By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2013 – U.S. special operations forces
are postured to take on the global counterterrorism challenges the nation faces
in the years ahead, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command said Nov.
Navy Adm. William H. McRaven took part in a panel discussion
at the first Reagan National Security Forum at the Reagan Library in Simi
Valley, Calif., examining what will be required to effectively fight terrorism
Numerous senior Defense Department officials, including
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the forum. McRaven’s panel included Michael G.
Vickers, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, along with U.S. Sen. Carl
Levin and U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry. Washington Post national security reporter
Craig Whitlock moderated the panel.
McRaven said the role of U.S. special operations forces in
the coming decade-plus is “a very timely topic.” Through the 1990s, he said,
“the international special operations community had a lot of great [special
operations] forces. And frankly, there were many that were as good, if not
better, than we were.”
Since 9/11 and continuing today, however, “I can tell you,
there is nobody in the world who can compare to U.S. special operations forces
and U.S. counterterrorism forces,” the admiral said.
Thanks to the support of Congress, he reported, Socom has
since 2001 doubled its people, tripled its budgets and quadrupled its
capability -- not just in the areas of hardware and intelligence, surveillance
and reconnaissance assets, but also in noncommissioned officer training,
officer education, and language and cultural studies.
The question now, McRaven said, is whether the special
operations force that has evolved to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is
also adaptable to today’s threats. He said it absolutely is.
The admiral noted that the U.S. special operations forces
now postured in Afghanistan will, as the drawdown of troops in 2014 proceeds,
be available for new missions.
“A lot of what we will do as we go forward in this force is
build partner capacity. … We will always be the best in the world at rescuing
Americans and taking care of threats to the nation, but a large part of what we
will do [in future] is build partner capacity,” he said.
U.S. forces have worked over the past decade with partners
in Colombia, the Philippines, Chad and a dozen other countries around the world
to strengthen their special operations programs, he said. U.S. allies and
partners including NATO, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and Asian and
Latin American nations “are absolutely essential to how we’re doing business,”
Interagency collaboration across the U.S. government is also
crucial, McRaven said. “I have special operations support teams, liaison
officers, in 38 agencies and departments within Washington, D.C.,” he noted.
Socom’s relationships with other agencies such as the CIA
and FBI are “phenomenal,” he reported.
“Lives are important, and the security of the nation is important,
and it has brought us together,” the admiral said. “My concern is that as we
draw down in Afghanistan, and we don’t have the opportunity that,
unfortunately, war brings you to continue to work together, we’ve got to be
careful about moving apart.”
The whole-of-government approach is “absolutely crucial to
getting after these threats,” he said.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t make any difference to me
whether it’s a Department of Defense guy, or a law enforcement individual or an
intelligence individual that takes care of the threat,” McRaven said. “We’ve
got to work together to make sure that those threats don’t end up on our
McRaven said his special operators also rely on regular U.S.
“I am the biggest supporter of the conventional forces,
because frankly, we can’t do our special operations job without support from
the big Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps,” the admiral said. He added,
“If we are going to have a viable force in 2025, it’s all about the people.”
He pointed out that 12 years of war have exacted a high
price from his troops. “We have had more suicides this year than [at] any point
… in the history of special operations forces,” McRaven said. While that
“single data point” can’t capture the overall health of his force, the admiral
said, it is important.
“The stress on the force is pretty significant,” he said.
“We are going out of our way to work with the services to make sure that the
individual soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines are healthy physically, mentally
Resilience within families is equally important, he said,
and Socom’s “preservation of the force and families” initiative is one approach
the command is taking to help families learn adapting and coping skills.
“If you want a strong [special operations] force for 2025,
or frankly for 2014 and 2015, we have got to take care of our force,” he
But McRaven said that overall, he is confident the nation’s
special operators are ready to take on current and future missions. “I think
we’re going to be ready to go now and in the future,” he said. He noted that
Socom is channeling more troops into language and cultural training that will
make them effective in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
“Up to 2025, this building partner capacity is going to be
important,” he explained. “You can’t build that partner capacity well unless
you speak their language, unless you understand their culture, and unless you
have gained their trust.”
Such engagement is not effective if it’s episodic, the
admiral said. Special operations forces bring sustained engagement, backed by
language and cultural knowledge, to the task of improving partner forces, he
noted. “Episodic engagement with our partners will not get us to the point
where they have a competent and capable force that can deal with the threat,”
he said. “We’ve got to have persistent engagement.”
Vickers addressed a question from Whitlock on how the
Pentagon determines who the enemy is as terrorist groups shift membership and
“It is a governmentwide issue,” he replied. While al-Qaida
has many branches and all of them are considered enemies, he said, other groups
claim ideological similarities with terrorist organizations while not,
themselves, posing a threat to America or its allies.
Vickers said fusion of intelligence and operations, and
sustained pressure on terrorist groups, are both vital to addressing
counterterrorism missions effectively. During the years when America was
fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, al-Qaida wasn’t pressured and
was able to reconstitute, resulting in significantly increased threats to the
“Our government then responded quite effectively, and we’ve
beaten those threats back,” Vickers said. “But even when there have been
smaller pauses in the pressure on these groups, whether it’s in Yemen or
Pakistan or elsewhere for, say, just months, you see them reconstituting. It
emphasizes the real importance of sustained pressure, but also precision
application of power.”
McRaven said the best solution the United States can work
toward with partners and allies in many parts of the world is to “train them to
deal with their own problems.” The admiral said U.S. special operations forces
are currently in 81 countries. In some cases, that may mean one or two people
working in an embassy, he said, while other times it may mean a couple hundred
trainers on the ground.
In each case, he said, “we do a very, very thorough review,
and we understand those risks ahead of time.”
The State Department plays a big role in deciding what
forces the U.S. military will train with, he noted. Special operations forces
don’t train with other nations unless the regional combatant commander, the
ambassador and the country team all give the go-ahead, McRaven said.
“We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are forces
out there that … have questionable reputations,” the admiral pointed out. “I
think we need to assume some risk in helping them. Libya would be a prime
example. So right now, as we go forward to try and find a good way to build up
the Libyan security forces so they are not run by militias, we are going to
have to assume some risks.”
McRaven said the Libyan training mission, which Pentagon
spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said today will take place in Bulgaria, will
involve both conventional and special Libyan forces.
Between 5,000 and 7,000 Libyan conventional forces will take
part, he said, while a U.S. special operations component will train “a certain
number of their forces to do counterterrorism.”