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U.S. Special Operations Command Year in Review 2009

High Demand, Global Presence

It was a very busy 2009 for American special operations. As Adm. Eric T. Olson, commander, United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM, more commonly known as Special Operations Command, or SOCOM) noted, “While the high demand for SOF [special operations forces] in Iraq and Afghanistan … has caused the large majority of SOF [units] to be deployed to the CENTCOM area of responsibility [AOR], SOF do maintain a global presence.” He added that although 85 percent of SOCOM’s assets have been assigned to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, “In fiscal year 2009, special operations forces have conducted operations and training in 106 countries.” And that was an observation he made in June 2009!

Olson also added, “Primarily, SOCOM headquarters is responsible for organizing, training, equipping, and providing fully capable SOF to serve under the operational control of geographic combatant commanders. In this role, SOCOM headquarters shares many of the responsibilities, authorities, and characteristics of a military department, including a separate, major force program budget, established by Congress for the purpose of funding equipment, materiel, supplies, services, training, and operational activities that are peculiar to SOF in nature.”

In addition, SOCOM has two important additional global responsibilities. The first is synchronizing Department of Defense (DoD) planning against terrorists and terrorist networks. In this role, SOCOM receives, analyzes, and prioritizes the geographic combatant commanders’ regional plans, and makes recommendations to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on force and resource allocations. The second is that of DoD proponent for security force assistance. In this role, it helps foster long-term partnerships with security forces of other nations designed to create a more secure global environment that can successfully interdict such threats as terrorism and transnational crime.

Olson noted that in most of the missions conducted by special operations forces, the units “have taken a long-term approach to engagement designed to forge enduring partnerships that contribute to regional stability. This balance of effective direct and indirect skills inherent to the force, and an understanding of the operational context of their application, is the core of special operations.”

The growing complexity of such missions has enlarged the list of skill sets SOF personnel need today, making them, in Olson’s words, “3-D operators.” By this he means members of a multidimensional force prepared to lay groundwork for a wide variety of diplomatic, development, and defense activities in foreign nations that are poor and/or have weak or ineffective governments and primitive or damaged infrastructures. In addition to maintaining a high level of combat expertise, it now means more than ever that SOF have to have extensive cultural knowledge and diplomacy skills. While Army Special Forces have a long history of such skills, efforts to include the rest of the special operations community have been expanded and accelerated.

As part of that effort, in 2008, SOCOM launched an initiative called “Project Lawrence,” named after the legendary British Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) who lived with and advised Arab forces during World War I. As Olson said, “[SOCOM needs] our Lawrence of Arabia, our Lawrence of Pakistan, our Lawrence of Paraguay, our Lawrence of Indonesia, and our Lawrence of Mali.”

Presently about 15,000 personnel annually pass through SOCOM’s language training program, which is run by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. The minimum standard is for each individual to be able to have proficiency at what is called the “one-one” level, which means the person has received fundamental cultural awareness education and is able to conduct basic conversations. Advanced language and cultural awareness programs are also offered to individuals whose specialties require greater levels of fluency. In addition to partnerships with various colleges and universities, two language programs have been designed specifically for use by the military: the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) and the Olmsted Scholar Program.

MAVNI was initiated by the Army in February 2009, and recruits legal aliens in the health care profession as well as native linguists possessing fluency in the languages identified by the Department of Defense as vital to the national interest. Presently there are 35 languages on the list, including Czech, Albanian, and Polish in Europe; Igbo, Yoruba, and Swahili in Africa; Dari, Farsi, Pushtu, and Kurdish in Southwest Asia; and Nepalese, Punjabi, Moro, Lao, and Malay in Asia and the Pacific Rim. To qualify as an instructor, linguists must be proficient in a language and culture on the DoD list, must enlist in the military for at least four years of active duty, and meet enlistment eligibility criteria. In recognition of their service, the individuals become eligible for expedited citizenship under a July 2002 Executive Order.

The Olmsted Scholar Program was founded in 1959 by Gen. George Olmsted as a result of his interactions with the Chinese and Japanese in World War II. The program offers educational grants for two years of foreign language graduate study in a foreign country to competitively selected career-line officers from the four branches of the military.

As important as they are, these programs are still just the first part of the equation. As Olson noted, “Language skill is a perishable skill, and it must be sustained, maintained, incentivized so that individuals will dedicate some of their free time to do it.” Olson said that special operations is working on ways “to really steep people in languages and cultures over the course of their careers.”

With a total of just 55,890 personnel, SOCOM is the smallest of all the military branches. Given the many demands on SOF and the fact that not just anyone can become a member of special operations makes recruiting personnel and then keeping them on the active-duty roster a top priority.

“The factors that most influence retention of the force are the quality of the mission, the quality of individual and family support, operational tempo and monetary compensation,” Olson said. “Recruiting is good. Retention is satisfactory. The training pipelines are sufficient to produce the force that we’re programmed to grow. We really can’t absorb more than about 5 percent per-year growth, and we’re on pace to do that,” he added.

It’s no secret that 2009 saw some heavy SOCOM casualties in combat and training operations worldwide, and that fact is on the minds of the command’s leadership. Noting the correlation between the care and support of wounded personnel and their families and its impact on mission readiness, Olson said, “We have continued to develop programs within our award-winning nationally recognized USSOCOM Care Coalition that looks after our entire SOF family.” The Care Coalition is a responsive, low-cost clearinghouse that matches needs with providers and currently supports 2,300 wounded SOF warriors with state-of-the-art treatment, recovery, and rehabilitation programs. The USSOCOM Care Coalition also works closely with the DoD, other services, and the Department of Veterans Affairs to assist wounded SOF warriors and their families in resolving financial, logistical, social, occupational, and other issues.

While the people of the special operations community are its greatest asset, for them to be effective, they need the right tools. This is why SOCOM has its own Title 10 budget authority to procure SOF-specific equipment and modifications. One of the most valuable aerial assets in SOCOM’s weapons inventory is the AC-130 Spectre/Spooky gunship. The heavy use of these airframes, initially in Iraq and more recently in Afghanistan, has taken a toll on the gunship fleet, some of which are decades old.

“The long-term requirement for airborne precision strike platforms is 33,” Olson told Congress. “SOCOM currently has 25 gunships. We seek 16 additional precision strike platforms [a new MC-130W variant is being proposed] to meet the immediate requirement in Afghanistan. Over time, we will attrite [retire] the eight oldest in the inventory to achieve a steady state of 33.”

With the pace and scale of operations in Afghanistan increasing, SOCOM is focused on developing new airborne platforms that could meet the growing demand for inter-theater transport and logistical support. Olson specifically noted that SOCOM particularly needs in the region the Joint Cargo Aircraft, which is low maintenance, has the capability to operate in remote areas off small, rough-surface runways, has a small personnel and support “footprint” in the field, and is versatile enough to be fitted with a variety of cargo and gunship payloads. “An analysis of alternatives conducted by the Special Operations Command identified the C-27J as the preferred alternative,” Olson said. The C-27J Spartan is a fixed-wing twin turboprop airplane that looks like a smaller version of the C-130. The C-27J can be modified into a gunship and, because of its smaller size compared to the C-130 gunships, the proposed aircraft has come to be referred to as “gunship light.” But that is only in reference to its size. It can still pack a devastating punch. One feature that makes the C-27J valuable for use in Afghanistan was its capability of taking off from rough-surface runways as short as 1,800 feet. However, with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ reduction of the C-27J program numbers from 78 to 38 aircraft in 2010, the future of C-27Js in SOCOM is in doubt.

In October 2008, USSOCOM decommissioned the last of its fleet of MH-53 Pave Low helicopters, which are being replaced with the CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport. The Osprey, Olson said, “remains one of USSOCOM’s premier programs.” Calling it a “transformational platform,” Olson praised the CV-22’s defensive systems, enhanced situational awareness, and terrain following and terrain avoidance (TF/TA) capabilities that “provide greater survivability for SOF aircrews and ground operators.”

SOCOM is developing the next generation of SEAL Delivery Vehicles (SDV), which in the future, will be referred to as Shallow Water Combat Submersibles (SWCS). The existing Mk. 8 SDV is reaching the end of its service life, and is scheduled to be retired in 2015. Olson, commenting on the planned replacement, said, “We have about $3.5 million in the fiscal year 2010 budget for Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation in order to determine what the best craft will be to meet that need.”

In addition, work has advanced on the Joint Multi-Mission Submersible (JMMS) program. When it becomes operational, JMMS will provide longer-range transits, through extreme water temperatures, with greater on-station endurance than existing SOF undersea mobility platforms.

The new Mk. 16 and Mk. 17 SCAR combat assault rifles began being deployed in 2009. These new weapons were designed for use by SOF personnel, and are less sensitive to dust and fine sand particles. In addition, they are equipped with interchangeable barrels of different lengths that can be easily detached and reassembled in order to meet different operational requirements, and a modular grenade launcher.

In the past, many thought of SOF mobility being oriented around aviation – fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft that could conduct stealthy insertions and extractions of SOF teams deep in hostile territory. While that aspect is still important, the need for adequate ground-based mobility is now recognized. In 2001, only one of the five active-duty Special Forces Groups had ground vehicles for transport. Now all do, along with most of the other SOF units in SOCOM.

“This year, two new classes of vehicles were introduced for SOF ground mobility: the RG-31-medium Mine Protected Vehicle and the RG-33 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle,” Olson said. Both are built with extra armor to protect the crews against small arms fire and an armored V-shaped undercarriage designed as a redirecting shield against mine and IED explosions. The RG-31 carries a crew of 10, and depending on the variant, the RG-33 can carry either eight or 14 personnel.

Looking to the future, Olson said, “SOCOM headquarters will continue to lead, develop, and sustain the world’s most precise and lethal counterterrorism force. We will provide the world’s most effective special operations trainers, advisors, and combat partners with the skills, leadership, and mindset necessary to meet today’s and tomorrow’s unconventional challenges. This nation’s joint SOF will continue to find, kill, capture, or reconcile our irreconcilable enemies, to train, mentor, and partner with our global friends and allies, and to pursue the tactics, techniques, procedures, and technologies that will keep us ahead of the emerging and dynamic threats.”


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...