The Pentagon is urging Congress to resume funding a pair of top-secret programs in Ukraine suspended ahead of Russia’s invasion last year, according to current and former U.S. officials. If approved, the move would allow American Special Operations troops to employ Ukrainian operatives to observe Russian military movements and counter disinformation.
A determination is unlikely before the fall. Defense officials are preparing a proposal for lawmakers’ consideration in the coming months, when work begins on next year’s Pentagon policy and funding bill. If successful, these programs could resume as soon as 2024, though it remains unclear if the Biden administration would allow U.S. commandos back into Ukraine to oversee them or if the military would seek to do that from a neighboring country. No American military personnel are known to have operated there since the war began, beyond a small number tasked to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.
Congressional officials said it is difficult to predict the outcome, particularly with Republicans split over the vast sums being spent on Ukraine. Others argue that the programs’ relatively small expense — $15 million annually for such activities worldwide — is a bargain compared with the tens of billions of dollars being committed to train and arm Ukrainian forces, and replenish U.S. stockpiles.
Military officials are eager to restart these activities in Ukraine to ensure that hard-gained relationships are not lost as the war wears on, said Mark Schwartz, a retired three-star general who led U.S. Special Operations in Europe when the programs began in 2018. “When you suspend these things because the scale of the conflict changes, you lose access,” he said, “and it means you lose information and intelligence about what’s actually going on in the conflict.”
American commandos, using a similar funding authority, have for many years paid select foreign military and paramilitary units across the Middle East, Asia and Africa, employing them as “surrogates” in counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and their affiliates. Newer surrogate programs, such as those used in Ukraine, are considered a form of “irregular warfare.” They are intended for use against adversaries, such as Russia and China, with whom the United States is in competition, not open conflict.
Critics, including some on Capitol Hill, say such activities risk drawing the United States into a more direct role in the Ukraine war. Defense officials maintain, though, that unlike the Pentagon’s larger and more overt effort to arm the Ukrainian military, the secretive surrogate programs would not contribute directly to Ukraine’s combat capability because the operatives involved and their U.S. handlers would be restricted to performing only the nonviolent tasks they had undertaken until their suspension last year.
The debate arises as Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine nears the start of a second year, and as the Biden administration dramatically accelerates and expands the scope of military assistance it is providing the government in Kyiv despite repeated Russian protests and threats of escalation. In recent weeks, President Biden has authorized the provision of ammunition and advanced weapons, including heavy battle tanks and other armored combat vehicles. Reinstating these irregular warfare programs would further deepen Washington’s involvement, granting American military personnel hands-on control over Ukrainian operatives in the war zone.
Typically, the deployment of a surrogate control team into the host country has been required as part of these programs, though U.S. Special Operations troops have become accustomed in recent years to advising surrogate and partner forces far from the front lines. Biden has promised he would not deploy any troops inside the country except in isolated cases, which include the military attache and security personnel who work at the embassy.
This account of the Pentagon’s lobbying effort on Capitol Hill is based on interviews with 15 current and former U.S. officials familiar with the surrogate programs and efforts to reactivate them in Ukraine. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified military operations.
Spokespersons for the Senate and House Armed Services committees declined to comment, citing the programs’ classified status. The White House also declined to comment. The Pentagon also declined to comment because of the programs’ classification.
Surrogate operations like those used in Ukraine are called “1202 programs,” named for Section 1202 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, the law that approved their use and funding. The provision specifies that such programs cannot be used during a “traditional armed conflict,” prompting their suspension last year when Russia’s own military efforts in Ukraine evolved from backing pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east to a full-scale invasion.
The Pentagon sought unsuccessfully to have that language in the law revised as Congress debated this year’s defense budget legislation. Military officials want it to say instead that such activities may continue if a host nation, not the United States itself, enters an open war. Beyond the near-term utility of resuming these two program in Ukraine, the Pentagon sees an opportunity to persuade legislators to broaden the authority so that such a stoppage won’t be necessary elsewhere in the future, said one government official.
Kenneth Tovo, a retired three-star general who led the Army’s Special Operations forces when the 1202 authority was proposed and passed, said the military’s concern is that these restrictions have severed a useful source of intelligence in Ukraine and risk doing so again in another conflict.
“We have a habit of doing this,” Tovo said, “where we turn things off, pull people out after years on investment as an immediate reaction to a change in a conflict, and then we’re surprised when we have less information and less understanding of what’s going on as a result.”
Opponents argue that Russia might construe the programs’ reactivation as a provocation and respond by broadening the scope of its war. One official familiar with the talks on Capitol Hill said that, for this reason, the Pentagon will struggle to win over skeptical lawmakers.
“What started as a reconnaissance mission can quickly turn into combat when the surrogates start getting shot at,” the official said. “I think that’s a real possibility in Ukraine, and I’m not sure how the department is going to change people in Congress’s minds about that.”
Proponents, including current and former defense officials and some congressional staffers, say the secrecy surrounding 1202 programs has made them appear more aggressive than they are, in large part because of Section 1202’s derivation from the authority — called Section 127e — that allows U.S. Special Operations to pay and equip foreign troops, and dispatch them on missions to kill or capture suspected terrorists. Irregular warfare surrogates, by contrast, have only conducted what the U.S. military calls “non-kinetic” — or nonviolent — missions.
Congress, said one defense official, is more familiar with the counterterrorism programs, having been briefed on such activities for many years. It’s “hard to explain” for lawmakers, this person said, that the newer program is being used “in a very different way.”
“We don’t want to start a third world war with bad decision-making surrounding surrogate units, but they aren’t out there finding, fixing and finishing like in Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Mick Mulroy, a Pentagon policy official during the Trump administration, using military lingo to describe how commandos in those countries prepared for and carried out counterterrorism raids.
The irregular warfare programs funded by Section 1202 and the more numerous counterterrorism ones allow teams of Green Berets, Marine Raiders and Navy SEALs, with agreement from the host government and relevant U.S. Embassy, to issue them missions and orders. “There’s an element of command and control” in the surrogate programs that doesn’t exist in other relationships between U.S. troops and foreign partners, Mulroy said. “… That’s what makes it effective. It allows us to move more quickly.”
The counterterrorism surrogate programs have drawn criticism for blurring the line between where the United States is engaged in armed military operations and where the local host countries are. The heavily classified 127e programs are also exempt from legislation that requires human rights vetting of other foreign military and paramilitary units before U.S. troops can work with them. The newer 1202 programs also are exempt from that requirement.
Before the invasion, U.S. Special Operations troops were running two irregular warfare surrogate programs in Ukraine. In one, “We had people taking apart Russian propaganda and telling the true story on blogs,” said a person in the Special Operations community.
U.S. commandos used the second program to send Ukrainian operatives on surreptitious reconnaissance missions in Ukraine’s east. “We’d train surrogates to go collect signals intelligence off a Russian radar battery … stuff like that,” another government official said. “We weren’t training and paying Ukrainians to go kill Russians for us.”
Schwartz, the retired general, said that, when the programs began, Russia’s military spies were prevalent in eastern Ukraine. “There were all these indications of Russian influence, and we wanted to call it out,” he said, “but we didn’t necessarily want to be seen as the ones calling it out.”
U.S. commandos in Ukraine did not supply their surrogates with training or weapons that might cause problems later if misused, Schwartz said. “We weren’t going to equip Ukrainians with sophisticated means to employ demolitions, because if they wind up sneaking that across the border into Russia and using U.S. explosives for sabotage operations that we didn’t authorize, that would be escalatory,” he said.
If reauthorized, the programs would still be limited to noncombat operations. Section 1202 specifies that surrogate troops can’t undertake any missions U.S. Special Operations forces “are not otherwise legally authorized to conduct themselves.”
The defense committees in Congress inserted that restriction, a congressional official said, after U.S. commandos had used the counterterrorism surrogate programs to undertake combat missions that took lawmakers by surprise when they went wrong. In 2017, for instance, a planned raid by a Green Beret team and its surrogate unit in Niger led a second Green Beret team into an insurgent ambush that killed four U.S. soldiers. Lawmakers were furious, saying they hadn’t known that U.S. troops in the African country were involved in such dangerous missions.
“Niger was a seminal moment for a lot of members,” the congressional official said. “They were worried about authorities like 127e and 1202, and the possibility that they allow Special Operations forces who are ostensibly not authorized to engage in combat a chance to engage in activities that look and smell a lot like combat.”
The Pentagon’s response initially was to limit its irregular warfare surrogate programs to Europe, where U.S. Special Operations troops — and therefore their surrogates — lack authority to participate in direct combat, current and former officials said. “We were told to focus on Europe as a proof of concept for Congress,” said one, “because nothing kinetic was going on there and it seemed like counter-Russia was a bipartisan thing that no one would argue with.”