Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Is this the new normal for SOF? (UPDATED)

I'm going to start with a disclaimer: I am not a special operator. In fact, I'm not any kind of operator. I never have been. I don't have any kind of inside knowledge about the way SOF does its business, and you shouldn't take anything I'm going to say here as a suggestion that I do. My angle on this is basically the same as my approach to a range of other military issues: I understand policy and strategy and force structure, and I have a reasonable amount of expertise in the theory, concepts, and authorities that underpin security force assistance. So let's just head this off at the pass: you don't have to come tell me YOU DON'T KNOW DICK ABOUT HOW SPECIAL OPERATORS DO THEIR JOBS IN THE REAL WORLD AND YOU SHOULD JUST STFU!!!11!1 because I'm pretty much already granting you that. So there's that out of the way.

Now then:
A growing number of veteran commandos in Special Operations are rising to top positions in traditional military units and across the national security bureaucracy, reflecting the importance of their specialized training to fight unconventional wars that defined the past decade.
Among the most visible of these appointments were the recent promotions of two Navy Seal commanders to the No. 2 slots at a pair of military regional commands, a historic first.
Vice Adm. Robert S. Harward was named deputy commander of Central Command, the military’s busiest, managing two wars while watching a complex set of partners and rivals across Southwest Asia and the Middle East. Vice Adm. Joseph D. Kernan was named deputy commander of Southern Command, specializing in upgrading the skills of local security forces across Latin America and the Caribbean with the exercise of American influence, or “soft power.”
The intermingling of conventional forces and Special Operations personnel is under way elsewhere, too, reflecting a significant shift in military culture and reshaping not only the armed services but also the executive branch and Capitol Hill.
This according to Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt in today's New York Times. (It's probably worth noting that Shanker and Schmitt also have a new book out on the role of SOF and intelligence assets in aggressively targeting AQAM.)

Admiral Eric Olson handed over command of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) to ADM William McRaven yesterday; both men are SEALs. Olson was the first ever three-star (and eventually four-star) SEAL, and the first SEAL to command SOCOM. McRaven was the first SEAL to command JSOC, SOCOM's most talked-about component. All of which is to say that SEALs are a highly visible, influential presence in the senior ranks of both the special operations community and the broader Joint force in a way they never have been before.

SEALs have been in the press a lot lately, of course: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the tragedy of last weekend's downed Chinook have ensured that both the sacrifices and the excellence of Naval special operators are front of the national mind. It's exactly this centrality to current operations that has made possible the increasing policy influence of the individuals cited above: in a war that is largely irregular, who better to help integrate special operations with those conducted by conventional military forces than representatives of the units whose statutory responsibility includes direct action, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, and a range of other irregular tasks? The geographic combatant commands' "Phase 0" peacetime engagements and post-conflict activities have a great deal in common with the main elements of the SOF mission, so this seems like a sensible move. Shanker and Schmitt are right to emphasize the unique experience of special operators in dealing not just with other military officers, but integrating operations with representatives from across the interagency and partner militaries. This is surely a useful skill for flag and general officers at a combatant command, and it's something SOF guys have been doing for their entire careers. Here's an instructive snip from the Army's SOF field manual:
ARSOF missions are normally joint or interagency in nature. ARSOF can conduct these missions unilaterally, with allied forces, as a coalition force, or with indigenous or surrogate assets. Mission priorities vary from theater to theater. ARSOF missions are dynamic because they are directly affected by politico-military considerations. A change in national security strategy or policy may add, delete, or radically alter the nature of an ARSOF mission.
Special operators are Chuck Krulak's real "strategic corporals" fighting the "three block war," and this serves them well at the policy-oriented higher reaches of the combatant commands.

But what first jumped out at me on reading the article I've excerpted above is that all the guys we're talking about aren't just SOF guys -- they're all SEALs. That is, they're members of perhaps the most direct action-oriented SOF in the U.S. arsenal. That's not to say that Naval Special Warfare doesn't do FID or anything of the sort, but rather that the major emphasis of the SEALs both in the current wars and over the last several decades has been direct action, raids, counterterrorism, and so on. This is in direct contrast to U.S. Army Special Forces, whose traditional, foundational mission is UW and FID. (Look, this isn't about interservice rivalry, so spare me. It just is what it is.)

SF, of course, has done plenty of direct action in the last decade. The sheer size of the combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan has created a demand for direct action "door-kickers" that outpaced the supply of forces traditionally tasked with that mission, which has resulted in what I call the Ranger-izing of the bulk of U.S. SOF. (The 75th Ranger Regiment is the Army's elite light-infantry unit and is traditionally tasked with direct action and strike missions such as raiding and interdiction.) Simply put, with two big wars going on, SOF have increasingly been employed for door-kicking and trigger-pulling.

Should this be the new normal, though? Is this what we want these guys -- SOF writ large, I mean -- doing into the future? The unique capabilities that exist in U.S. SOF were created and maintained for a reason: they're specialized, they're training-intensive, and they're extremely useful to policymakers. Military leaders are always looking for ways to adapt and make themselves more relevant to the mission, and the hard-chargers in the SOF community are probably even more inclined to do so than most; viewed in this light, it's not surprising that a national security paradigm that prioritizes counterterrorism would mitigate in favor of an emphasis on raiding and direct action. But if the trend continues, the Joint force and the country risks losing the many other important force multipliers that SOF can bring to the table.

For their part, Special Forces guys seem to know this. Many of them understand that the future security environment, in which policymakers will almost certainly favor the indirect approach over costly and controversial military operations, demands a re-emphasis on their traditional core competencies. I've got a lot of technical quibbles with this idea (and a few conceptual ones), but COL Eric Wendt presents an aggressive and original idea for how Army SF can get back to their roots through what he's calling the Volckmann Program. It's worth reading, if only to appreciate the juxtaposition between Wendt's traditionalist understanding of what SOF are meant to be all about and the Dick Marcinko caricature that's become increasingly accurate in recent years.

Does the elevation of SEALs as opposed to Green Berets indicate a continued emphasis on direct action at the expense of FID? Am I reading too much into this? (I'm especially interested in input and comments from SF guys and other special operators. As I said above, I'm looking at this from the outside, and there's only so much you can see from there.)

UPDATE: Because I've finally realized after all this time that no one clicks through on links, and because it's directly relevant to this conversation, here's the list of specified "special operations activities" from 10 U.S.C. §167 (j). I've also included my own simplistic explanatory comments for your edification, but I'm not going to go into the sort of semantic digressions (as is my wont) that are so natural when discussing the DoD lexicon.

1) Direct action (DA) -- killing people and breaking things in surgical fashion in high-risk environments
2) Strategic reconnaissance (now called special reconnaissance, SR) -- essentially intelligence collection
3) Unconventional warfare (UW) -- support to foreign insurgency
4) Foreign internal defense (FID) -- support to foreign authorities combating internal threats (insurgency, terrorism, etc.); includes a training/advising (security force assistance) component
5) Civil affairs (CA*) -- liaison between civil government and military forces
6) Psychological operations (now called Military Information Support Operations, MISO) -- shaping foreign opinion in support of U.S. objectives
7) Counterterrorism (CT) -- self-explanatory, I hope
8) Humanitarian assistance -- responding to humanitarian crises in foreign countries, preferably in support of civil authorities
9) Theater search and rescue (SAR) -- getting people back from high-risk, denied environments; the "theater" bit seems to me to suggest that SOF are covering an entire AOR's SAR needs, including countries where U.S. forces are not engaged in combat operations
10) Such other activities as may be specified by the President or the Secretary of Defense

* "CA" is the acronym for civil affairs, which is a term that actually refers to units, not activities. CA perform "civil affairs activities," but I'm just gonna use the acronym here for simplicity. Remember what I said about the lexicon being stupid?

Joint special operations doctrine, developed by USSOCOM and codified in JP 3-05 Special Operations, gives a somewhat different listing of "special operations core activities" (see Figure II-2 on page II-6): DA; SR; counterproliferation of WMD; CT; UW; FID; security force assistance (SFA); counterinsurgency (COIN); information operations (IO); MISO; and CA operations. I'm not sure why SOCOM decided to re-define its core missions, but an exploration of how these concepts are nested with and overlap one another would bore the hell out of you and take forever, so I'll just leave it at that.


  1. Certainly valid questions, but arguably the more relevant divide is between 'white' SOF and 'black' SOF.

    To your point about FID, the indirect approach, etc. - the growth of VSOs in Afghanistan under CFSOCC-A has seen SEAL platoons and MARSOTs playing the same kind of role as ODAs. I've heard mixed reviews of the performance of SEALs in this role, but generally strong praise for MARSOTs. But those reviews are from a very small number of sources, so take that with a grain of salt.

    Although I have no evidence one way or the other, I did wonder about how the promotion of ADM McRaven from commanding JSOC to SOCOM might influence the latter's relative balance between DA and FID/SFA/support to insurgency. Not sure if the fact that his book focuses entirely on DA missions is indicative of any particular mindset, but it is a data point worth noting.

    Conversely, McChrystal seems to have demonstrated that a JSOC background doesn't automatically mean that an officer has a narrow focus on DA.

  2. Thanks for your comment, MK.

    Conversely, McChrystal seems to have demonstrated that a JSOC background doesn't automatically mean that an officer has a narrow focus on DA.

    I don't think it necessarily means an officer will carry a DA emphasis through every job for the rest of his career, but I think it's safe to say that the experience will shape his thinking to some degree. It's also worth noting that McChrystal went from a DA focus as a special operator to a broader COIN concept as a joint force commander; but is there any evidence that his newfound religion as COMISAF resulted in less DA emphasis within the SOF component, or just less emphasis on DA across the entire range of ISAF operations?

    Your point about VSOs is well-taken. I also think it underlines an important point that I skipped over in the original post, which is that it's not fair to generalize or essentialize about what all of NSW does based on high-profile headlines related to DEVGRU (just like it would be goofy to generalize about what Delta does based on the operations of other ODAs or vice-versa).

    But the situations in Yemen and Somalia may be instructive, too: we hear about drone strikes and SEAL team helo shoots but very little of the long-term higher-yield FID/SFA that is supposed to be right in SF's wheelhouse. That doesn't mean it's not happening, but the OPTEMPO strain related to the wars suggests it's unlikely that any effort is as robust as it could be otherwise.

  3. The SF and Seal community have been asking themselves over the last five to ten years what is the new "normal?"

    I tend to concur with COL Wendt whom I had the opportunity to work with in Monterey. Additionally, I think a similar model could be applied to the regular Army.

    As far as promotion within the bureaucracy goes, I'll provide a small snapshot that may be helpful. One failure identified in the "white" community is unity of effort and command. Most strikingly, SF found that an SF major may have a hard time getting treated as an equal in an Army Brigade's AOR given that that commander is a full-bird.

    In the past, SF was immune from this problem as they typically worked alone. Now, they are trying to play catch-up.

    On the other hand, it appears that the Seals cracked this code in the 1990's. Thus, the rise of prominent Seals in leadership positions. Given that they were forced to work hand-in-hand with the Navy, they figured out earlier on that they would have to learn to work with others in order to thrive.

    In my honest opinion, Seals could best be utilized in anti-piracy missions, but that's not where the supposed "fight" is.

  4. Special Forces has not been drifting from its core mission FID, but rather focusing on appropriate FID skills for this particular fight, which is largely door kicking. As for UW, one can debate the relevance of that mission until the cows come home. There are times when UW could be viable both small and large scale in the future, so that isn't the debate. The debate is whether you side line the largest SOF force you have (Special Forces) waiting for a UW mission? COL Wendt's ideas are interesting, but hardly new. We had SF types from individuals to company size elements embedded in host nations doing exactly what he suggested in the past. Some of those organizations were/are classified, and others like the SF company in Thailand was disbanded several years back due to political reasons. I would argue that this approach has been proven to be successful if the political conditions for that particular country is amiable.

    Finally on the debate of Direct Action killing SOF (not your comments, but others have suggested as much), DA has been a core mission of Special Operations since their inception and for good reason. DA is not evil, it actually much more effective than the softer missions of civil affairs and military information support operations, both of which need to be fixed or greatly reduced in size. Special Forces enjoys the best of both worlds, they can become very proficient at Direct Action, but they're not task organized to do it well independently (or unliterally), but they are the most capable force we have of training host nation forces to DA and then partner with them on the missions. I think most of us believe this is the ticket to a long term victory. DA isn't killing SF, it is keeping SF alive, alive doing one of its core missions which is FID. Bill

  5. Mike and Bill -- Appreciate your comments.

    Special Forces has not been drifting from its core mission FID, but rather focusing on appropriate FID skills for this particular fight, which is largely door kicking.

    This is an important point, and something that I think a lot of people overlook when they misuse the term "FID." FID includes Direct Support, Indirect Support, and Combat Operations; that is, FID includes SFA, but SFA does not comprise FID in its entirety. The entire so-called "COIN" mission in Afghanistan is really a FID mission in which the FID Combat Operations conducted by U.S. forces consist largely of COIN ops.

    Agree that the idea of embedded SF advisors is not a new one, but some of the technical peculiarities of COL Wendt's idea strike me as somewhat novel.

    Agree with you again, Bill, that DA is obviously a core mission of SF (and SOF), and I'm not trying to suggest it shouldn't be. This point is a very good one:

    Special Forces enjoys the best of both worlds, they can become very proficient at Direct Action, but they're not task organized to do it well independently (or unliterally), but they are the most capable force we have of training host nation forces to DA and then partner with them on the missions.

    SF are uniquely positioned to TEACH DA because of their FID competencies.

    But here's the real hinge question when it comes to assigning roles and missions and deciding on the most efficient and effective use of all the available forces: is it easier to build really effective SFA capabilities in the GPF, or to employ GPF in (arguably less effective) DA missions to free up SF to handle the FID mission (which is arguably more specialized and more difficult)? i.e. is it harder to turn infantrymen into Rangers or effective combat advisors?

    I don't know the answer, in large part because I don't have a hands-on understanding of the difficulty and complexity of DA missions. But it strikes me that DA is closer to standard conventional ground forces' core competencies than tactical SFA is.

  6. "Is it harder to turn infantrymen into Rangers or effective combat advisors?"

    I'll take a stab at this one with an opinion based on my training as an armor officer and my experience in combat.

    Conducting a raid is the simplest task that we do in combat. Rangers and Tier One units become hyper-infantry.

    To whit, the hardest tasks that I've seen are (in no particular order)

    1. Invade a country (Regular Army or UW).
    2. Conduct COIN from a patrol base (Persistent Contact with locals).
    3. Train/Advise Foreign Forces.
    4. Intelligence collection and analysis to FIND the bad guy.

  7. Thanks Mike -- that's sort of what I was looking for, and it's consistent with my impressions.

    I should also note that I recognize DA is more than just raids, and that some of the tasks that fall within DA are much, much more complicated. And obviously SOF are still required for those sorts of things (hostage rescue, for example)... just maybe not ALL SOF. I guess what I'm getting toward is that maybe there ought to be even more functional specialization across the Joint SOF community rather than duplication or redundancy...?

  8. Gulliver,

    I'll add one problem/radical solution.

    Problem. USSOCOM is more akin to FORSCOM than CENTCOM.

    Solution. Move SOF to the CIA and SF to the State Department.

    How would that go over for reform?

  9. Problem. USSOCOM is more akin to FORSCOM than CENTCOM.

    I'd say "USSOCOM is more akin to" an entire MILDEP (like the Army), not just a component like FORSCOM, because of the doctrine and concepts development, the acquisition function, etc etc that goes beyond personnel management or sourcing of forces. But yeah, I agree. Of course, this is only a "problem" if you presume that USSOCOM should have primary responsibility for the operational employment of SOF (as opposed to the relevant GCC).

    Solution. Move SOF to the CIA and SF to the State Department.

    When you say "move" them, I assume you mean transfer OPCON and TACON to those organizations, not uproot the entire structure from the military and re-establish it in non-DOD Departments...? Because if you do that, you've suddenly lost the linkage to the basic military skills that are at the root of many SOF capabilities. You've basically just re-created the IC's paramilitary orgs (CIA SAD, etc.) and established an operational unit under SECSTATE "command." I'm not sure what's accomplished by that.

  10. The CIA is a failed organization that has proven resistant to reform. Therefore, the CIA should be broken up into its constituent parts, and those parts assigned to organizations that already have clear missions and defined chains of command, as follows:

    1. Transfer CIA offices and personnel operating within the United States to the FBI. The CIA was never intended to be a domestic spy agency. The FBI is designed to handle domestic intelligence operations. The FBI is measured and held accountable by its ability to catch criminals, and this accountability provides the motivation for the FBI to perform.

    2. Transfer all CIA embassy activities overseas to the US Department of State. The State Department is designed to handle diplomacy. Much of what the CIA now does in its embassies involves diplomacy, such as handling relationships with liaison services. State Department officers are able to make contacts with other foreign government representatives in diplomatic venues. The State Department handled these functions prior to the creation of the CIA in 1947.

    3. Transfer overseas human intelligence collection efforts to the US military. Focus case officers exclusively on the gathering of human intelligence. The fundamental motivation of the American military—to win wars and to protect the lives of its soldiers—will provide the motivation to ensure that its case officers provide the necessary intelligence and do not become distracted by soft targets or by designing programs meant to look busy and spend money. The US military already has a large corps of trained case officers, graduates of the CIA’s own training course. The US military already has a better ability to place case officers overseas in non-State Department positions. The military’s command structure is clearly defined and much flatter than the Agency’s.

    We should recognize the scope of the problem: The lack of human sources of intelligence has haunted American Presidents since the foundation of the CIA in 1947.

    Look up Gen. Russ Howard (former SF)

  11. That's the most radical organizational structure change that I've seen that would require both restructuring and changing the law.

    The premise was based on the close working relationship developed between SOF/CIA over the last ten years and the habitual CoC SF/State find themselves in in most FID efforts.

    Other ideas include dismantling USSOCOM and elevating an SF position in the JCS.

  12. Gents -- I started a new thread to discuss national security reform so as to avoid taking this one off the original topic, and also to broaden the discussion beyong special operations/irregular warfare.