By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 29, 2013 – Close partnership with U.S. geographic combatant commanders will be crucial to keeping the nation’s special operations forces effective as budgets and formations dwindle, U.S. Special Operations Command’s leader said here today.
Navy Adm. William H. McRaven talked about special operations support to national strategy during a speech at the National Defense Industrial Association’s 24th Annual Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict Symposium.
Socom troops around the world, McRaven said, are “doing exceedingly well, operating as an integral part of the geographic combatant commanders’ strategy.”
The admiral said while his forces operate in more than 70 countries around the world, Afghanistan remains a key focus. U.S. Central Command is the geographic combatant command responsible for Afghanistan, with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in charge of operations there.
McRaven noted all coalition special operations forces in Afghanistan now are united under one special operations joint task force, commanded by Army Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas.
“His headquarters, which reached its full operational capability on 1 January, has done a phenomenal job,” the admiral said. “During my most recent visit there, I was impressed to see [the headquarters] integrating, coordinating and fully synchronizing all [special operations activities] -- not only with each other, but with ISAF.”
Village stability operations and support to Afghan local police –- both programs aimed at growing security and extending governance in rural areas -- are among the “most compelling success stories” special operations forces are logging in Afghanistan, McRaven said.
“These programs have been game-changers to our efforts,” he noted.
McRaven said he recently visited some of the places where Afghan local police groups have established outposts. “I was amazed at the relationships forged with our Afghan counterparts,” he told the symposium audience. “These relationships, built on trust, have clearly paved the way for greater security in the remote areas of the country. They have also helped bridge the gap between the local, district and provincial governments.”
The thinning of U.S. conventional forces in Afghanistan this year and in 2014, McRaven said, will give special operations troops “more opportunity to do more in places that we have neglected.”
While he doesn’t yet know the number of special operations forces that will be needed in Afghanistan beyond 2014, he said, one approach now under way to bridge the anticipated gap is a “surge” in Afghan local police.
The local police program across Afghanistan now numbers close to 19,000 “guardians,” he said, which Afghan leaders want to build to 45,000. Around 60 Special Forces or SEAL units, working with Afghan counterparts, support the program as trainers, he added.
McRaven said Thomas has a plan to sustain the program, with coalition special operations forces shifting to a “train the trainer focus,” helping the Afghan uniformed police and Afghan special operations forces to take over training local forces.
“I think [the program is] on a good glide path right now,” he said. The post-2014 special operations contribution in Afghanistan isn’t yet known, he added, but officials are making plans to enable helping the Afghans continue to build the local police program even if special operations forces draw down to a small number.
Special operators also are achieving “similar positive results” around the world, their commander said. He noted that in the Philippines, “our Green Berets and [Navy] SEALs are doing a terrific job with our Filipino partners.”
McRaven said on a recent visit to the Philippines, he stopped in two places that “10 years ago … were safe havens for Abu Sayyaf and other extremist organizations.” A decade ago, security for the people in such places depended on “how well they knew the enemy,” McRaven said.
“Beheadings, bombings, and families fleeing their homes were a constant part of life,” he said. “Today, largely through the magnificent efforts of our [special operations forces] advisory teams and their Filipino counterparts, the threat is contained. Security has greatly improved.”
McRaven said improvement in the Philippines, where economic progress and stable local government have followed security gains, rivals similar success in Colombia, where U.S. special operators have worked for decades. Such special efforts are also taking place now in Africa, he added, where U.S. special operations troops are “working with our African counterparts to end the [Lord’s Resistance Army] tyranny in Central Africa.”
All of these efforts, he said, demonstrate the ability special operators bring geographic combatant commanders: to “counter regional challenges before they become global problems.”
Those 70-plus countries where his troops operate, McRaven said, often are “places we don’t hear about on the news.”
“[Socom’s missions in such places] are not secretive. They are not sexy,” he said. “Nor do they involve low-flying black helicopters in the dead of night.” Socom troops work at the invitation of the host government, are approved by the appropriate U.S. embassy, and are commanded by the U.S. geographic combatant commander for the region, he explained.
“These missions involve supporting an embassy country team, building partner capacity, or increasing [special operations forces] interoperability,” he said. “It is hard, slow and methodical work that does not lend itself to a quick win. Instead, it is about patience, persistence, and building trust with our partners -- a trust that cannot be achieved through episodic deployments or chance contacts.”
Special operations leaders always have known that “you can’t surge trust,” said McRaven, noting trust “is developed over years by personal one-on-one interaction.”
Socom troops’ ability to build such trust, along with language and cultural expertise and the “ability to think through ambiguity,” he said, increases both the command’s credibility and the demand for its capability.
The past year, the admiral said, has offered a glimpse of the future that includes reduced defense budgets, a drawdown in Afghanistan troop levels and ongoing demands for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
“Socom is prepared to deliver properly organized, trained and equipped forces to the combatant commanders,” he said. “Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are ready to address these and other challenges that our nation will face.”
McRaven noted that current defense strategy “directs us to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.” Special operations forces have maintained a persistent presence in the region that will benefit conventional-force commanders who “fall in” on long-established partnerships, he said.
“We have always been there, in a quiet and persistent way,” McRaven said. “Whether capacity building in Thailand, advising in the Philippines, training with our Aussie and Kiwi [special operations] counterparts, or rendering assistance in the time of natural disaster, our efforts have been consistently focused on the region, our partners and our allies.”
The future of special operations in Asia and elsewhere lies in how well Socom supports the geographic combatant commanders, McRaven reiterated. His suggestion for how best to improve regional support is to bolster theater special operations commands, which he calls TSOCs.
“As a sub-unified command under the [combatant command], they, the TSOCs, work for the combatant commander and serve as their primary command-and-control node for special operations in theaters,” he explained. “Simply put, the TSOCs are the center of gravity for [special operations forces] in theater. And if we want to adequately address current and emerging challenges with a SOF solution, we need to increase their capability.”
Socom is now rebalancing its manpower -- without increasing its budget -- to better support the TSOCs, McRaven said.
Regionally focused special operations commands are an adaptation to the changing world, he added, and will position Socom forces to meet global challenges.
Socom also has to consider, he said, how to move Special Forces “A” teams, Marine special operations teams, Navy SEAL platoons and the platforms that support them in and out of theater quickly. That requires working closely with each of the services, he noted.
“The relationship between the services and Socom is at an all-time high. … We cannot do the job without the services,” McRaven said.
The nation’s special operations forces, he said, “are the sum of the parts of the greatest military in history. It is the services’ people, their traditions, their culture that makes SOF what it is.”
Socom also relies on interagency partners -- “all the three-letter agencies” -- on every mission, McRaven said.
Interagency partners stand right beside special operators as they “secure a target, treat an injured child, or provide a much-needed water well or school,” he said. “They are always there to provide expert analysis, the authority to arrest a criminal, or a new capability.”
That level of cooperation would have been thought impossible before 9/11, but is commonplace today, he said. Work with coalition partner nations has progressed in a like way, McRaven noted.
“The level of trust and friendship has so greatly expanded our network,” he said. “It has given our nation a tangible edge over those who would threaten us. These partnerships give us our strength, based on a trust forged of mutual hardships, common cause, and shared ties. This is what will provide the best defense for the homeland and for our partners abroad.”
Responding to audience questions, McRaven underscored his emphasis on engaged partnership. One lesson he draws from his experience, he said, applies to Mali, where U.S. forces are supporting French-led efforts against insurgent groups. The United States was never able to establish a persistent presence for its special operations forces in Mali, he observed.
“We had an episodic presence in Mali,” the admiral said. “And while I don’t know whether or not a persistent presence would have changed our relationship with the Malian forces, … one lesson we’ve learned from years of doing this is … to work with the host country, you really have to have that persistent presence.”