13 May 2018

Future Challenges for Special Operations Forces


The U.S. Special Operations Command has about 67,000 troops and an annual budget of around 14 billion dollars. That may not seem to be a huge dent in the overall DoD budget (about 2%), but it greatly outnumbers the special operations budgets of other U.S. allies around the world. With deployments operating at high frequencies today and with operations increasing in places like Syria, what should we be thinking about in terms of the impact on U.S. Special Operations in the coming decade?

The Cipher Brief’s Brad Christian talked with Former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence (and Cipher Brief Expert) Dr. Michael Vickers recently about this increasingly important instrument of American power, and the shifts in missions and operational challenges that lie ahead for ahead for SOF. The conversation has been edited for print.

Dr. Michael Vickers: The new big warfighting challenge for SOF is Russian hybrid warfare, particularly along the periphery of the Russian Federation. SOF can play a pretty big role because it may be hard to trigger NATO’s collective defense article early in a conflict when the Russians are engaged in subversion and covert proxy warfare.

If there were a regional conflict with North Korea or Iran, you would expect SOF to do special reconnaissance and direct action, and potentially unconventional warfare and counter-proliferation.

I predict that counter-proliferation will increase in importance as a SOF mission because of the threat posed by North Korea and other rogue states. It’s a tough mission, one for which our intelligence community has traditionally had the lead role, but it’s also an area where SOF has important capabilities to contribute.

SOF in the last two decades has really been magnificent at the tactical and operational levels. Where we’ve struggled is at the strategic level — how to bring enduring stability in turbulent regions.

In terms of clandestine operations, the same thing that plagues our Intelligence Community, the death of cover, also impacts SOF. We’ve spent a couple of decades thinking we can go anywhere we want, at any time, but that is increasingly no longer the case.

More potential adversaries are acquiring advanced air defenses, so clandestine air infiltration may be a lot harder in the future. When I grew up as a young pup in the Special Forces, there was 50/50 chance that Air Force special operators could insert us into Eastern Europe, and that was with terrain following radar and electronic warfare and other penetration aids. There was almost no chance they could come back and get us out, so we were assigned the mission of special operations, follow-on unconventional warfare – in other words, after you accomplish your initial missions, you’d better make friends if you are to survive behind enemy lines for the duration of the war. Today, only our most advanced stealth aircraft can penetrate high-end air defense environments. Down the road, SOF will need very low observable aircraft, or it won’t be able to accomplish some important missions that we need them to conduct.

Brad Christian: The op-tempo over the past 17 years has been moving forward at a blistering pace. We’ve heard recently some talk that suggests we’re going to lift some of the responsibilities from our SOF forces and pass that over to the general-purpose forces. Have we made honest progress in that area? 

Vickers: Yeah, we’ve made some. You may have read that the Army has recently created the Security Force Assistance Brigades, essentially trainers that can train foreign militaries. This is an initiative we started in 2006, when we conducted the largest expansion of our Special Operations Forces in history, to take some of that burden off of SOF, because the dwell time for SOF Operators was under 1:1 at that point. In other words, if you spent six months in Afghanistan or Iraq, you were going back before six months had elapsed. These Security Force Assistance Brigades are now being deployed in Afghanistan, with some initially promising results.

The real benefit, however, is for the conventional forces because when you want to do foreign training missions with conventional forces you to take all their leadership — their officers and NCOs. What do the privates do? They are left at home station, and you’ve decimated the unit.

The dwell time has decreased somewhat from the 2011 peak of our intense war period, but it’s still very high. We’re now getting to missions that we couldn’t get too before because of our concentration in a couple of countries. Some of the things that we’ve done to help mitigate the prolonged stress on the force are SOF resiliency programs to take care of our operators and to make sure their families are taken care of in terms of financial assistance for children’s education, etc. That’s made a pretty big difference.

Christian: Do you think we’ll see a new threshold for SOF requirements? For example, when a new requirement comes out, it’s been easy to say let’s put an ODA on that, let’s put a SEAL platoon on that. Is there going to be a new threshold now that takes place, or does there need to be a new threshold for determining when a SOF unit is applicable for a solution versus what you’re talking about with some of the new forces?

Vickers: If it’s basic training of foreign military forces, that’s something that our Security Force Assistance Brigades can and should do. If you’re going to send a small unit off by themselves to some country under the aegis of an Ambassador, and you’ve got a young Captain in charge and a handful of NCOs, that’s probably still going to fall to SOF, just because of the maturity of the people, with the average age in their late twenties or early thirties.

Christian: Switching gears a little bit, can SOF continue to prosecute the priorities against the mission sets as they are, and then prepare for what might be next – some of the larger North Korea and near peer nation state adversaries and the priorities that they are going to be asked to prep for. Is that a big deal for SOF? Or is this going to be something that doesn’t bump the radar for them, and they’ll just continue to do what they’ve always done? 

Vickers: It’s a big deal! The normal model before 9-11 was that you spent a lot more time preparing for war than actually fighting wars. For some of the demanding SOF missions, you need to develop not only new technologies, but also the tactics, techniques and procedures and area knowledge you’ll need to be effective. With prolonged, intensive deployment cycles, we really haven’t had the time we need to do this. Most of what we’ve developed since 9-11 has been for the current wars.

To conduct effective counter-proliferation operations, for example, extensive intelligence and network analysis of the target is required. To develop really viable unconventional warfare capabilities, a whole host of skills are required – language proficiency, clandestine tradecraft, etc. During my time in SF in the Cold War, I learned Russian, Czech and Spanish. To prepare for special reconnaissance missions, I studied Soviet chemical weapons vehicles until it made my eyes glaze over.

Christian: Recently we had a situation in Niger that occupied the press for a period of time. Often times throughout the year there will be incidents where SOF in general will be the topic in the press. Are we in the SOF community engaging with the press in the right way? What is the right role? Is there a problem or gap there, do we need to do more in the SOF community to work with the press or is it better left alone, and to continue operating in the way we have? 

Vickers: Like the Intelligence Community, Special Operations forces must have a public affairs strategy, but there’s a lot that has to be kept clandestine or SOF won’t be able to perform its missions. We need to strike the right balance between “we’re in Niger; it’s a very dangerous place,” so our Congressional leaders and the American public aren’t blindsided, and not making it more dangerous through too much disclosure. Complicating the situation further, you have foreign governments that often want things kept secret, so it’s a really tough balance. Ultimately though, when conducting clandestine and covert operations for our democracy, you have to make sure you’ve got the support of Congress and the broad support of the American people so they’re not shocked when something happens and instead they think “yeah, I’m glad our guys are doing that.” It’s a difficult public affairs challenge, but a necessary one and one that we’re probably not as good at as we should be.

No comments: