SOF Prepares for Global Future

In the post-9/11 era, U.S. Special Operations Command shifts its focus toward international partnerships


Special Operations is more than Hollywood makes it out to be, according to Adm. William McRaven, who commanded the team that carried out the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. It’s not all kicking down doors and dealing with villains in the dark of night, McRaven expressed to an audience gathered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in May. Special forces don’t play pingpong and toss around a football at a forward operating base, just waiting idly for a call to check weapons, jump on a helicopter, and get rid of a bad guy. Many played football in school, yes, but now they play chess and have mortgages and families they wish they could be at home with more often.

“The reality of the matter is the counterterrorism piece, the direct-action piece of what we do is a very small part of our portfolio,” said McRaven, who heads U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. “The more important part of what we do is building partner capability [and] our day-to-day interaction with our allies and partners around the globe.”

McRaven went on to discuss his vision for the future of Special Operations. Shaping the future of the command has been his goal since assuming leadership two years ago, often drawing from assessments by two former high-ranking government officials.

Fundamentally, picturing human geography for users has an underlying geospatial aspect to it because you have to visualize where this tribe’s boundaries end and where the tribal chief lives. It’s how the operators interact with the information in the geospatial layer.”

—Rear Adm. Thomas Brown

In May 2012, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of terrorism threats becoming “so complex, fast-moving, and cross-cutting that no one nation could ever hope to solve them alone.”

Three months earlier, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed a strategic guidance calling for light and agile units with smaller footprints that can partner with other nations and disperse throughout the world.

“These sorts of things are core competencies of our U.S. Special Operations Command,” McRaven said. “We have had Special Operations operators out around the globe for decades, but now we have the ability through communications technology to be able to kind of knit this capability together.”

Marsoc marines learn to maneuver a Zodiac, a rigid hull inflatable boat, during an amphibious assault course in Key West, Fla., March 2012. Photo credit: Master Sgt. Larry Carpenter

To perform the knitting, McRaven meets with elected officials, academics, and industry leaders. He educates decision makers and their influencers that Special Operations Forces (SOF) should have a future different from the decade past. Or, at least, a future different from the Iraq and Afghanistan portrayed in movies, books, and video games.

“You have to understand, we now have field grade officers who came into the military after 9/11,” said Col. Stuart Bradin, who is leading the creation of a vision for a global SOF network by the next decade, known as “SOCOM 2020.” “We’ve got people in government who only know what we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, so absolutely it’s an education piece—internally and externally.”

Seeking Balance

After a dozen years of highly publicized success, SOCOM aims to work to the left of war, helping other countries stop conflict before it starts or at least keep it contained. To do so, the command needs help.

“We’re building a network of stakeholders,” said Bradin. “It’s not just us … It’s not just [Department of Defense]. We’re looking for a lot of stakeholders who collaborate and communicate inside what we call the Phase 1 and Phase Zero activities, which are pre-hostility.”

The State Department is among these stakeholders, because, “We do not do anything—nothing— that doesn’t have the approval of the chief of mission, of the ambassador who’s there,” McRaven said.

However, the Department of State is among those agencies wary of SOCOM ramping up its influence.

“First, we have the question of authorities,” said Gregory Kausner, deputy assistant secretary and head of the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, in remarks on a panel at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in June.

“Some have urged for the creation of separate and unique authorities for SOCOM to conduct long-term, train-and-equip activities. I think it’s important to note, however, that there is a wide range of existing State and DoD security cooperation mechanisms out there, which can be used to build partner capacity without duplicating or substantially overlapping existing authorities.”

Kausner said the State Department applauds SOCOM’s goal to become an increasingly flexible, agile, and ready command. However, he added, “We also see the need for continued improvement in balancing and synchronizing SOF programs with broader U.S. foreign policy goals.”

Military First

From front to back, Special Operations is military. While its personnel in a global network would work with host nation counterparts and the local U.S. embassy team, they would answer to Theater Special Operations Commanders (TSOCs) and, through them, to the theater geographic commanders.

This is done now, to some extent, in a less formal arrangement. At any given time, Special Operations Forces has as few as one person stationed in 75-100 countries, conducting exercises, testing, and teaching.

But, how many SOF nodes would it take to cover the entire globe, and where would they all be located?

“To be honest with you, we don’t know,” Bradin said. “Now, each of the TSOCs are framing or mentoring this process. It all depends on what form it takes. It’s a little premature.”

Building Intelligence

What is known is that a global SOF network will require specialized intelligence.

Working with local defense forces requires more cultural understanding. More formal intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance will also be necessary to find and target enemies for the local warriors. The question is, how formal should the ISR be?

“In Afghanistan, because it’s a declared war zone, there’s a lot of latitude about types of ISR,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Brown, a former Special Operations chief with U.S. Southern Command, and now the director of military support with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). “But when you get outside a declared war zone, you have to work with a partner nation to figure out what they’re comfortable with.”

To do so, there will be an emphasis on versatility and agility, said Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, chief of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which studies Special Operations requirements and tactics, at a recent conference in Tampa.

“Plug-and-play ISR is very important to [JSOC],” he said. “We need to be able to select the right tool for the right environment.”

Disparate environments will tax ISR resources to the point where inter-service partnerships will become essential.

“For SOF to go global, it can’t own the entire architecture,” said Val Shuey, intelligence program manager for SOCOM. “We have to partner out [with all of the services]. With everything we do within SOF, we’re looking to share the data, use other people’s data, use other people’s tools and applications.”

Intelligence Foundation

In spanning the globe, Special Operations will build on lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, but intelligence won’t end with full-motion video and signals. It may not begin with them, either. After more than a decade of operations on known terrain, Special Operations will now infiltrate areas where there is little baseline knowledge.

“Two things of importance are ABI (activity-based intelligence)…and the human geography effort,” Brown said of SOF needs for the future. NGA, which anticipates placing representatives in the global Special Operations nodes, is among the trailblazers in activity-based intelligence methodology.

“That’s a kind of intelligence where, rather than focusing on a particular plane or ship or space, you’re focusing on activity and transactions,” said Brown. “And that’s what SOCOM needs [in order] to understand what an adversarial network might be doing.”

Members of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan provide medical aid for local villagers in Nagahan, Afghanistan, April 5, 2010. Photo credit: U.S. Army Sgt. Patricia Ballou

Human geography will be especially important in far-flung Special Operations nodes, according to Brown.

“Fundamentally, picturing human geography for users has an underlying geospatial aspect to it because you have to visualize where this tribe’s boundaries end and where the tribal chief lives,” Brown said. “It’s how the operators interact with the information in the geospatial layer.”

Human geography is critical “for the guy on the ground, because he’s operating at a disadvantage in a place he doesn’t know, with people, perhaps, that he doesn’t know that well,” Brown added. “Human geography can give him a leg up in understanding their environment.”

SOCOM 2020 will focus on different environments than SOF has been concentrated in for the past decade, and command leadership’s hope is to keep it that way. But the Hollywood Special Forces image will likely linger long after Zero Dark Thirty is shown on cable television.

Featured image: U.S. Air Force members conduct a high altitude, low opening mission during Emerald Warrior 2012, Hurburt Field, Fla., March 4, 2012. The purpose of Emerald Warrior is to exercise special operations components in urban and irregular warfare settings. Photo credit: Master Sgt. Larry Carpenter

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