WASHINGTON: Tomorrow morning, overshadowed by sequestration, the House Armed Services Committee will hold a rare full-committee hearing on a topic that would normally be high-profile, even explosive: whether to give the Defense Department, and especially its elite special operators, broader legal authority to work with foreign forces worldwide, from Colombia to Mali to the Philippines.

To implement the administration’s January 2012 strategy, with its emphasis on supporting foreign partners rather than committing large numbers of US troops, “we need to overhaul our authorities to provide assistance to other security forces,” HASC vice-chairman Mac Thornberry told Breaking Defense. And despite the bitter partisan divisions on most other issues, he said, “there is interest — equal interest — on both sides to examine existing authorities and see how they can be improved.”

Since 9/11, the once-marginalized Special Operations Command has nearly doubled its personnel to over 60,000, quadrupled its budget to over $10 billion, and played a starring role in the movie Zero Dark Thirty. But, except for a few top-priority missions like the raid that killed Bin Laden, the Special Operations Command doesn’t actually run most special operations.

Instead, SOCOM lends out most of its special operations forces to theater commanders around the world, who manage the vast majority of missions. The problem is that — outside of Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees Iraq and Afghanistan — those theater headquarters are short of both SOF units to conduct missions and SOF-trained staff officers to plan them. And to compound the problem, the rules under which special operators operate vary from theater to theater and even country to country.

“Too much of the time, we are asking people in the field to get their lawyers together and navigate through some legal morass in order to get the job done,” Thornberry said in a recent speech to a special operations conference hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association. Sorting through the technicalities, he said, “your head can start to swim.”

“The hearing this week is a beginning,” Thornberry told Breaking Defense in a follow-up interview. HASC staff aren’t drafting any specific proposals yet. In fact, given how complexly the legal and organizational issues cross jurisdictional boundaries — between the Pentagon and the State Department, between the military’s global Special Operations Command and its geographical theater combatant commanders, and between different panels on the House Armed Services Committee itself — “it may take two years,” Thornberry said.

So before Congress is finished, some of the authorities authorizing SOCOM and other military missions may actually expire. As the military draws down in Afghanistan and seeks both to “pivot” to the Pacific and reengage around the world, critical funding lines and legal authorities are limited in space and time to the war against al-Qaeda. Many depend, ultimately, on the Sept. 18, 2011 “authorization of the use of military force… against those nations, organizations, or persons [which] planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”

“There may come a time when the core al-Qaeda responsible for 9/11 doesn’t really exist anymore,” Thornberry told the NDIA conference, “[but] we have not yet been successful in updating the authorization for the use of military force.”

Of course, civil libertarians, peace activists, and those anxious about what they call the militarization of American foreign policy would happily let these authorities expire. Thornberry, however, argues that assisting foreign partners around the planet would actually reduce the pressure for the US itself to play the world’s policeman.

“I would prefer that it’s not the US military that has to be everywhere,” said Thornberry — but, at the same time, “[that] we don’t just wait until it hits us here at home like on 9/11.” Instead of sending large US forces abroad, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, Thornberry would rather send small special forces teams to train friendly countries to secure their neighborhoods themselves.

That so-called “indirect approach” has become increasingly attractive to policymakers appalled by the human and fiscal costs of having large US forces in direct combat for a decade.

“We don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad or occupy other nations,” President Barack Obama said last night in his State of the Union address. “Instead, we’ll need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat.”

Training and equipping local forces is how the US handed over security in Iraq, how it hopes to get out of Afghanistan after 2014, and how it tried to keep al-Qaeda affiliates out of Mali — with distinctly mixed results in all three cases. So if the indirect approach is going to be central to US strategy, we need to learn to do it better. But how?

Zero Dark Thirty, Lawrence of Arabia, and Back to the Future

Zero Dark Thirty is just part of the special operations forces story — and it’s not actually all that representative. “On any given day you can find SOF in over 70 countries around the globe,” said Adm. William McRaven, the Navy SEAL who oversaw the killing of Osama Bin Laden and now helms Special Operations Command. “Their missions are not secretive. They are not sexy.”

Most special operations are about training friendly foreign fighters, not shooting hostile ones. Instead of rappelling out of helicopters, guns blazing, “it is about patience, persistence, and building trust,” McRaven said at the National Defense Industrial Association conference.

Under men like McRaven, special operations have been the high-profile spearhead of US strategy since 9/11. But the ugly truth of the preceding sixty years is that special ops was an institutional backwater. So McRaven is advancing a plan to ensure that things don’t snap back to the bad old days. With Iraq over and Afghanistan winding down — at least for Americans — special operators don’t want a new Cold War with China and the high-tech, high-cost, but thoroughly conventional “AirSea Battle” concept to shove their low-profile missions back onto the sidelines.

For most of the Cold War, special operations were dismissed as a strategic sideshow to the nuclear-tipped confrontation between the superpowers. They were shouldered aside by the “big Army,” carrier Navy, and bomber Air Force even during the guerrilla war in Vietnam. And they were chronically shortchanged in the military’s intramural competition for funds, influence, and promotions. It took the 1980 debacle of Desert One, when an ill-coordinated rescue operation fell lethally apart in the Iranian desert, to force the (partial) unification of the different services’ special operations units into a single Special Operations Command — imposed on an unwilling Pentagon by Congress. It took 9/11 to propel special operations into a central role.

The highest profile part of that role has been kill-or-capture “direct action” missions, most famously the Bin Laden raid celebrated in Zero Dark Thirty. But most special operators, most of the time, pursue US objectives indirectly, working “by, with, and through” foreign forces: sometimes a local government’s, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mali, but sometimes friendly guerrillas — the kind of mission mythologized by the 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia.

Special operators have always done both, but the balance changes. For US special forces, the indirect mission actually came first, when the legendary OSS — the Office of Strategic Services — infiltrated Axis territory to help Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito (a Communist) fight Nazi Germany and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh (ditto) fight Imperial Japan. (British commando units, by contrast, were created by Winston Churchill to do direct action raids on occupied Europe). In Iraq and Afghanistan, the training mission was so massive that conventional Army and Marine Corps units took over most of it, while special operations forces were increasingly consumed by direct action raids on “high value targets.” Post-Afghanistan, it will be back to the future for special ops as they reemphasize the indirect missions to train, advise, and assist.

“We can’t solely rely on precision strikes to defeat enemy networks and foster the kind of stability we need in these regions,” said Michael Sheehan, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defense for “special operations and low-intensity conflict,” nicknamed SOLIC, at the recent NDIA conference. “A longer-term strategy requires… aiding our friends and partners and allies.” (Sheehan will be the senior administration witness testifying to the House Armed Services Committee tomorrow).

Special ops are critical to this strategy both to kill terrorists today (direct action) and to train friendly forces to kill terrorists by themselves tomorrow (the indirect approach). The model for this synergistic “yin and yang” is recent operations in Afghanistan.

“What you’re seeing is a merging of those two approaches,” said Christopher Dougherty, a senior fellow researching special ops at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “In Afghanistan, what the realization has been is that two things need to be coordinated,” he told Breaking Defense. “You can’t have the ‘black’ side going off and doing their own DA [direct action] missions separate from what the ‘white’ BPC [building partner capacity] folks are doing.”

The institutional result in Afghanistan has been the establishment of a single “Coalition Joint Special Operations Task Force” (CJSOTF) overseeing both direct and indirect missions by both US and NATO forces. Overall, Central Command, which oversees both Afghanistan and Iraq, has seen a massive increase both in special operations units and the planning staff to direct them. Outside CENTCOM, however, the regional special ops headquarters — called TSOCs, Theater Special Operations Commands — are notoriously understaffed.

“They’re not up to the task, at present, of commanding these types of operations,” said Dougherty. “It’s been a pretty persistent problem.”

Adopting Institutional Orphans

If special ops in general were historically marginalized in the Department of Defense, the regional Theater Special Operations Commands were the sideshow to the sideshow, the stepchild’s stepchildren. Even today, unlike Special Operations Command itself, the TSOC headquarters haven’t outgrow their old institutional weakness. That’s something Adm. McRaven wants to fix.

“I’m pretty happy to get a little additional manpower,” said Brig. Gen. Sean Mulholland, who runs the TSOC for Latin America, SOCSOUTH (Special Operations Command – South). “The way the TSOCs were built years ago was out of hide,” i.e. an additional mission assigned without additional funding or personnel.

“It really wasn’t funded or manned correctly. Adm. McRaven is trying to right that ship,” Mulholland said. “It’s long overdue.”

Today, said CSBA’s Dougherty, “the TSOCs are sort of a grab-bag of whoever the [theater commander] can get to fill them.” Most TSOC staff overseeing special ops aren’t actually trained as special operators themselves.

So while Central Command has been well-staffed to orchestrate special operations since 9/11, other theaters have had to plan and organize on a relative shoestring. “We probably made a bit of a mistake by not treating Colombia, the Philippines, Yemen, Pakistan as ‘campaign quality’ problems that we ought to put the same quality of staff [planning and resources] against,” said Brig. Gen. Ferdinand Irizarry, deputy commander of the Army’s Special Warfare Center, at the NDIA conference. That’s a level of attention now needed for Mali, he said.

Part of the problem, said Dougherty, is the Theater Special Operations Commands are institutional orphans, “totally outside the control of SOCOM.” But now, McRaven has proposed changing the Pentagon’s Unified Command Plan to give each TSOC a direct relationship to SOCOM. In this new scheme, the Special Operations Command would play the same supporting role to the TSOCs that the Army, Air Force, and Navy already play for the conventional-forces Land, Air, and Maritime “component commands” inside each theater command.

But these bureaucratic marriages have often been unhappy ones. Component commanders historically could go behind their theater commander’s back or over his head to appeal to their parent services in the Pentagon. Freewheeling special operators can clash with more hidebound conventional officers.

The challenge, said retired Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney at the NDIA conference, is to “convince combatant commanders that you are part of the plan and not just an interloper who on occasion comes in and craps in their backyard.”

“‘S’ stands for ‘SOCOM,'” said Kearney, a former special operator himself, “[but] sometimes ‘S’ stands for thinking you’re Superman when you’re not.”

Particularly unnerving to traditionalists is McRaven’s plan for what he calls “a global SOF network” in which TSOCs connect not only vertically to SOCOM — over the theater commander’s head — but also horizontally to other TSOCs in neighboring theaters — going outside his jurisdiction. McRaven also wants authority for SOCOM to move special operations forces from theater to theater, albeit in consultation with the theater commanders.

McRaven was at pains in his NDIA speech to emphasize he wanted to “support the geographic combatant commanders,” not bypass them: “SOF is there to support the GCCs,” he said. And the Office of the Secretary of Defense seems favorably inclined to his reform.

“What I like about the admiral’s proposal is it stitches the TSOCs together horizontally,” said Garry Reid, Sheehan’s principal deputy at SOLIC, to the NDIA conference. “If you have a SOF requirement, you have access to the whole network.”

And it’s more than just an American network. “We’re creating a network of global SOF,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Repass. Repass’s role as chief of the European TSOC, SOCEUR (Special Operations Command – Europe), puts him at the hub of US efforts to extend cooperation with allied special forces beyond Afghanistan. “The people we’re teaming up with have their own networks, so you’ve got a network of networks out there,” Repass said at the NDIA conference. “We’re building relationships…exponentially.”

But somebody has to pay for all of this. Helping foreign forces fight their own battles is less expensive for the US than fighting them ourselves, and “building partner capacity” is a lot cheaper than building tanks and planes, but — ironically — their very smallness puts them in jeopardy in the escalating budget battles.

“What scares me is when cuts come down, the authorities [for innovative partnership missions] are always one of the first things on the chopping block,” said CSBA’s Dougherty. “There’s no congressman that’s going to fight for it, it doesn’t bring home jobs. It’s very, very small amounts of money — but to the partner nations that we’re working with, they’re remarkably important.” Cutting such small accounts, he said, “would be penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

At the moment, however, it’s almost impossible for SOCOM or Congress to plan in the face of sequestration. “Right now we’re focused on March 1st, sequestration, [and] saving money elsewhere so that you don’t have these draconian, across the board cuts that hit body armor the same percentage they hit grass-mowing,” Thornberry told Breaking Defense. “It does overshadow everything else.”