Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Curb your enthusiasm!: Special Operations Forces should be niche units, not our foundational military assets

I think people who argue that SOF should be the foundational military assets  are those that are not experienced with SOF.  I do not think any true SOF professional will tell you that SOF should be a foundational military unit.  It is simply one capability of the full spectrum of joint force capabilities and we need to have the right mix of conventional and unconventional forces to be able to address the myriad national security threats we face.

By Richard L. Russell
Best Defense guest columnist
We need to take a breath and see Special Operations Forces in context with the history and uses and limitations of the threat, use, and management of force in American national security. Lest we forget, Special Operations Forces are just that -- special. They provide unique, niche military capabilities that place a premium on stealth and clandestine operations. Yet many, if not most, demands for the threat and use of American military might require that they be used openly and publicly. As former head of Joint Special Operations Command Gen. Stanley McChrystal warned, "That's the danger of special operating forces. You get this sense that it is satisfying, it's clean, it's low risk, it's the cure for most ills. That's the way many new presidents are initially enamored with the Central Intelligence Agency, because they are offered a covert fix for a complex problem. But if you go back in history, I can't find a covert fix that solved a problem long term."
These traditional military capabilities, moreover, often are the foundations upon which clandestine Special Operations Forces must launch their high-risk assaults. Delta or SEAL teams might be dispatched into a building, for example, to kill or capture a high value target. But the building's neighborhood would be secured by larger, more traditional forces such as the Army Rangers. A SEAL team might be dispatched across an international border to capture or kill a high value target, but the base the team might be launched from and supported with communications, command, control, and intelligence would come from more traditional military forces. 
The United States must guard against gutting its traditional and foundational military capabilities out of love of the glamour for Special Operations Forces. The world today has a fair share of countries with very capable niche or boutique-type military forces for special operations. The Germans, for example, are known to have very capable hostage rescue forces, while the Australians and the British have impressive special operations forces that have been put to hard work in the Afghanistan and Iraq military theaters. Yet the United States, with its global security interests, could hardly afford to have its military mirror that of Germany, Australia, or Britain. 
The United States, moreover, will have to avoid the pitfall of growing its Special Operations Forces too large. The Special Operations Forces community prides itself on taking the most physically fit and intellectually nimble of the military duty pool. But the faster and larger it grows, the lower the physical and intellectual standards will go to bring down the overall quality of Special Operations Forces. 
Above all, Americans must remember that our chief enemy -- al Qaeda -- for the past decade has been one uniquely teed-up to be attacked by Special Operations Forces, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, or the Horn of Africa. Al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan or the Taliban, like most terrorist organizations and insurgent groups, generally recruit, train, organize, and plan operations in tight-knit cells and small groups making them attractive targets for small Special Operations Forces. One would prefer to dispatch a SEAL or Delta team against al Qaeda or Taliban cells to try to capture individuals and to gather intelligence rather than to drop payloads on them from a B-52 to destroy both individuals and documentation and computers.
Notwithstanding common wisdom today, our enemies of the future are likely to be nation-states as well as traditional ideological insurgent movements like al Qaeda. For all of the grave threats that al Qaeda has posed to the United States, we have to remember that while its Islamic ideology has powerful appeal in the world today, especially in the Middle East and South Asia, it still lacks the power of a nation-state. Nation-states in contemporary international security remain the pinnacle of power, and that's why al Qaeda has off and on wanted to gain control in a nation-state -- whether Egypt in the 1990s or Saudi Arabia after 2003 and arguably Pakistan today. The United States needs to prudently guard against al Qaeda remnants and successors, all the while mindful of the ebbing and flowing of the international distribution of power among nation-states. 
Because Special Operations Forces typically are small and lightly armed and protected they require stealth and clandestine operations for their protection. If they are behind enemy lines and detected by regular forces they will be in a "world of hurt." Special Operations Forces have ably gone behind enemy lines in Iraq to knock-out critical Iraqi radars to create blind spots for the Army invasion of Kuwait in the 1990-91 war. But Kuwait was liberated by traditional military forces, not Special Operations Forces in 1991, just as Saddam Hussein's regime was ousted by the 3rd Infantry Division in 2003, not by a SEAL or Delta team.
(Continued at the link below)


  1. The article also focuses on SOF direct action and neglects much of what SOF does and is doing such as building partner capacity, etc.

  2. The Problem with Mr. Russel's premise is "traditional military capabilities", world is changing faster than we want to accept. Our approach to warfare is still stagnated in the concept of "land warfare" as much as "holding" the terrain. Holding or occupying any terrain (land) is not necessary in the newer modern warfare...the "human terrain" is more important. Fast, quick adaptable formations of small organizations can make faster and quicker gains than large, slow organizations. It's the application and long-term approach that is necessary. I would argue that the only reason the invasions of Iraq (both times) were because our decision makers "wanted" these large reality, UW would have accomplished the task(s) quicker and with less loss of national has been 20+ years!
    No I totally disagree with his premise...educate our officers and civilian leaders on the UW option(s) and our military will's inevitable.


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