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Special Ops Critically Needed

As appeared in Special Operations Technology

Washington, August 1, 2011

This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. We also approach the 25th anniversary of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), created by Congress and activated in 1987. It is a good opportunity to look at how the threats to the United States have evolved, to review USSOCOM’s roles and missions, and to evaluate if and how those should change for the future.

Also this year, the House Armed Services Committee, in particular the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, is looking at the threats to our nation and the role USSOCOM plays in addressing them in a series of public hearings and classified briefings.

Since its inception, USSOCOM has grown substantially in size and capability. Over the last decade, force structure has doubled and funding has tripled. Overseas deployments, however, have quadrupled. Whether the current force structure and resources are appropriate for the demands we place on special operations forces (SOF) is one of the key issues for the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities in our oversight of USSOCOM.

Improvements in technology and equipment have been a significant part of this evolution. Additionally, changes to certain authorities have improved SOF capabilities and enhanced operational missions. These include Section 1208 authority, which allows special operations forces to provide support (including training, funding, and equipment) to foreign forces, irregular forces, as well as groups and individuals supporting or facilitating military operations to combat terrorism.

The capability of the people, however, is the most important factor. One of the “SOF Truths” states, “quality is better than quantity.” USSOCOM has stayed true to this by continuing to recruit, train, and retain highly qualified personnel, whose impact greatly exceeds their relatively small numbers. Ten years of constant warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan have honed special operations forces to a high state of operational readiness, albeit perhaps at some cost to the health of the force. As Admiral [Eric T.] Olson, [then commander of SOCOM,] testified to the House Armed Services Committee, the force is beginning to “fray around the edges.” Another “SOF Truth” says that “humans are more important than hardware,” and although the technology is important, the people are the critical component in maintaining SOF capabilities. USSOCOM’s management of its growth and development of capabilities have contributed to its success as well.

As we look at the command’s accomplishments today, it is clear that it has come a long way since the tragedy at Desert One during the Iranian hostage rescue attempt in 1980, which started the process that led Congress to establish USSOCOM in the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. One of the most recognizable and most recent illustrations of this success rests with the strike in May against Osama bin Laden. However, USSOCOM regularly achieves extraordinary success around the globe, often with little publicity.

Looking ahead, both the administration and Congress must ensure that our capabilities address the range of threats to our national security. This will be increasingly important in an era of budget constraints.

One of the keys to minimizing U.S. involvement is through development of foreign security forces and the supporting institutions of host countries. In fact, the practice of assisting governments of friendly and allied nations has long been a major component of U.S. strategy, ranging from the Lend Lease Program that increased allied capacity in World War II; to countering Soviet-sponsored insurgencies in the 1950s and 1960s; to providing arms transfers and collective security to Lebanon and Panama in the 1980s; to providing assistance to former Warsaw Pact nations and to Saudi Arabia during the first Iraq war in the 1990s. In a future environment of irregular threats, effective and efficient security force assistance (SFA) programs to build the capacity of foreign partners can enhance our national security and are a core SOF activity.

Today, security assistance plays an important role in our national security strategy and is key to engaging under-developed and under-governed nations. As Secretary [of Defense Robert M.] Gates also pointed out, “In this kind of effort, the capabilities of the United States’ allies and partners may be as important as its own, and building their capacity is arguably as important as, if not more so than, the fighting the United States does itself.”

I also agree with Secretary Gates’s assessment that for the foreseeable future most threats will be irregular, thus continuing the demand for SOF capabilities. Therefore, it is critical that we evaluate whether the command is properly sized and resourced.

The demand for security force assistance, however, is likely to exceed the supply of SOF. We are seeing this today in Afghanistan where SOF are helping the government of Afghanistan improve security and stability at the local level by training and equipping Afghan Local Police (ALP). ALP is a village-centric program executed jointly by U.S. and Afghan Special Forces that empowers rural Afghan elders and villages to provide their own security. Although it is too early to make definitive judgments, initial indications are that ALP and related village stability operations are making a significant difference in promoting local security and turning the tide against the Taliban. To meet the requirements of the ALP program, however, special operations forces must be augmented with conventional forces.

Proper resourcing for ALP highlights one of the challenges facing our highly-trained, highly-educated SOF. We are likely to see similar high demand signals for other SOF core activities such as civil affairs, information support, and counterinsurgency operations. We must look at whether USSOCOM is properly sized, organized, and resourced, and whether it has the authorities it needs to accomplish the missions we ask of it. And we must keep in mind the “SOF Truth” that “SOF cannot be mass produced,” so additional growth of SOF, if needed, requires long lead times.

Yet, while looking to ensure our special operations forces stay strong, we must also ensure the capabilities of the overall force. Although SOF provides an incredible capability, it cannot handle all threats to our national security, and our conventional forces must also be healthy. This year presents us with a unique chance to review what we have learned and use that knowledge to better prepare for our national security needs and capabilities in the future. It behooves Congress to take advantage of this important opportunity. ♦

SOF Truths:

  • Humans are more important than hardware.
  • Quality is better than quantity.
  • SOF cannot be mass produced.
  • Competent SOF cannot be created after emergencies occur.
  • Most special operations require non-SOF support.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, is the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee that controls authorizations for procurement and other needs of all U.S. armed forces. He also is chairman of the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats in the 112th Congress, which oversees authorizations for all special forces organizations. He continues to serve on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as well, which has oversight of the CIA and other intelligernce-gathering agencies that discovered Osama bin Laden’s hiding place.