What does it mean when the U.S. Special Operations Command continues to grow in the new Defense Department fiscal 2014 budget while the individual services face additional reductions?

SOCOM growth isn’t just in dollars. The Tampa-based command is gaining new authority and acquiring additional roles both abroad and here at home.

The SOCOM commander, Adm. William H. McRaven, told the Senate Armed Services emerging threats subcommittee Tuesday, “On any day of the year you will find special operations forces [in] somewhere between 70 and 90 countries around the world.”

In budget documents released Wednesday, the Defense Department said SOCOM must “continue to grow” and have the flexibility to “hold al Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents under constant pressure, wherever they may be.”

While the other services are cutting back training this year for all but those scheduled for deployment overseas, the SOCOM budget for next year increases training to regain land warfare skills in areas other than the mountains and deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Specifically, [Special Operations forces] will place a renewed focus on battalion-level Security Force Assistance and Unconventional Warfare training in the jungle and forested environment,” according to Defense Department Comptroller documents.

McRaven explained to the Senate panel, “I can provide a global view of the problem [of extremists and terrorists] and help link and synchronize global effects across geographic boundaries.”

Emphasizing that he works only with the approval of the president, defense secretary, geographic combatant commanders and U.S. ambassadors in countries involved, McRaven said he is developing a plan to network his “U.S. interagency counterparts and our foreign allies and partners around the world.”

SOCOM is stepping up partnerships and training for irregular warfare and counterterrorism in “high risk or sensitive environments” with Theater Special Operations Commands, McRaven said. He is also sending Special Operations liaison officers to key U.S. embassies to work with the U.S. country teams advising partner nations’ special forces in countries such as Jordan, Poland, Turkey and Kenya.

While SOCOM’s existing global communications network keeps all the command’s forces connected, McRaven is looking to expand his communications infrastructure to other partner countries.

Here in the national capital region, McRaven said, “One-to-three-person Special Operations Support Teams work with our interagency partners . . . [to assist] in synchronizing [Defense Department] planning for training, exercises and operations.” He has established a SOCOM vice commander who resides in Washington to ensure “that the perspectives and capabilities of interagency and international mission partners are incorporated into all phases of [Special Operations forces] planning efforts.”

Not only that, but the SOCOM forces in the Washington area are to conduct “outreach to academia, non-governmental organizations, industry and other private sector organizations to get their perspective on complex issues affecting” Special Operations forces, McRaven said.

With this last outlined task, you may get a sense that the admiral is moving away from the prime job of dealing with al-Qaeda and its affiliates. But SOCOM doing a bit of lobbying in the nation’s capital is far less dangerous and expensive than what was hinted at during other parts of Tuesday’s hearing.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who supported enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, had just returned from that country and asked if the United States was “providing sufficient assistance to the Libyans, which they can pay for, in the form of border security, in the form of training and equipping their military so that they can gain more control over their country, particularly in the eastern part?”

Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, who appeared along with McRaven, told McCain, “We don’t have a very big footprint in the country right now . . . for security reasons, so some of the good programs that we were doing, for example to try to build up their Ministry of Defense, some of the mentoring that we were doing on the civilian side, have stopped dead in their tracks.”

McCain then turned to Mali and asked Chollet if he had confidence that when the French leave, “the situation will not deteriorate back to a situation that basically is the same as before the French intervened?”

Chollet said the United States would work through the United Nations to get peacekeepers there that would train a new African force, but added, “I think we have a shot, but I wouldn’t say that it’s high confidence.”

When McCain said that neither the Africans nor the United Nations had the aircraft to support peacekeepers, another witness, Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations, jumped in.

He said that the U.N. forces would maintain control over Mali’s main cities and that going after members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb would be a job for the French and perhaps the Algerians. He said the United States, which has put surveillance drones and aircraft in the area, could “track down the [al-Qaeda] leadership with much more capable counterterrorism forces.”

Neither mentioned SOCOM, and McCain never asked McRaven about Mali or Libya.

When Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), the subcommittee chairman, asked whether the United States should provide additional support to opposition elements in Syria “that share our views and interests,” McRaven had responded, “Ma’am, I’m not sure there’s much I can add to that in this forum. . . . I’d be more than happy to talk to you in a little bit more detail in the closed session on what we’re doing.”

That’s one problem with SOCOM’s growing role around the world. Its plans are discussed in open hearings, while its actual operations are described only behind closed doors.


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