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The Year in Special Operations: 2010

“On an average day, in excess of 12,000 special operations forces [SOF] and SOF support personnel are deployed in more than 75 countries across the globe.”
– Adm. Eric T. Olson, Commander, United States Special Operations Command

The October 2010 intercepts of explosive-packed airfreight parcels originating from Yemen are just the most recent demonstrations that the national security threat against the United States of America and its allies, now known as the “new normal,” is as real today as on Sept. 11, 2001. Unlike easily recognized, state-based threats, where the boundaries are clear and defined and the foes conventionally armed, these new normal threats are transnational, sophisticated, and ideologically driven. Frequently they are based on insurgent networks anchored in weak and/or failed states. The most visible such insurgent network is that of al Qaeda and its affiliates, which have grown like viruses in the Muslim nations of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

In the decade since 9/11, the resilient and adaptive capabilities of terrorist operatives and their organizations have demanded that military and security forces of nation-states must maintain constant and ongoing vigilance and countermeasures. Foremost among the American departments, agencies, and military branches committed to the interdiction and elimination of al Qaeda and similar terrorist networks, as well as international drug trafficking networks and other transnational security threats, is the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

In his 2010 Posture Statement, USSOCOM Commander Adm. Eric T. Olson said, “USSOCOM is tasked to synchronize planning for global operations against terrorist networks.” Olson explained that USSOCOM’s authority for doing so derives from enabling legislation “most often referred to as ‘Section 1208.’ This authority enables American special operations forces [SOF] units to train and equip indigenous forces, both regular and irregular, and to enable them to support ongoing counterterrorism operations.”

The planning framework and interagency supporting network for USSOCOM’s global operations were originally developed through the 7500 series of Concept Plans (CONPLANs) crafted at USSOCOM Headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., and approved by the secretary of defense. Olson likes to point out that CONPLAN 7500 “calls for the use of both a direct and indirect approach to fighting terrorist networks. The direct approach is urgent, necessary, and largely kinetic. In the last year, USSOF – deployed in support of geographic combatant commanders – inflicted substantial losses against the leadership and operational capacity of al Qaeda and its violent extremist affiliates.” Olson is also quick to note that: “These effects – while significant in the short term – are not by themselves decisive. The enduring results come from indirect approaches – those in which we enable partners to combat extremist organizations themselves by contributing to their capabilities through advising, training, and – when authorized and funded – equipping.” In other words, while the elimination of terrorist leaders and cells is important and necessary, true change in the regions that harbor them can only come about through humanitarian and stabilization efforts.

Malian soldiers conduct fast-rope operations out of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter from the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) in Bamako, Mali, May 18, 2010. The military training engagement was part of an AFRICOM-sponsored exercise called Flintlock 10, a special operations forces exercise focused on military interoperability and capacity-building with partner nations in northern and western Africa. The exercise, which included participation of key European nations, was conducted by Special Operations Command Africa and designed to build relationships and develop capacity among security forces throughout the Trans-Sahara region of Africa. Approximately 1,200 European, African partner nations, and U.S. personnel from 14 nations participated. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Marelise Wood, Flintlock Public Affairs

USSOCOM Exercises and Operations
Terrorist incidents in October and November 2010 are just the most recent in a series of attacks launched from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) cells based along the lawless border of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. AQAP has become a major force in terrorist operations in the Middle East in the past few years, and draws its support from the tribal home area of Osama bin Laden. In response, a counterterrorist campaign against AQAP was initiated in December 2009 and overseen by USSOCOM’s Joint Special Operations Command. In collaboration with the Yemeni government and in partnership with Yemeni military and security forces, more than two dozen ground raids and airstrikes by MQ-1 Predator drones were launched against AQAP targets. Though many of the covert strikes were successful, particularly a March 14, 2010, attack that resulted in the death of Jamil al-Anbari, a top AQAP operative, one attack revealed the deadly risks involved in such actions. On May 25, 2010, an airstrike in the remote Marib province resulted in the accidental death of deputy governor Jaber al-Shabwani, a respected local leader who had been working to convince local AQAP operatives to end their terrorist activities. Still, the campaign itself has hurt al Qaeda, as evidenced by the organization’s response with the recent series of failed AQAP air cargo bomb terrorist attacks.

While public attention regarding the Global War on Terrorism has focused on the Middle East and Southwest Asia, another major battleground is the southern Philippines around the island of Mindanao. It is there that U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) has scored major victories over extremists among the indigenous Muslims, known as Moros. This includes the Abu Sayyef terrorist organization that has links to al Qaeda, and the country’s largest Islamic insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Because the Philippine constitution bans American forces from engaging in direct combat action, the 550 American troops, mostly composed of Special Forces personnel, “assist and advise” their armed forces of the Philippines counterparts in operations that employ counterterrorism tactics that in some cases reach all the way back to the Philippine Insurrection of 1899-1902.

Since 2002, 28 important Philippine insurgent leaders have been killed or captured, with many of the others being forced to take refuge in remote provinces on Mindanao, thus limiting their activities. In addition to “direct action” military operations to weed out extremists in the villages, JSOTF-P has helped oversee a larger “indirect action” of humanitarian aid to one of the poorest regions in the Philippines. Historically the southern Philippines have been an area suspicious of the primarily Christian government based in Manila on the northernmost island of Luzon. However, this combination of efforts ultimately has caused the MILF to officially disavow terrorism and renew peace talks with the Philippine government.

While counterterrorist operations are an important focus, USSOCOM is also committed to providing humanitarian aid support, both as part of an overall counterinsurgency campaign and as a stand-alone mission. An example of the latter occurred when a catastrophic 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti Jan. 12, 2010, prompting a massive outpouring of international aid. The joint U.S. military effort to help the island country was known as Operation Unified Response. One of the first American units to arrive at the devastated Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince was the 193rd Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. For two months, from Jan. 14 to March 15, two massive C-130J transports logged a total of 508.7 flying hours delivering relief supplies, with an average cargo load of 118.5 tons.

International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) special operations forces (SOF) soldiers provide security while a road maintenance team checkpoint is being built in Tagab, Afghanistan, Nov. 26, 2010. Afghan civilians, RMT members, ISAF SOF, and Afghan National Police with a provincial response company helped build the checkpoint. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joseph Swafford

Since local Haitian television and radio broadcast stations and transmitters were wrecked by the earthquake, an EC-130J Commando Solo flew over the area, broadcasting messages on five different FM and AM frequencies in the Haitian language of French-Creole. This was the first time a Commando Solo aircraft was used in a humanitarian mission, and it proved its worth in non-combat operations. Meanwhile, special operations ground support was provided by the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Group Two Logistics and Support Unit (LOGSU-2), augmented by an attached Navy Seabee team, and a Marine Special Operations Command detachment, some members of which were themselves Haitian immigrants.

If ever there is a byword in 21st century military operations, that byword is “joint” – the integration of units from different branches, and often also from different nations, for the purpose of executing an operation. It takes constant training to ensure that joint operations regardless of size and complexity run smoothly. Some of this joint training took place from Feb. 17 to March 4, 2010, when elements from U.S. Special Operations Command-Europe (SOCEUR), NSW Unit-2, SEAL Team 18, and Special Boat Team 20 were among the more than 14,000 military personnel from 14 nations participating in Exercise Cold Response. Cold Response was conducted in northern Norway and above the Arctic Circle in an extreme cold weather environment (temperatures ranged between 5 and minus 35 degrees Celsius/41 to minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit) with severe wind chill conditions present. Sgt. Maj. Gregory Hayes, the SOCEUR operations sergeant major, said, “Certainly special operations is designed to operate in all environments and therefore must train on core cold weather tasks to remain proficient. The environment in Norway, particularly around the Arctic Circle is … unique. The cold is unlike most places in the world and operations require an in-depth look at equipment and procedures to be effective.”

Another important partnership training effort occurred in May 2010 in Africa, and in an environment completely opposite that of frozen Norway. This was a training program called Exercise Flintlock 10, and it included the participation of 103 Special Forces soldiers (Green Berets) and, for the first time, members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR – “The Nightstalkers”). Exercise Flintlock, which was held in the context of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, is a U.S. Africa Command-sponsored annual program now in its 10th year. Flintlock is designed to build relationships, develop capabilities, and synchronize efforts among the militaries of the Trans-Sahara region.

This year’s edition of Flintlock enjoyed the participation of approximately 1,200 personnel from 14 nations from Europe, Africa, and the United States. The Special Forces soldiers trained with their African nation counterparts, focusing on close-quarter battle drills, battlefield medical treatment, and mission planning and movement with a primary emphasis on direct-action missions and a secondary emphasis on team mobility through desert terrain. The Nightstalkers’ participation was unique within the exercise in that, unlike their ground unit counterparts, they did not spend time with just one or two groups. The Nightstalker crews, flying MH-47 Chinook helicopters, provided SOAR support in a variety of training events with different units and in multiple cities, staying only a few days in any one location. Training included fast rope and ground assault operations out of helicopters as well as vertical extraction techniques.

Another exercise, held in Brazil under the Joint Combined Exchange Training program, which began on April 19 and concluded on May 13, had seven NSW operators, including SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant-craft crewmen, train with the elite Brazilian Marine Corps Special Operations Battalion (Tonelero). This was part of a larger exercise series requested by the Brazilian government and under the umbrella of the Theater Security Cooperation program, a partnership between the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Defense (DoD). Training focused on land warfare, close quarters combat, trauma medicine, over-the-beach missions, and movement through urban and rural environments. At its conclusion, Brazilian Lt. Cmdr. Carlos Tunala, the battalion’s operations and logistics officer, said, “We requested this training to exchange tactics with special operations troops who have combat experience. The SEAL operators are the best choice to provide that training. We focused on urban operations. My Marines are more prepared to conduct these operations now. Our only experience is in Haiti, which is not as complicated as Iraq or Afghanistan. With this training we can improve our operations in Haiti as well as be more prepared to host the World Cup and the Olympics.”

U.S. Navy SEALs train members of the Brazilian Marine Corps Special Operations Battalion (Tonelero) in close-quarters combat during a Joint Combined Exchange Training exercise. The course was facilitated by the SEALs, as well as Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen. The bilateral training was the first time the United States had engaged with this unit in more than 25 years, and strengthened ties between the two nations. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Kathryn Whittenberger

While anti-insurgent exercises and operations against terrorist organizations like al Qaeda garner lead and front-page headlines, the illegal drug trade is also a dangerous multinational threat. The small Central American country of Belize, located on the Caribbean Coast at the base of the Yucatan Peninsula, has become a launching pad for illegal drug shipments into the United States. In partnership with the Belize Defence Force, and under the auspices of the theater security program established by Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH), members of an Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) from 7th Special Forces Group worked with the Belize Special Assignment Group to help them hone their capabilities to combat drug traffickers. Instead of conducting this Foreign Internal Defense (FID) training from start to finish, the ODA advisers would explain to Belizean noncommissioned officers (NCOs) the purpose of an exercise and highlight aspects of the exercise that were most important. They then observed the NCOs as they took the lead in conducting the FID exercise. This hands-off FID training approach impressed Belizean Cpl. Macario Salam, who said, “I feel it is important that our American partners trust me to train these men, especially since we are using live ammunition. It is good that they let us train ourselves. They have confidence in us, and we are grateful for their training … [The ODA team members] are like our brothers. These men are veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their knowledge and experience have been very important for us to become better soldiers.”

Acquisitions and Finance
Approximately $28 billion was budgeted for USSOCOM in FY 2010 to meet its needs, which include, but are not limited to, upgrading and expanding aging and overtaxed air fleets; increasing force mobility capability on land, sea, and in the air; developing new weapons systems and adding to the inventory of existing systems; expanding the global training programs that include everything from language and culture programs to security force partnership exercises with other countries; retaining skilled SOF personnel; and training new recruits. The plan validated by the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review to grow key USSOCOM capabilities in areas like Special Forces, Special Operations Aviation, and Civil Affairs/Psychological Warfare is well under way, with completion scheduled for FY 2013. Additional growth areas, such as expansion of the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command’s (AFSOC’s) 6th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) FID training, are being examined closely. And there are new and emerging potentials rapidly coming on the scene.

Without question, unmanned combat systems have become a core competency within USSOCOM, which is widely regarded as having done more to embrace this technology than any other entity within DoD. During FY 2009 alone, the 3rd SOS flew more hours with its MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) than all the manned flight hours by the rest of AFSOC. 2010 continued this trend, with U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) standing up its own organic UAV capability with the new MQ-1C Grey Eagle. Initially assigned as a part of the 160th SOAR, the Grey Eagle has greatly improved capabilities over the MQ-1 Predator, including a greater ordnance load and operating altitude. Other USSOCOM UAV plans include fielding the new MQ-9 Reaper heavy UAV in the near future.

Finally, there is the matter of future leadership, which has always been a SOF priority. Since its inception following the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen legislation in the 1980s, USSOCOM has been blessed with some of the finest leadership of any of the armed services within DoD. Thus, the recent appointments of new military and civilian leadership for USSOCOM are both welcome and worth noting. Following the promotion of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASDSOLIC) Michael Vickers to head DoD’s intelligence agencies, President Barack Obama has nominated Michael Sheehan, a former Green Beret, to the top SOF civilian post in the Pentagon. And with the news that Olson is planning to retire in 2011, Vice Adm. William McRaven was nominated to take over command at USSOCOM. Along with a strong bench of leaders honed over a decade of war since 9/11, USSOCOM looks ready to continue its fight into the next decade and beyond.

This article first appeared in The Year in Defense, Winter 2011 Edition.


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