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.”
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.)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.
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.