Special ops forces are misused as man-hunters, critics say
For the United States’ special operations forces, these should be the salad days. In late 2001, a relatively small number of Army Special Forces (SF) A-teams worked with the CIA and U.S. airpower to topple Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in what was universally seen as U.S. special operations forces’ finest hour. They followed this triumph with a superlative performance during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, during which multiple joint special operations task forces managed to fix far larger Iraqi conventional formations, facilitating the rapid seizure of Baghdad.
These successes resulted in vocal support for special operations forces (SOF) on the part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his Pentagon team, a respect mirrored on Capitol Hill. “Everyone’s infatuated with SOF,” said a Special Forces officer posted to Washington. “To do anything against SOF would be absolute sacrilege on both sides of the aisle.”
This consensus has allowed Rumsfeld to confer unprecedented authority and resources on U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCom), and if the Quadrennial Defense Review released Feb. 6 is any guide, this trend can only continue. The QDR promises a 15 percent increase in special operations forces, including a “one-third” increase in Special Forces battalions.
So why are so many folks in the special ops community wearing such glum faces?
A major factor is a growing perception among special operators that in the Pentagon and, increasingly, U.S. Special Operations Command, senior leaders are only interested in missions and units that emphasize one set of special ops skills — namely, man-hunting and direct action, known colloquially as “door-kicking.” Direct action and man-hunting have long been the preserve — indeed, the raison d’être — of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and its associated units: the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (aka Delta Force), SEAL Team 6 (aka Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DevGru), the 75th Ranger Regiment and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), among others. Direct action is also one of Army Special Forces’ “seven principal missions.”
What troubles many special operators, particularly those from the SF community, is that another six principal missions, as well as the contributions of the Army’s civil affairs and psychological operations units, are undervalued by their leaders. Those missions include unconventional warfare (fostering and promoting an insurgency, as the SF troops did with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban), foreign internal defense (helping a friendly government defeat an insurgency) and information operations. These are missions that, unlike direct action, place a high priority on Special Forces’ language skills and cultural awareness (each of the Army’s seven SF groups has a regional focus).
“My concern is that all we’re focused on is direct action, to the absolute exclusion of all other things,” said Mark Haselton, a retired Special Forces lieutenant colonel. “The war we are fighting (and will be fighting for years to come) will require the ability to export training in ways that others can use to organize their own capabilities. If we spend the rest of our lives ‘capturing and killing’ terrorists at the expense of those SF missions that are more important — gaining access to the local population, training indigenous forces, providing expertise and expanding capacity — we’re doomed to failure.”
An active-duty SF lieutenant colonel agreed that the Pentagon seemed more interested in direct action and man-hunting missions than in foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare and civil affairs.
“The direct action-type missions are usually fast and violent, and you can show effect immediately,” he said. “In an insurgency, though, they’re detrimental to your cause. Civil affairs, MPs, SF doing foreign internal defense, civil-military operations — those kind of things are the ones [that work]. Insurgencies by their nature last a long time, and they take a long time to defeat. So you’re going to defeat an insurgency by doing the things that it takes to defeat it, which are civil-military actions, psyops, CA [civil affairs], not necessarily DA [direct action]. With DA you create more insurgents than you eliminate. For every one guy you kill, you’ve just created five or six more.”
SOCom spokesman Ken McGraw said the facts did not support the critics’ contention that nondirect action special ops missions, such as foreign internal defense (FID) and civil affairs, are undervalued. He said combined joint special operations task forces with Special Forces at their core are performing foreign internal defense missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Philippines. “FID missions are also taking place in other parts of the world,” he added. “[SOCom commander] Gen. [Bryan “Doug”] Brown says all the time that civil affairs is the key to winning the global war on terror, because it attacks the underlying causes of terrorism.”
DEARTH OF QUALIFIED GENERALS
Critics who perceive a bias toward direct action point to an apparent mismatch between the lack of Special Forces-qualified generals in leadership positions in the war on terror and those with a background in far smaller sections of the special ops community, such as the Rangers and the 160th SOAR.
Of SOCom’s approximately 52,000 personnel, 10,000 — almost one-fifth — are in Army Special Forces Command. This includes support personnel who are not SF-qualified but does not include all the SF-qualified soldiers who serve in the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School and other headquarters.
But, the critics note, of the eight flag officers at SOCom’s MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., headquarters, only one — Brown — has any Special Forces time, and that was one tour on an A-team as an enlisted soldier. His special operations experience as an officer was as an aviator, commanding both the 160th SOAR and JSOC.
Brown’s deputy is a SEAL — Vice Adm. Eric Olson — and the director of SOCom’s Center for Special Operations, which is responsible for planning and synchronizing the command’s role in the war on terror, is Army Lt. Gen. Dell Dailey, who is also a former commander of the 160th SOAR and JSOC.
“How can they understand … what regular Special Forces bring to the table?” asked a special operations source rhetorically. “They’ve never experienced it.”
However, McGraw said, Brown has plenty of Special Forces experience close at hand. His executive officer, aide and senior enlisted adviser are all Special Forces men. In addition, McGraw said, four of the five theater special operations commands, which fall under the geographic combatant commands like Southern Command and European Command, are led by SF officers.
The exception is the Central Command’s special operations command (SOCCent), which runs all non-JSOC special operations missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The SOCCent commander is Brig. Gen. (P) Frank Kearney, who has a Ranger background and served as JSOC’s operations officer during the first phase of the war in Afghanistan. Kearney’s boss, CentCom commander Gen. John Abizaid, is a former Ranger company commander.
The commander of Joint Special Operations Command, Maj. Gen. Stan McChrystal, is another Ranger. The Pentagon plans to expand the flag officer structure of JSOC from its current model of a two-star commander with two one-star deputies to one with a three-star commander, a two-star deputy and at least two one-stars underneath them, according to several special operations sources. Under this plan, McChrystal would remain JSOC commander and be promoted to lieutenant general, and Kearney would be promoted to major general and move from SOCCent to JSOC as McChrystal’s deputy. The two one-star positions in JSOC remain in the hands of Air Force and Navy officers.
Another Ranger in a leadership position is Lt. Gen. Robert Wagner, the commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, which includes Special Forces Command. Special Forces officers note that the past two commanding generals of SF Command, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Lambert and Brig. Gen. Gary “Mike” Jones, retired at the end of their tenures.
Those who perceive a bias against Special Forces officers do not claim, for the most part, that the Rangers, 160th alumni and SEALs who are running the war on terror are weak officers. McChrystal and Kearney, in particular, earn high marks for their professionalism and drive. But those asking questions wonder why a branch that seems so relevant to the fight against a global Islamic insurgency seems so underrepresented at the highest levels.
“I always said to myself that we will see if SOCom is serious about the war on terror and in fact considers white [nonclassified] SOF an important entity by what they do with Mike Jones after he leaves SF Command,” said a former JSOC staff officer. “My thought was he would go to the CSO [Center for Special Operations] and be in charge of it. But when he was essentially being shipped off to nothing, that really meant that … the Ranger/JSOC mafia was the team that was going to be in charge.”
Beyond the four theater special operations command heads and one or two others like Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell, who now holds down a NATO job in Europe, there are few signs of a wave of SF generals on the horizon. The 31 colonels the Army selected for promotion to brigadier general last year included no Special Forces officers. The SF lieutenant colonel said the absence of SF generals from positions of influence was a topic of discussion among his peers. “A lot of SF guys talk about that, because it’s noticeable,” he said. “There’s kind of an agreement that there is a leadership vacuum when you get to that level.”
However, the dearth of SF generals might have as much to do with the paucity of quality SF officers who remain from the generation that joined the branch in its infancy, he said. The Special Forces branch was created in 1987. When today’s colonels and brigadier generals were company and field-grade officers, the downsizing of the Army was in full swing. “The SERB [Selective Early Retirement Board] was happening, they were giving big bonuses to folks to get out,” he said. “You had this new branch that was just starting; you had a dynamic in the military of zero defects. Risk takers were not promoted and people were getting out — not good for a developing organization. Where were all your strong guys going to go?
“The guys who were majors and lieutenant colonels at the time are now one-, two- and three-star generals. Those were the people that were rewarded for having no incidents in their battalion. Are those the guys that you want to lead in combat? Not necessarily.”
A former special mission unit operator agreed. “There’s just a complete dearth of quality guys,” he said. “They’re just living with the hangover from those early years of the branch.”
This dynamic will probably change when officers in year groups 1988 through 1993 are eligible for promotion to brigadier general, according to the Special Forces lieutenant colonel. “Eighty-eight through ’93, SF branch is really fat,” he said. “We’ve got too many officers in the branch where we don’t have enough positions to put folks into company command [and] battalion S-3 [operations officer]. It’s very competitive now for battalion command. It’s very competitive for group command. So I think what you’ll see in the next couple of years is you’re going to get a different crop of Special Forces officers coming up. … I think you’re going to see some good guys in the next couple of years.”
U.S. Army Special Operations Command spokesman Lt. Col. Hans Bush vigorously disputed any notion that Special Forces is undervalued by the senior leadership, citing the expansion of Special Forces laid out in the Quadrennial Defense Review to support his case.
“The QDR clearly demonstrates the value that our national leadership places on special operations forces, and Special Forces within the Army especially,” said Bush, a Special Forces officer. “The desired growth and resourcing called out in that document sends a clear message to our command that our national leadership values what we bring to the table. The challenge is on us to meet these goals.”
There are five active-duty SF groups and two in the National Guard. McGraw said the command plans to create five new SF battalions — one per active-duty group — by the end of 2012. The two Guard SF battalions will receive a total of 500 extra soldiers, he added.
But several special operations sources expressed doubt that the Army, which is struggling to fill the A-teams it has now, could man those extra battalions without lowering standards.
Only a mind-set that equates SOF with direct action and man-hunting could have convinced the Pentagon that it would be able to create all the extra SF battalions laid out in the QDR, the former JSOC staff officer said.
“There aren’t enough people in the Army to come up with the raw material for these extra battalions,” he said. “So the only way this can be done, in my estimation at this time, is reducing standards and focusing on a very narrow mission set. And UW [unconventional warfare] is the most difficult mission set — you’re talking about more mature folks, you’re talking about language, you’re talking about culture, you’re talking about people who have a lot of in-country experience and are really sort of savvy in a street way, which you can’t learn in school. This can’t be done overnight. The QDR that came up with this requirement can only be thinking about putting more commandos on the streets; in other words, we want more Rangers, let’s just do more Ranger training.”
Haselton agreed. “You’re going to end up with five battalions of shooters,” he said.
“That’s not the plan,” McGraw countered. “The language requirement will remain the same. The mission set they’re training for will remain the same. They’ve ramped up the schoolhouse to be able to accept a larger student load while maintaining the same standards.”
Michael Vickers, a former Special Forces officer now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank, is an advocate for creating more Special Forces battalions. But he acknowledged that it takes time to fill those units. He said recruiting the additional SF soldiers could be achieved, at least in part, via the 18 X-Ray program, which recruits personnel straight from the civilian world; the planned expansion of the Ranger Regiment by three companies; and improved pay and benefits.
“We’re creating an SOF that’s basically as big as it’s ever been at the height of the Vietnam War, but we had a much, much bigger Army in those days,” he said. “So this is a far more SOF-intensive force, which poses big challenges.”