WASHINGTON: The future of Special Operations Forces may look less like Zero Dark Thirty and more like Lawrence of Arabia or Rudyard Kipling’s Kim – with just a dash of 007. It’s a future that builds on the last ten years of raids and advisor missions, then adds solo operators in foreign lands, proxy wars with nuclear-armed rogue states, and stealth aircraft infiltrating commando teams to sabotage high-tech defenses.
That’s the vision from the influential Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments which rolled out a study on the future of SOF, “Beyond the Ramparts,” this morning. CSBA is arguably the Pentagon’s favorite thinktank, and its briefing in Congress’s Rayburn Office Building was headlined by House Armed Services Vice-Chairman Mac Thornberry, who’s pushed for new legal authorities for SOF, and Garry Reid, deputy to Michael Sheehan, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and low Intensity Conflict. The meat of the presentation, though, came in co-authors Jim Thomas’ and Chris Dougherty’s distillation of their 144-page report.
What’s counterintuitive about Special Operations nowadays is how much its biggest backers try to deglamorize it and even make it a little boring. (Hint: It’s not). Admittedly, in real life, as opposed to movies, a lot of special ops is long slogs through the dust to distant villages, whether to gather intelligence on a “high value target” or to train local militia. It’s not all jumping out of helicopters and kicking down doors. (Unless you’re an Army Ranger: Those are generally younger, less experienced commandos with less language and culture training who spend almost all their time on “kinetic” missions, which they think is awesome).
So Special Operations Command chief Adm. William McRaven, who oversaw the raid that got Bin Laden and is himself a Navy SEAL, likes to talk of SOF rebalancing, reducing the last decades’ emphasis on strike missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and instead reemphasizing its traditional training and advising role around the world, although SOF has always done a lot of both. McRaven’s top priorities are strengthening the regional SOF headquarters known as “Theater Special Operations Commands” – which some insiders see as a power grab at the expense of conventional-force commanders – and building relationships with friendly special operators from Colombia to Poland to Australia.
McRaven’s personal favorite pundit, Linda Robinson, adds a recommendation of more personnel management authority for SOCOM. Mac Thornberry and HASC’s top Democrat, Adam Smith, are examining new, streamlined legal authorities for worldwide special ops beyond the patchwork of narrowly focused powers created after 9/11. And all the services, both special and conventional, are looking hard at “counter-WMD,” the high-stakes task of securing weapons of mass destruction in failing states, from Syrian chemicals to, potentially, Pakistani or North Korean nukes.
CSBA’s study, “Beyond the Ramparts,” reiterated most of these important, sober recommendations, but it added some intriguing wrinkles of its own. It agrees Special Operators need to emphasize training and advising friendly forces to fight al-Qaeda spin-offs, narco-terrorists, and the like. But it adds they must also “regain their readiness for major wars” against sophisticated nation-states such as China or, to a lesser degree, Iran, whose multi-layered “anti-access/area denial” networks of sensors and long-range missiles will keep conventional forces at bay – at least until cyber-attacks and SOF infiltrators can sabotage the A2/AD system. This is where those stealth transports come in, as well as “identity-masking technologies” to deceive biometric scanners that compare an individual’s facial features to a database of suspects.
What’s more, CSBA predicts that as A2/AD defenses proliferate, as well as nuclear weapons, regional powers will stalemate the U.S. and one another in the conventional arena. That stalemate, they said, will displace head-on conflict into a new era of proxy warfare. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds force, the authors noted, are arguably doing this already with their support for the Mahdi Army in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In an endearing display of nerdity, lead author Jim Thomas’s choice of historical analogy was not how nuclear-armed superpowers resorted to proxy conflicts during the Cold War but how Great Britain and France spent much of their effort fighting in their far-flung colonies, not in Europe, during the Seven Years’ War – which most Americans know as the French and Indian War anyway. His second analogy was the 19th century “Great Game” between the British and Russian Empires in the regions now known as Afghanistan and Pakistan, the setting of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.
In remote regions beyond either Russian or British ability to project large conventional forces, open and covert agents dueled for influence over local potentates. That conflict required highly independent operators with the linguistic and cultural skills to immerse themselves among a foreign people for years. Translated from the Great Game into modern terms, said Thomas, that requires SOF to be able operate in “very small teams, smaller than an Operational Detachment-Alpha,” the 12-man unit, aka an A-Team, that is the traditional building block of Special Operations.
Potentially, Thomas said, you could go “down to single operators of the T.E. Lawrence/Lawrence of Arabia variety, where one man or one woman parked in one location can persistently engage and have a strategic impact,” mobilizing or assistance local forces to assist America’s strategic aims, much as Lawrence aided the Arab Revolt against Britain’s enemy, Ottoman Turkey.
Such operations require a new breed of special operator. “It’s not someone with a different haircut,” Thomas said. “It’s coming up with essentially a new career plan for them, where the goal may not be a group command in either the SEAL or the Special Forces community… It could be spending most of their military career devoted to a single country….going back again and again.”
“Until recently, this would have been considered a career killer,” Thomas noted: The force will need new incentives and promotion criteria to make it work.
Finally, he said, Special Operations will need to recruit differently, including from first-generation immigrants who know the language and culture of their home country. Today, he said, SOF are “overwhelmingly Caucasian and almost exclusively male.” They don’t blend in a lot of places. To prepare for a new era, Special Operations needs to take full advantage of America’s diversity.
Edited 2:15 pm