’re doing globally,” observed Lt. Gen. David Fridovich, U.S. Army, director, Center for Special Operations, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

Speaking to an industry gathering on Feb. 26, 2010, Fridovich presented an overview of some recent representative operations against a backdrop of USSOCOM’s changing mission set, global deployment posture, and plans for the future.

“There have been some successes,” he acknowledged. “And from those successes, we’ve learned quite a bit about where we want to take the mission.”

As an example, Fridovich pointed to an updated special operations forces (SOF) mission statement, which tasks the command with providing “fully capable and enabled special operations forces to defend the nation’s interests in an environment characterized by irregular warfare.”

“That’s key,” he said. “Because that is a fairly large shift in recognition of what we’re doing right now to what we think we’re going to be doing in the foreseeable future. And that foreseeable future really puts us not just 10 years from now but really 20 or 30 years from now.”

In terms of highlighting global deployments to major command areas, he noted that the current “balance is heavily weighted into the two primary combat zones,” where a total of 10,334 SOF personnel are deployed to Central Command (CENTCOM) compared with 394 to Africa Command (AFRICOM), 379 to European Command (EUCOM), 757 to Pacific Command (PACOM), 394 to Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), and 50 to Northern Command (NORTHCOM).

In outlining the global deployment diversity, he pointed to the region of the South Atlantic, between West Africa and the eastern coast of Latin America, identifying that area as “a gap we are seeing in the unified command that we watch very carefully as things are starting to bubble up in this part of Africa and this part of the world as well.

“There are some places we just don’t get invited to,” he admitted. “That’s normal. And we’ll see how we work that in the future. But you can tell that what we used to call ‘The Arc of Instability’ is where our forces are working right now.”

These deployed forces are being applied to the broad notional guidelines of the Global War on Terrorism Campaign Framework/DoD 7500, in which friendly “blue” forces move back and forth along two diverging axes toward two operational circles: one indirect approach axis that increases friendly while reducing enemy influence in a “green” circle; and a direct-approach axis that isolates the enemy threat in a “red” circle.

For his first representative vignette, Fridovich presented an overview of recent successes by Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), a mission that was started in October 2001.

He began by reviewing the strategic parameters of the region and its scattered islands. The region serves as home to an array of extremist and/or complicating groups, including Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). ASG, in turn, has direct links to Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI); the Philippines-based Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF); a breakaway MILF Special Operations Group (MILF-SOG); and the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army (CPP/NPA).

Afghan SOF training. Ensuring friendly forces' ability to sustain future operations without further U.S. assistance is a key goal. U.S. Army photo.

“And there are very different rules of engagement for one group compared to another group, just in case you thought you couldn’t make it any more complex,” he observed.

Fridovich emphasized the growing lethality of some of the groups, noting that two special operations personnel were killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the region in the September-October 2009 time frame.

Driven in large part by restrictions in the constitution of the Philippines, the mission of JSOTF-P has been to work in conjunction with the U.S. country team to conduct foreign internal defense (FID) training with local forces.

“The way we were going to do it was to indirectly influence and train the Filipinos to do this – the Filipino Police, the Philippine Marines, the Philippine Special Forces, and the Philippine Army,” he said.

“They bring us access and we partner with them at every echelon – that’s critical,” he explained. “And take a look at what we bring to them. We have ISR platforms [both fixed-wing and unmanned aerial systems] that we integrate very closely. We also help with the ops/intel fusion, so that when they look at things, they know what they’re doing. And we’ve been training together for about the last six or seven years on how to integrate these pieces.”

Elaborating on the synergies being applied toward the unique demands of “island warfare,” he noted how the “maritime reach and speed” of JSOTF-P is combined with the firepower of the Philippine forces.

“A critical part of the mission is how well all of this is integrated into and with the partner nation,” he said.

Emphasizing the criticality of “capacity building,” he offered specific examples stemming from civil military operations (CMO) around the Sumisip area of Basilan province (island).

“Sumisip is a very difficult area down south at the bottom of Basilan,” he explained. “It’s been very contested. But you start by doing what you can do with some of the influence operations to rebuild and invest in the future. Again, this is a very mountainous area of heavy jungle where it is very difficult to get off the beaches. There were really only two or three points along that coast where you could really move out [inland] from.”

ASG had been exploiting these terrain challenges as part of its operational area. The initial CMO response took the form of Bato-Bato Road, a 2-kilometer long road built with $322,498 in Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) funding that significantly reduced “safe haven” areas.

“The road didn’t exist. We made a small investment. And all of a sudden you’re on top of them. What have you done there? You’ve gotten inside their decision cycle and you’ve driven them to the hills … You put a road in. You put power in. You get water along that area. And pretty soon the population starts coming down so that you can really start to isolate the problem from the people and really start taking the area back,” he said.

Fridovich also pointed to slightly expanded CMO efforts that entailed a $1 million to $2 million investment to establish a road around the entire island that took what had been a nine-hour ride from the capital of Isabela City in the north down to Sumisip in the south and reduced that trip to 60 minutes.

“So we took back the road. We built ports for them. And the farmers can now get to market. It was just a classic small case – very micro – of how things work together once the security environment is established,” he said.

Another aspect of JSOTF-P support is the “Rewards for Justice” (RFJ) program.

“RFJ has been working out extremely well and much has been paid out,” Fridovich observed. “The family is given the money. They are given the money through a cut-out. There might be some photographs taken but they are all covered and secured, and they are put into a witness protection program. It works. Actually it’s been quite devastating to their organization in a very positive way for us.”

Then-Maj. Gen. David Fridovich, commander Special Operations Command, Pacific (center), visits with Lt. Gen. Eugenio Cedo, commander Western Mindinao Command during a trip to the region. Fridovich was touring the region talking to various military personnel assigned to Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) to see firsthand the work American military personnel and their Filipino counterparts were conducting. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Troy Latham.

One of the best examples of RFJ program success involved Abu Solaiman, an ASG leader responsible for kidnappings and murders of both Filipino and U.S. citizens, as well as bombing attacks that killed or injured hundreds of people. One of the deadliest bombings occurred in March 2006 in Jolo, very close to a camp shared by JSOTF-P and Philippine forces. On Jan. 16, 2007, information received from two Philippine citizens allowed the armed forces of the Philippines to undertake operations that led to the death of Solaiman and an RFJ payment of approximately $5 million.

Offering some key take-aways from the ongoing JSOTF-P experience, Fridovich emphasized, “They are always in the lead and we are not. It is their country. We are leaving and they know that. We never talk about basing down there because we don’t want any. That’s not the point. The point is to make them better along the ‘green’ lines of operations, the indirect lines, so that we can walk away. We all know that ‘business is good.’ We can do a whole lot of other things. And there are many other things calling us right now.”

Other key points from the Philippine experience include the value of long-term success over short-term gains and the critical contributions of synchronized interagency efforts.


A second vignette focused on Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A).

As described by Fridovich, the task force includes two Special Forces Operational Detachments Alpha (SF-ODA), a Civil Action Team-A, a Military Information Support Team, and some military intelligence personnel, working together with both Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Chamkani area of Afghanistan, providing persistent presence in an area of approximately 300,000 people.

“All this stuff is about capacity building,” he began. “It’s all about us going from a leading role where we are doing the operations, to them – the ‘blue’ force that we are training – taking on those operations.”

In this particular case, the blue force includes the Afghan National Army as well as both the Afghan National Police and Afghan Border Patrol, the latter contingent reflective of the fact that the base camp is located approximately 16 kilometers from the border with Pakistan.

“It’s the same thing you saw in the Philippines,” Fridovich explained. “You’ve got intelligence, or you are going to go do some key leader engagement, or you’ve got combat operations’ patrols like search and cordon with combat rehearsals.”

Pointing to a situation where village leaders led team members to a pressure plate IED, he continued, “When that starts happening, you start understanding very clearly that you are winning the population over, that ‘green’ circle is coming your way. And how do you maintain that momentum? And that’s what you start feeling from what these 3rd Special Forces Group teams have been doing there since they got on the ground – winning over the population. But again, they are not the ones doing it. It is through, by, and with the Afghan National Forces.”

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, Jr. crosses off the name of the Philippine government's number three wanted terrorist Abu Solaiman, as U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney looks on during a Rewards for Justice awards ceremony in 2007. Solaiman was neutralized by AFP soldiers during a night time raid in January. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Troy Latham.

Highlighted operations included IED clearing, security patrols, patrol base construction, weapons cache discoveries, vehicle/drug interdiction, reconnaissance patrols, commando cordon and search, establishing checkpoints, and meeting with local leaders to plan a new high school.

Key take-aways that Fridovich offered from the CJSOTF-A experience included moving the U.S. effort “from red toward enabling green” and population-centric operations to ensure friendly forces’ ability to sustain future operations without further U.S. assistance.

“If you get the population on your side and you keep them there, then you can start handing this off to the interagency support – hand it off to USAID and hand it off to the actual government of that country – the more sustainable this is going to be and the more you can walk away and go on to where you need to go. You might have to come back and ‘do a little bit of maintenance,’ but at the end of the day, the critical part is keeping the population on your side. If you focus on that, I won’t say that the threat goes away entirely, but you help dry up the threat and the threat’s ability to operate in and among the population,” he said.

“You’ll see things about a ‘balanced approach,’ he continued. “And that’s not indirect or direct [operations]. It’s indirect and direct. You have to be able to do both. You have to be able to develop the force that can do both. And you have to be ready to do both at any time, because the operation can change just that quickly.”

While emphasizing key similarities between the two missions, Fridovich also pointed to one fundamental difference, noting, “One [Philippines] had stayed ‘green’ the whole time because you couldn’t go ‘red.’ One [Afghanistan] started ‘red’ – back in 2001 – and now we are trying to mature the model with them doing it.

“The part about the ‘green’ is that it is self-sustaining,” he added. “Once they know how to do it, once you train them, once the ‘middle level management’ understands and gets resourced, this takes care of itself. You’ve got nations and institutions.”

He continued, “The other notion about population centric [operations] is that if you do that well, it puts you inside the decision cycle of the terrorist. That’s how it worked in the Philippines. We figured out what they were going to do and how they were going to do it and then tried to keep ahead of them, and that’s absolutely vital to the success of the program.”

Summarizing the Philippine and Afghanistan vignettes as “the here and now,” Fridovich offered, “We’re going to be doing this for a long time, across the map, as you saw, in a very distributed fashion. So how can we leverage technology and industry to keep us out in front?”

He identified the focus of the future vision as “two POM cycles out, about 10 years from now,” and then offered a “USSOCOM Strategic Appreciation” chart, begun in November 2007, that attempts to describe the expected environment, based on demographic, environmental, technological, social, and resource changes that might be expected in the world in 2020.

Developed with input from industry and academia, the resulting document reflects the emergence of new ideas about the irregular warfare environment, including a holistic approach to global security problems, new notions of national security, competition for influence over relevant populations, and engagements that must be “population focused” rather than “threat focused.”

“The key thing in an IW – irregular warfare – centric model is that the population is ‘the market,’” Fridovich said. “That’s who you want to win over. You have to do that through, by, and with partners. You’ve got to do more of what we have done in Afghanistan and the Philippines, and Iraq.”

Other comparisons Fridovich offered between recent and future operational environments included an “old environment where big things mattered” – like the Republican Guard – to a “new environment where little things matter” – like a packet of data in cyberspace.

Highlighting a SOF force that is “engaged in a long war of ideas and values,” he concluded, “When we put general purpose forces – heavy and light – together with SOF, and we bring all those enablers, that’s our real success. We have it right. It’s still not wrong. We prove it right every day. And that’s really the future for us. It’s just a matter of smaller teams, much more distributive, leveraging the technology, and then being able to get into somebody else’s decision cycle so you are actually waiting for them and take the initiative away from them. Those principles haven’t gone away. As a matter of fact, we re-prove them all the time.”


Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...