Special Operations Command: Strategies, Opportunities in Long War on Terrorism
by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)
It is widely accepted that the war on terrorism which started with the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut is going to be a protracted conflict.
Much uncertainty remains as to how we will win this war. Our armed forces around the world are making extraordinary efforts that underscore the nation’s great military prowess. But they also point to the enormous difficulties of fighting the amorphous, irregular enemies the United States is now confronting.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Mark T. Kimmitt appropriately described this adversary as a “full-spectrum network.”
In a keynote speech to NDIA’s Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Symposium, Kimmitt — who is now deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs — outlined the formidable challenge posed by al-Qaida and its associates. These terrorist groups, regrettably, have managed to create virtual and physical networks to forward their radical ideology around the world.
“The fact that it uses the most advanced methods of communications to get what it needs done is truly remarkable,” Kimmitt said. Terrorist networks facilitate recruiting, and also provide operatives with access to information on chemical and biological weapons. The Internet is their medium to wire money, to share tactics, techniques and procedures and to coordinate operations.
The only way to defeat such a network, Kimmitt suggested, is by developing an even more robust network that would allow U.S. intelligence agencies, for example, to track the sources of financing for terrorist cells. We also need networks that connect us with allies around the globe to ensure that terrorists are denied safe havens. Our networks also must facilitate U.S. assistance to allies, so these partners can build their own military and intelligence capabilities to fight terrorism.
To posture for the long war, Kimmitt said, the last thing we want to do is garrison massive forces in the Middle East. That only becomes an irritant and a catalyst for jihadists to further their cause.
The fight against these non-state militants requires nimble, covert operators who understand Islamic cultures and can build alliances. That is where U.S. special operations forces come in. Their role in this long war cannot be underestimated.
To the Defense Department’s credit, it has begun to take steps to boost the capabilities and size of the Special Operations Command. Navy Vice Adm. Eric Olson, SOCOM’s deputy commander, said the expected growth includes the addition of 17,000 personnel, additional units and expanded intelligence gathering tools, such as a new squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles.
But the enormity of SOCOM’s task as a lead organization in the war on terrorism will require a greater commitment of resources, especially in the areas of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “The demand for ISR has never been higher,” Olson said at the SO/LIC symposium. His message to industry is to continue to develop innovative technologies, but to ensure they can be delivered on time and on budget. He asked industry to send products to SOCOM to be tested, so engineers have a chance to determine their utility before the command issues procurement contracts.
One major equipment concern at SOCOM is the age of its aircraft, said Maj. Gen. Don Wurster, vice commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command. In one recent deployment, the unit’s four aircraft collectively had been in service for 158 years. That situation must be remedied soon. AFSOC expects to begin procuring up to 50 CV-22 Ospreys, but they will take a long time to arrive, delaying the operational capability these systems were intended to promote. The AC-130 gunships are in desperate need of replacement. Despite much talk about the development of a new gunship or similar capability, nothing so far has materialized.
SOCOM, additionally, will need a steady funding commitment to retain seasoned operators. Incentive bonuses are key, noted Lt. Gen. Robert Wagner, head of the Army Special Operations Command. Senior enlisted personnel with several tours under their belts are instrumental in SOCOM’s efforts to work with foreign partners as part of its “indirect” approach to fighting terrorism.
Special operations forces traditionally have focused on “direct action,” such as the capture and killing of enemies. The indirect approach is now at the heart of SOCOM’s plan for winning the war on terrorism, Wagner said. To that end, the command continues to invest in its Joint Special Operations University, where 9,000 students annually participate in 40 courses that focus on relevant topics such as cultures and foreign languages.
In this long, non-traditional war the nation is fighting, we must recognize that it will take unconventional methods and tactics to deal with this enemy, and to defeat its robust network. Special operations forces are uniquely positioned to lead this fight. High-level Pentagon support for SOCOM is laudable, but it also must be underwritten by adequate resources, and timely delivery of programs and new capabilities over the long haul.
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