The United States’ view of warfare has been changing.
To deter potential conflicts, the nation will have forward-based sea, air and ground forces in strategic areas around the globe. It will also retain its nuclear triad of land- and submarine-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers.
But no more big land wars (World War II, Korea, even Vietnam); no major “short-term” invasions (Kuwait, Iraq); or large, long-term stability operations (Iraq, Afghanistan). Certainly, no more nuclear warfare (Japan).
Instead, the Obama administration has moved into the era of satellites and drones for intelligence and stand-off air attacks (Libya). If ground forces are needed, local, allied or United Nations troops can be used, some with the help of U.S. Special Forces teams for training or direction (Central African Republic). To go it alone, drones (Pakistan, Yemen), and again those Special Forces (Pakistan for Osama bin Laden, January’s Somalia rescue).
When Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta introduced the Obama administration’s new strategic guidance he made his first point that “the military will be smaller and leaner, but it will be agile, flexible, rapidly deployable and technologically advanced. It will be a cutting-edge force.”
Read: Special Forces.
Panetta went on to say the United States would have “an adaptable and battle-tested Army . . . capable of defeating any adversary on land. . . . But at the same time we will emphasize Special Operations forces.”
When it comes to funding, which is the proof of the pudding within the Defense Department, Panetta warned the services would face reductions, but when he discussed protecting budgets — and in some cases increasing funding — “our investments in Special Operations forces” topped the list.
If there is any doubt about where President Obama is on the question, just look at the symbolism from Jan. 24 — it wasn’t lost on the military.
With Special Operations Commander Adm. William McRaven sitting next to first lady Michelle Obama in the House gallery, Obama strolled into the chamber to present the State of the Union speech and stopped by Panetta to whisper, “Good job tonight.” It was a reference to the Special Forces rescue hours earlier of American Jessica Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted, a Danish citizen, who were being held by Somali pirates.
The collaborative nature of Special Forces operations is an element often overlooked. Two days after Obama’s congratulations to Panetta, Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out that element in the Somalia rescue.
“We had Air Force aircraft, Army aircraft, Navy SEALs, and it was very, very well executed,” he told reporters. “The helicopters that pulled those hostages out of that camp were Army helicopters,” he also noted, emphasizing that despite planned reductions, the Army is going to assume roles in Special Forces regional engagements after Afghanistan.
Special Forces Command (SOCOM) has been growing exponentially since 2001, when after Sept. 11, President George W. Bush gave it responsibility for planning and conducting worldwide counterterrorism operations for the Defense Department (DoD). In 2008 that was expanded to include worldwide training and assistance planning for allies to meet the threat of terrorist networks.
In 2009, Special Forces units were working in 60 countries. Today they are in, or rotating in and out of, more that 100 countries. A Jan. 11 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report put SOCOM’s size at “about 60,000 active duty, National Guard and reserve personnel from all four services and DoD civilians.” That is up from some 35,000 in the late 1990s.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing Sept. 22, McRaven referred to the tripling of SOCOM’s budget since the Sept. 11 attacks. Its fiscal 2012 budget, at $10.4 billion, was up 7 percent from 2011 and will be larger in the 2013 budget. And while $3.3 billion of fiscal 2012 was in the overseas war account, primarily for Afghanistan, the plan is to move much of that into the new core budget.
McRaven also noted SOCOM’s annual personnel growth of 3 to 5 percent . One estimate puts SOCOM at 70,000 by fiscal 2015. However, as the CRS report points out, while DoD is willing to add more people and missions, “there are limitations on expansion because of stringent qualifications and training standards.”
The Marine Corps was an original holdout against Special Forces. Corps opponents had argued, according to one internal Marine report, that it would be “an elite force within an elite force.” That changed in 2005 when it agreed to establish the Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC), with the provision that it would only consist of 2,500 Marines who would be assigned for just five years.
That number has already been increased 44 percent to provide combat and service support capabilities, and while the Marine Corps itself faces reductions over the next five years, those reductions will not come from MARSOC.
McRaven previewed his command’s growing role in the revised national strategy during his Capitol Hill appearance in September, but few realized it. He spoke of Special Forces in Afghanistan carrying out both counterterrorism raids and village stability operations. He also forecast that “the projected conventional force drawdown in Afghanistan through 2014 is increasingly dependent upon significant SOF [Special Operation Forces] presence.”
He talked of Special Forces “engaging and influencing key populations [elsewhere in the world], empowering local host nation forces, and increasing capability through partner development, all contributing to locally led defeat of threats.”
“These forces,” he said, “are changing the global conditions that enable responsible local solutions to the violent extremism, insurgencies, and criminal enterprises threatening the national sovereignty and economic prosperity needed for a stable and peaceful future.”
To me, McRaven’s words embody the Obama Defense Department’s new way of looking at warfare. The first test of this approach is coming in the next few months. It won’t be in Afghanistan, Iran or Syria, but rather on Capitol Hill as legislators carry on their own form of warfare over the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget.