An idea that wouldn’t die may be getting a new lease on life. Despite years of the idea being shot down at the highest levels, there are again growing calls from inside and outside the military for the establishment of an “unconventional warfare command” that would oversee those special operations forces whose primary mission is not killing and capturing the enemy.
Recent leadership changes in Congress, the Defense Department and U.S. Special Operations Command have given supporters of the idea fresh hope that the PowerPoint slides might finally become reality.
At the core of the debate are the Army’s Special Forces, who specialize in working “by, with and through” indigenous forces. They have long complained that they play second fiddle in U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCom) to those units that specialize in direct action, i.e. missions focused on capturing or killing enemies. SOCom gives direct-action units, particularly those that fall under Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), priority in resourcing, and it is from those units that most of SOCom’s leadership is drawn, they say. Only by the creation of an unconventional warfare command will the special ops units that emphasize indirect action get a fair shake on the battlefield and inside the bureaucracy, their argument goes.
People on all sides of the debate trace the priority SOCom gives to JSOC and its component units — such as the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, 75th Ranger Regiment, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 — back to the failure of Operation Eagle Claw, the 1980 mission to rescue the Iran hostages that met disaster at a remote landing strip codenamed Desert One. The debacle eventually led to the formation of SOCom.
“The nation was embarrassed, the Army was embarrassed, special ops was embarrassed,” a retired Special Forces colonel said. “Desert One was a disaster. For 25 years, the message that has been given to the senior leadership of the special operations community has been: ‘No matter what else you do, no matter how much it costs, we will never have another Desert One.’ Now it’s not surprising that for 25 years, when that has been the national priority, that SOCom has oriented on the forces that make sure that we never have a Desert One. They’re good soldiers. They do what they’re told, and it’s not surprising if that has been the priority that the leadership from the priority units have risen to the top of SOCom. So when you ask for something for 25 years and give it unlimited resources, you shouldn’t be surprised when that’s what you have when you’re done.”
“Now, all that changed on Sept. 11,” the retired SF colonel said. “The No. 1 priority of the nation for special operations was no longer episodic direct action to surgical standards. … [E]verybody recognized we had to be able to do unconventional warfare like we did in Afghanistan, but many places at the same time. And everybody understood that it was no longer about airplane takedowns and ship recoveries and these episodic events, it was about a sustained presence in a country to destroy an infrastructure.”
But SOCom leaders did not adapt fast enough to the new realities, he said. “It’s understandable but regrettable that the senior leadership that had spent 25 years living up to a different paradigm was slow in recognizing that their world had changed and their priorities had changed, and therefore their resource allocation decisions had to change.”
Part of the problem was that senior Bush administration figures also remained too focused on direct action.
“The senior [U.S. government] leaders, if you believe the open press, had print sheets of [enemy] faces and were X-ing them out as the direct action [units] killed or captured them. So while the senior leadership of the command should have recognized that the world had changed, their senior leaders were still telling them to do direct-action kinetic stuff. That was the measure of success.”
The proposals for the creation of an unconventional warfare command fall into two rough categories: those that argue for breaking the unconventional warfare (UW) forces away from SOCom altogether, and those that advocate grouping those units under a two- or three-star UW command that remains part of SOCom as the indirect-action equivalent of JSOC.
The former version is a major recommendation of two recent books by Defense Department academics: “United States Special Operations Forces” by David Tucker, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, Calif., and Christopher J. Lamb, a senior fellow at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies at Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.; and “Afghanistan & the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare” by Hy S. Rothstein, a retired Special Forces officer who also teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Tucker and Lamb, who had outlined their proposal in a January 2006 paper that circulated widely, call for SOCom to be split into two four-star commands. One, “perhaps called the Unconventional Warfare Command,” would oversee the indirect-action capabilities that currently reside within SOCom, supplemented by a new capability “dedicated to understanding and influencing traditional social and communication networks.” The other, “perhaps called the Special Operations Strike Command,” would take charge of the direct-action forces.
A seminar featuring two panels discussing the ideas presented in the book will be held Sept. 20 at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at Fort McNair.
“What Chris and I have in mind is something that would be very different from simply collecting civil affairs forces, psychological operations forces and Special Forces together and putting them in a separate command,” Tucker said. Just grouping the indirect-action forces in a new command would not achieve major change, he said.
“It only makes sense if you recognize how different the work is that these people would do and, therefore, that you’re going to have to select different kinds of people than we now tend to select, train them differently, support them in the field differently [and] promote them differently,” Tucker said.
“We argued that there were different capabilities that were needed,” that would require members of the command to spend long periods in far-flung locations to get to know areas and to build relationships, he said. That “starts to point toward a whole different personnel system — ultimately, one in which people don’t go through the lieutenant to general officer set of ranks, for example.”
Rothstein goes so far as to call for a new service that would include “all of the UW-type forces” along with a proportionate share of SOCom’s intelligence, aviation and other assets. “You’d have a new UW Command with a service secretary, a civilian, and this service secretary would also be the president’s principal adviser for unconventional warfare, or irregular warfare might be a better term today,” Rothstein said, adding that SOCom would be left with the direct-action missions. “That’s their focus anyway, that’s what they spend most of their time and effort on anyway, and so in an operational sense, it doesn’t take much away from them.”
Rothstein’s new unconventional warfare command would be headquartered in Washington, D.C., to enable coordination with other government agencies. “This particular service coordinates with the Joint Staff, but they don’t have to go through the Joint Staff,” he said.
After Tucker and Lamb published their first paper, the response from SOCom’s then-commander, Army Gen. Bryan “Doug” Brown, and his deputy (and successor) Adm. Eric Olson has been “very negative,” Tucker said. Their objections revolved around two themes, he said: that the direct- and indirect-action forces work best when brought together, and that SOCom is “already fixing the problem” outlined by Tucker and Lamb.
Brown did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. SOCom spokesman Army Col. Hans Bush would say only, “We are interested in these discussions, and that’s why we are participating next week,” a reference to SOCom’s plans to send representatives to the Sept. 20 seminar at Fort McNair.
The Tucker and Lamb proposal even meets resistance in the SF community. It is in the best interests of neither the direct- nor indirect-action forces to be separated, according to the retired SF colonel. “It’s like going back to the days of cavalry, infantry and artillery never talking to each other,” he said. “The question is how do we achieve a better balance of both capabilities so they can be used in a complementary fashion? That’s not served by having the limited number of experts split in half into … two unified commands, which means there’s going to be two budgets, which means every time the secretary of defense says, ‘I want to talk to my SOF guy,’ two four-stars show up. It’s an administrative and management nightmare.”
The Tucker and Lamb book “is a great synopsis of all the water-cooler talk in Special Forces,” said an SF officer at the Naval Postgraduate School. However, he said, a briefing produced by a team of NPS students contains another variant on the idea of pulling Special Forces out of SOCom, by combining the seven SF groups with the CIA’s paramilitary forces and some diplomatic elements. “There’s no getting around the fact that a lot of the stuff you do for unconventional warfare just doesn’t fit DoD, in the simplest sense that they always want us in uniform, yet doing clandestine work amongst a civilian population. As long as we’re trying to have one foot in the covert world and one foot in the overt world, we’re not going to be very good at either, and we could potentially endanger our operators and the mission.”
Although the voices calling for taking the military’s indirect-action forces out of SOCom are mostly civilian, the proposal to create a UW equivalent to JSOC inside SOCom originated in the heart of the indirect-action community.
“It was generated at USASFC,” said a field grade SF officer who has followed the issue closely. USASFC is the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, the two-star headquarters at Fort Bragg, N.C., responsible for training and equipping the SF groups. “People were asking the question why we have this big repository of subject-matter experts, both civilians and military people, in unconventional warfare, and we have just this Title X nondeployable headquarters,” he said. Many in Special Forces thought the solution was to turn SF Command from a Title X administrative headquarters into an operational UW headquarters.
Most sources agree that the driving force behind this concept was now-retired Maj. Gen. Geoff Lambert, who commanded Special Forces Command from September 2001 to July 2003. Lambert said SOCom’s prioritization of the direct-action units had regrettable consequences for the military’s ability to wage unconventional warfare.
“With senior-level advocacy and improved resourcing, all the indirect expertise wouldn’t have been forgotten by DoD and left floundering at the U.S. Army JFK Special Warfare Center and School and U.S. Army Special Forces Command (Airborne),” Lambert said.
“If there had been equitable investment in all SOF, instead of just fixing Desert One for the last 20 years, where do you think counterinsurgency and occupational doctrine, human intelligence networks, cultural training, language training and language technology, indigenous technical equipment, the art of caches, biometric and historical contact records (all lost from earlier SF involvement in Afghanistan), and general-purpose force understanding of irregular warfare would have been by 9/11?” he asked. “I know the fight in Kosovo and Iraq would have been different.”
Lambert, who was scheduled to speak at the Sept. 20 seminar, said the utility of a UW command “would be to handle the nagging, intractable” political-military challenges that don’t require the deployment of overwhelming conventional military forces, providing unconventional warfare advice “and tailored command and control as required.
“It could support the regional component commands with indirect support over long periods of time. Supporting U.S. Pacific Command in the Philippines for the next 20 years might be one of its responsibilities. Does that mean the headquarters deploys frequently, like some SOF commands do? No – each requirement would have a tailored response.
“In the U.S., the headquarters would serve as a standing advocate for unconventional and indirect warfare activities and solutions.”
Lambert advocated using SF Command headquarters as the base for an unconventional warfare command. Some versions of this proposal referred to the putative new organization as Standing Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force.
“The furthest we got was the Standing Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force,” said the field-grade SF officer who has followed the issue closely. This would have performed roughly the same role for indirect action that JSOC does for direct action, except that it was a “task force; … it would not be as permanent” as a command, he said. “It would have been a task force at first, but after you employed it, you get some successes, you get out there, the long-term [plan] was it would eventually become a permanent command. … The ultimate goal was … that, essentially, under SOCom you would have had the Army, Navy and Air Force [Special Operations Commands], then JSOC and a UW command, co-equal.”
After being endorsed by SF Command’s higher headquarters, U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), “that thing made it all the way up to SOCom and it was annihilated by SOCom,” the field-grade SF officer said. “Basically, you’re getting your foot in the door, but the door was slammed shut so hard the foot got amputated, because JSOC saw that as a direct threat,” the field-grade SF officer said.
“They did float the proposal,” the retired SF colonel confirmed. “Brown killed it.”
Other special operations sources provided similar accounts. But a statement from USASOC’s public affairs office disputed this version of events. “USASOC has never sought USSOCOM’s approval for a plan breaking out [Army special operations forces] elements to develop a separate unconventional warfare command,” the statement said. “Creating a separate UW command from existing assets would only degrade USASOC’s overall response capability and limit operational options to those commanders and ambassadors for whom USASOC is tasked to support. USASOC has discussed concepts that emphasize UW and the indirect approach, including discussions with SOCOM, but USASOC has never made a recommendation to build a force structure to focus solely on one dimension.”
FROM BRIEFING TO ACTION
But the idea wouldn’t die. Versions of it surfaced repeatedly in the 2004-2006 timeframe. “By the time I saw it [in spring 2006], it was at a point where they were briefing it to higher as a course of action,” said an officer who served at USASOC headquarters. In that briefing, the USASFC commander, a two-star, would command the operational headquarters while the deputy commander, a one-star, would take over the command’s force provision responsibilities if the headquarters deployed under the two-star. “It was heavy on interagency,” the officer said. “They were actually calling it a JIUWTF, a joint interagency UW task force.”
The UW task force idea was floated in a 2005 Army War College paper by then-Lt. Col. Chris Haas, a Special Forces officer who commanded 1st Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, during the opening phase of the war in Afghanistan and now, as a full colonel, commands 3rd Special Forces Group. “Clearly, the time has come for restructuring U.S. Army Special Forces Command,” Haas wrote in his paper, “A Standing Unconventional Warfare Task Force to Combat Insurgency in the 21st Century.” “[R]estructuring Army Special Forces Command into a standing, deployable Unconventional Warfare Task Force charted to conduct long-term, unconventional warfare offers DoD the most immediate and viable response to the current security environment.”
In May 2006, another SF officer, Maj. Michael James, advocated transforming SF Command into an “‘indirect’ sub-unified command” — JSOC is also a sub-unified command — in a monograph titled “Special Operations: Achieving Unified Direction in the Global War on Terrorism” that he wrote at the School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Doing so, James wrote, would “raise the importance and influence of indirect SOF within USSOCOM, the larger military, and the US government in general.”
The statement from USASOC’s public affairs office states that “[i]t is USASOC’s strong studied opinion that our current force structure is optimum and our approved and programmed growth is essential.” But several SF officers said the creation of a UW command would enjoy broad support among their peers. “Operationalizing SF Command is probably the best of the three courses of action out there,” said a special operations officer in the Pentagon. The other two courses of action were to take the UW assets out of SOCom, as per Tucker, Lamb and Rothstein, or stick with the status quo, he said. “Obviously, status quo’s not the right answer,” he quickly added.
“That’s the right move, and give them that type of authority and autonomy to do an indirect action, UW-type mission,” agreed Maj. Jamie Alden, an SF officer at the Naval Postgraduate School. “USASFC has the units that are trained and have the organizational culture to execute the UW mission. The problem is that USASFC is not given the authorities, etc., to execute such a mission.”
Tom O’Connell, who served as the assistant secretary of defense from July 2003 to April 2007, was dismissive of the UW command concept, particularly as outlined by Tucker and Lamb.
“A separate UW command, to me, virtually has no value,” O’Connell said. “I don’t know that we need another headquarters. We man too many headquarters right now, in my view. I don’t want to call the authors incapable or not experienced. But let’s look at their track record of experience. Just because they’ve been in some policy office writing up wish lists and making grand pronouncements doesn’t mean they have any real experience on the ground.”
O’Connell was more receptive to anything proposed by Lambert, who he called “a brilliant officer,” but like other critics, he said that UW forces already have operational advocates of flag rank in the form of each regional combatant command’s special operations commander. “Combatant commands are learning to use their SOCs more effectively, and if you look at the success in the Philippines and in the Horn of Africa, I think those are models for the way forward. And those things have worked perfectly well.”
Despite continued skepticism from O’Connell and others, some observers say that the creation of a UW command is becoming increasingly likely. There is now “a better than 50/50 chance” of the Pentagon establishing a UW command inside SOCom, said the retired SF colonel, adding that his assessment was based on the personalities involved and his “reading of the goat entrails.” He was not alone in singling out changes in leadership at the Pentagon, SOCom and Congress as a major factor.
Despite his criticism of the proposal from Tucker and Lamb, Adm. Eric Olson, the new SOCom commander, is presumed by many observers to be more willing than was Brown to consider some form of UW headquarters. “Olson has been the champion in DoD for irregular warfare for over a year now,” said the retired SF colonel, who noted that Olson has appointed Lt. Gen. David Fridovich, a Special Forces officer, to run SOCom’s Center for Special Operations. As the special operations commander for Pacific Command, Fridovich earned high marks for successes achieved using classic UW methods against terrorists and insurgents in the Philippines. Olson’s deputy, Army Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, “certainly comes from a Ranger background, but he is a convert to the indirect approach from his time at [Special Operations Command, Central Command]. He has surrounded himself with people that have not drunk the [direct-action] Kool-Aid, or if they did drink the Kool-Aid, they’ve recovered from it. Olson himself, look at his background — you would never believe that he would be a believer in the indirect approach, but he’s been championing the indirect approach now for two years. I think Kearney is another convert, and Fridovich never drank the Kool-Aid. So it’s a pretty powerful message when you take a look at who the three senior-ranking guys in the command are right now.”
But despite the perceptions that the current SOCom leadership has a more enlightened approach to UW, many observers said a UW command will be created only if Congress forces the issue. Without such a move, Rothstein said, “it’s not going to happen — you’re asking SOCom and you’re asking DoD to do a significant rearrangement when they don’t see the problem.”
Key figures on Capitol Hill are now wading into the debate on the side of change. “It makes some sense to me to have [an] … unconventional warfare command, similar to JSOC, within SOCom,” said Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism and unconventional threats. “What we’ve done within the House authorizing bill is that we’ve asked for some feedback on this from DoD and SOCom, so I haven’t 100 percent said, ‘Yep, we’re going to do it and I’m pushing the policy.’ I’m exploring and talking to people, trying to hear are there counterarguments that I haven’t thought of. … I’d be interested in getting some further feedback from [SOCom leaders] on whether or not setting up this separate command within SOCom that I talked about is the best approach. But to me, it makes a lot of sense and it’s something I want to pursue.”
Smith added that his subcommittee contains “a lot of bipartisan support for this notion” and that he “absolutely” would be willing to add money to SOCom’s budget to stand up such a command, which he said would fit into the geographic combatant command structure “similar to the way JSOC does, with a similar mission.”
“I don’t think the larger committee at this point is as focused on” the issue of establishing a UW command, “but I suspect we’d get the same kind of positive feedback from them as well,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, O’Connell’s replacement in the newly renamed job of assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities, Michael Vickers, is a former SF officer who raised the possibility of converting SF Command into a UW command in his written answers to policy questions in advance of his confirmation hearing. The idea, he said, merits “further study.”
If Vickers decided to push the idea, it would be very difficult for SOCom to resist, according to a Senate staffer sympathetic to the idea of an unconventional warfare command. “If they come and squawk to us about this, personally, I’m not going to be all that sympathetic,” the staffer said. “Something like this, I would be predisposed to listen [to] with a friendly ear.”
Even if establishing a UW command required funding, “we wouldn’t have a problem with it,” the staffer added. The only thing that might derail such an initiative was “some real hard-core opposition in the JSOC community and they actually lobbied behind the scenes on the Hill against it,” the staffer said. “That might have an effect on some members.”
There is little doubt that the creation of a UW command to rival JSOC would risk increasing the friction between the direct- and indirect-action communities. A principle argument made by the advocates of a UW command is that it would even the playing field somewhat between “white” (unclassified) special ops and the JSOC’s “black” (classified) operators. Advocates of this approach say it would give UW a headquarters that would be the equivalent of JSOC.
“I attribute some of this to professional jealousy within the ranks,” said the recently retired Army special operations general.
“There’s a tendency for those that have not been inside that command at Fort Bragg to believe that their value is questionable, that they get everything they want and that they’re prima donnas, and that’s just not the case,” said O’Connell, a former Army intelligence officer, adding: “I’ve been on both sides of the fence.”
The retired SF colonel said he expected that senior leaders would assure JSOC commander Lt. Gen. Stan McChrystal that JSOC would not lose resources in the event of a UW command being stood up.
“The message that would be sent to McChrystal is that this will not be done at your expense,” the retired SF colonel said. “The solution is not to tear down his unit and reallocate its resources. The solution is to bring the unconventional warfare people up to a similar level of resourcing. … So I think the answer will be that he will be told by the right people that he’s not threatened, his organization is not threatened by this. He’s going to have another complementary capability standing next to him.”
There have also been longstanding rumors that JSOC has designs on the Special Forces units. But that might be a case of be careful what you wish for, according to a Fort Bragg source.
“A growing minority view” among SF personnel regarding JSOC is “if we can’t beat ’em, we join ’em,” he said. “There’s some people who say, ‘Hey, just put us over there and let us work the UW piece under that [JSOC] headquarters,’ which in a lot of ways would probably be a lot more efficient, a lot more effective, than trying to stand [something] up from the get-go, ’cause we’re always going to have to do it on the cheap. We’re not going to get the resources that those guys get over there.”
If the military’s guerrilla warfare experts were let loose inside JSOC, it might never be the same. “We’d get over there and do what SF guys do — get a [guerrilla] base,” he said. “If you could get us over there, we could take it down from the inside.”
Sean D. Naylor is an AFJ contributing editor. He is the author of “Not a Good Day to Die — The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda.”