The Globalization of U.S. Special Operations Forces

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David Isenberg
IPS
May 24, 2012

It was recently reported that U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) commander Adm. Bill McRaven and Deputy Director of Operations Brig. Gen. Sean Mulholland want to establish a worldwide network linking special operations forces (SOF) of allied and partner nations to combat terrorism.

If created, the network would comprise regional security coordination centres, organised and structured similarly to NATO SOF headquarters in Mons, Belgium.

According to Mulholland, these centres would not be command-and- control nodes but rather centres for education, networking and coordination to gain regional solutions for regional problems.

Mulholland estimated it would cost less than 30 million dollars a year to operate and maintain each regional node, although that is a figure that some observers consider laughably small.

SOCOM plans to stand up the first one in Miami-based U.S. Southern Command later in 2013, with Mulholland tapped to command integrated SOF in Central and South America.

This plan may seem ultra-ambitious but given the demand on and pace of U.S. SOF activities in recent years it hardly comes as a surprise. The forces will be conducting missions in 120 countries by year’s end, up from about 75 currently. And while they account for only three percent of the military as a whole, they make up more than seven percent of the forces assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan.

This activity is increasing as the U.S. Special Operations Command’s budget is set to remain flat. The command’s fiscal 2013 budget request is 10.4 billion dollars – essentially the same as its current budget. But the budget for the Special Operations Command has more than quadrupled since 2001, as has the number of deployments.

The new edition of Joint Publication 3-05, published in April for Special Operations, lists 11 “core activities” versus 9 in the previous edition, reflecting the addition of “security force assistance” – aiding the development of foreign security forces – and counterinsurgency.

SOCOM, based in Tampa, Fla., has about 66,000 military and civilian personnel. At any given time, 54,000 are training or redeploying, and 12,000 are deployed around the world. About 9,000 are in Afghanistan.

SOCOM expects to add about 8,800 troops over the next four years – 2,500 this year, 2,300 in 2013, and 2,000 in 2014 and 2015. Planned additions to the SOCOM force structure include:

U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC): Increases the authorisation for one Special Forces Battalion (the fifth of the five mandated by the 2006 QDR); increases aircrews assigned to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment; increases 75th Ranger Regiment personnel; increases military personnel for the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade and the 4th Military Information Support Operations (MISO) Group; and increases authorisations for military personnel providing combat support/service support to USASOC.

Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC): Increases authorisations to provide support for the 1st Special Operations Group, 1st Special Operations Wing, 27th Special Operations Group, and 352nd Special Operations Group.

But because the selection process can take weeks, and training generally takes at least two years, the new troops will not provide immediate relief for the majority of special operators that are deployed.

Some past SOF officials worry about the impact of the increased demand on SOF capabilities.

In a Feb. 14 Foreign Policy article titled “SOF Power”, retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former Army Ranger and former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, said the Barack Obama administration has not adequately addressed important questions about the impact on the culture of special operations forces.

The high demand for special operations over the past decade has contributed to a shortage of adequate support, such as helicopters dedicated to special operations forces, he said.

The example people point to happened last August when 30 troops, including 22 Navy SEALs, were killed in Afghanistan when Taliban fighters shot down their helicopter – a Chinook, which typically is used for heavy transport and flown by a conventional crew.

One does not have to look hard to find examples of U.S. SOF around the world.

In Yemen, as part of the escalation of the United States’ covert war there, at least 20 U.S. special operations troops have used satellite imagery, drone video, eavesdropping systems and other technical means to help pinpoint targets for an offensive. The U.S. forces also advised Yemeni military commanders on where and when to deploy their troops

President Obama said in 2010 that he had “no intention of sending U.S. boots on the ground” to Yemen. But retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, now head of the CIA, offered to secretly put U.S. special operations troops in the country, leaked State Department cables show. Then-President Saleh rebuffed his proposal.

Obama later authorised a small team of special operations trainers to help Yemeni forces take on Al-Qaeda. Based mainly in the capital, those trainers were withdrawn last year but apparently began to filter back early this year.

In early May the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. military leaders have developed new proposals to speed the deployment of U.S. SOF to a growing number of the world’s trouble spots.

Under the new military plan, U.S. SOF would deploy either as strike groups or trainers for local armed forces. The proposal fits with a new Pentagon military strategy put in place by President Obama in January that advocates greater use of special-operations forces.

The plan for special-operations forces would streamline procedures in the defence department for deploying troops, relaxing review processes and giving regional U.S. commanders greater ease of access to special-operations forces and equipment.

Currently, staff officers in the Pentagon review most requests to deploy troops around the globe. The system has been criticised for duplicating the Special Operations Command’s planning process, but defenders say that getting Washington’s input on troop movements, however small, is critical.

Under the new proposal Adm. McRaven would assign SOF to the military’s various combatant commanders. In the event of a crisis, the combatant commander could order those units to a trouble spot without going through a formal process to request forces.

Adm. McRaven would have the power under the new proposal to deploy more forces during a crisis or conflict, without going through the formal Pentagon approval process. The plan also would allow SOCOM to move support assets, aviation units, surveillance equipment and intelligence specialists into trouble spots to aid commando teams.

But critics say regional commanders may not be aware of the wider strategic signals moving assets around the globe might send to other nations. Review of all deployments, these officials say, is a critical safeguard against the U.S. inadvertently exacerbating regional tensions.

This article was posted: Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 12:09 pm

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