U.S. Special Operations Command: Meeting
the Challenges of the 21st Century
Born from crisis and shaped through experience,
today's special operations capability did not come easily. Contemporary
Special Operations Forces (SOF) are the product of tragedy, vision,
and the innovation of Congress. Unique authorities given to the
U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)
empower Special Operations Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen to perform
diverse yet critical missions. Exceptional training, enhanced education,
cutting-edge technology, and force maturity, coupled with the authority,
agility, and willingness to change, form a responsive framework
fundamental to Special Operations Forces defeating adversaries across
U.S. Special Operations Command, like the Central
Intelligence Agency, can trace its lineage to World War II and the
Office of Strategic Services. From President Franklin D. Roosevelt
and World War I Medal of Honor recipient William "Wild Bill"
Donovan came the idea to create a new force with unprecedented capabilities
to fight the Axis powers. This force would have skills enabling
it to work deep behind enemy lines, perform clandestine missions,
and provide strategic intelligence.1
The Office of Strategic Services played a critical role in the Allied
victory; however, these exceptional skills rapidly deteriorated
after the war.
Although special operations personnel in all
the services struggled to maintain their capabilities in the postwar
years, support was severely lacking, in particular during the Cold
War when strategic nuclear forces took center stage. During the
Vietnam War, Army Special Forces and Rangers, Navy Underwater Demolition
and Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) teams, and Air Force air commandos contributed
significantly. However, the resources and organization to fully
harness their potential were lacking, and again these special capabilities
were greatly reduced after the war.2
The growing number of terrorist incidents in
the 1970s presaged the new threat of terror-based warfare we face
today. It also triggered the formation of the very command structure
that is leading the war on terror: USSOCOM. In 1980, Operation Eagle
Claw was launched to rescue the 53 Americans being held hostage
at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The rescue force met with disaster
at a remote site known as "Desert One," resulting in mission
failure and the loss of life and equipment. The operators, composed
of Marine helicopter pilots flying from Navy ships with Army Rangers
and Special Forces and a mix of Air Force C-130s, knew they were
facing steep odds. They did not have the benefits of habitual joint
training, SOF-unique equipment, or fully developed skills. Nor did
they have the joint procedures to pull off such a difficult mission.3
A capability gap was identified that fateful night, and a strategic
transformation would be required to overcome that gap.
As a result of the failure of Operation Eagle
Claw, Congress tasked the Department of Defense (DOD) to build a
capability to conduct special operations missions. Despite this
directive, DOD failed to act, largely because the services did not
view Special Operations as vital to national defense, and they could
not agree on its substance, funding, or how it would be controlled.
Some visionaries in Congress took action to
remedy the deficiency. Congressmen Dan Daniel (D-VA) and Bill Nichols
(D-AL), along with Senators Carl Levin (D- MI), Sam Nunn (D-GA),
Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), and William Cohen (R-ME), saw the need for
a Special Operations Force with unique skills and pushed forward
innovative policy fixes.4 Because of
this group's leadership, the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense
Reorganization Act of 1986 and the Nunn-Cohen amendment to the act
in 1987 instituted major defense reforms, including formal establishment
of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
The creation of a unified combatant command
for SOF, commanded by a four-star general, was not the only mandate
of the legislation. Also called for were an Assistant Secretary
of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, a
low-intensity conflict coordinating board within the National Security
Council, and SOF Major Force Program (MPF)-11.5
The objectives of the Nunn-Cohen amendment were to:
* provide close civilian oversight for special
operations and low-intensity conflict activities
* ensure that genuine expertise and a diversity
of views are available to the President and Secretary of Defense
regarding special operations requirements and low- intensity threats
* improve interagency planning and coordination
for Special Operations and low- intensity conflict
* bolster Special Operations capabilities in
such areas as joint doctrine and training, intelligence support,
command and control, budgetary authority, personnel management,
and mission planning.
By aligning SOF under a single responsive headquarters,
this legislation fostered interoperability among the services and
provided USSOCOM with control over its own resources, better enabling
it to meet its responsibilities to train, organize, and equip SOF.
The new authorities were the construct of a highly flexible command,
providing the President with additional options for approaching
USSOCOM was assigned authority to:
* exercise combatant command authority over
Active and Reserve SOF in the United States
* command SOF missions as directed by the President
or Secretary of Defense
* develop SOF strategy, doctrine, and tactics
* organize, train, and equip SOF
* program and budget for SOF
* develop/procure SOF-peculiar equipment, materiel,
supplies, and services
* prioritize and validate SOF requirements
* ensure interoperability of equipment and
* ensure combat readiness
* monitor SOF personnel management
* conduct internal audits.
The impact of this legislation has been profound.
Since its passage, USSOCOM has galvanized all joint Special Operations
capabilities into a world-class force with the skill to execute
the most challenging missions. The command has been willing to utilize
these authorities to continuously reevaluate the SOF mission, force
structure, organization, and virtually every aspect of the USSOCOM
construct, and to change where necessary to meet the latest threat.
This willingness continues to be the hallmark of the command's synergy-all
the while adhering strictly to moral, ethical, and legal virtues.
USSOCOM has provided highly trained and equipped forces to combatant
commanders but, although authorized, has seldom acted as a supported
Supporting to Supported Command
The role of training, organizing, and equipping
dramatically changed in 2002 when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
gave USSOCOM the lead in planning the war on terror. He subsequently
expanded this role, more recently detailed in the President's guidance
in the 2005 Unified Command Plan, giving USSOCOM the additional
responsibility to plan, synchronize for DOD, and, when directed,
execute Special Operations in the war on terror. Transitioning to
the supported role was a natural, although challenging, evolution
for the command-and marked another key event in the evolution of
To meet the dual USSOCOM mission, the Center
for Special Operations (CSO) was created primarily to prosecute
the war on terror. Combining the traditional joint headquarters
functions of intelligence, current operations, and long-range plans
and strategy, and overlaid by a Joint Interagency Coordination Group,
the organization is the command's warfighting hub. Led by a three-star
general or flag officer, the joint interagency staff exercises command
and control of the war on terror operations from its location at
MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. The center includes a trained and
ready joint task force headquarters that allows for seamless planning
and execution of operations that traverse the spectrum of conflict.
This structure provides USSOCOM the flexibility to transition to
a joint special operations task force as required. Free of administrative
functions, the center's sole responsibility is planning, synchronizing,
supporting, and executing Special Operations in the war on terror
across the globe.
In coordination with the center's joint task
force, the Special Operations Joint Interagency Collaboration Center
was created to integrate global information requirements and facilitate
information sharing with appropriate agencies. Linking priority
DOD and non-DOD agencies, this center provides a means for rapid
information exchange and analysis. As observed in Afghanistan and
Iraq, rapid exploitation of information is the surest method to
capture or kill an adversary.
Combined under one center, these elements form
a powerful, responsive, and revolutionary structure to fight the
war on terror. With minimal growth, USSOCOM transformed the headquarters
from a supporting to a supported command and is uniquely postured
to perform its new role as a warfighter, while maintaining its Title
10 responsibility to organize, train, and equip Special Operations
Geographic combatant commanders (GCCs) are
tremendously supportive and continue to execute operations, including
SOF-unique missions, as the supported commanders in their theaters,
with USSOCOM in a supporting role. The GCCs maintain the best regional
focus and knowledge of their areas of operations, having conducted
many successful operations since the war on terror began. Each has
a theater- specific Special Operations Command to support his Special
Operations logistics, planning, and operational control requirements.
Theater Special Operations Commands have grown considerably over
the last few years and, in most cases, are commanded by a two-star
general or flag officer. When directed by the Secretary of Defense,
however, the commander of USSOCOM will serve as the supported commander
for specified operations. This designation allows improved centralized
planning, expands options for mission execution, and permits a more
flexible command structure to match an adversary that spans multiple
countries and often several GCC regions.
USSOCOM is quickly meeting its new requirements
through the CSO, which has been reviewing global strategies, developing
courses of action, and formulating recommendations for operational
force employment by the commander through the Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of Defense. The CSO recently finalized
the war on terror plan and, in the process, identified requirements
for new authorities necessary to take the fight forward. Many of
these requirements were approved immediately, while others call
for legislative changes, making them less timely. Even so, the formation
of a global plan to fight terror is an important event.
Successes in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted
in a growing demand for SOF around the globe, evidenced by the largest
number of our warriors and special-skills personnel currently forward
deployed than ever before. Some policymakers have called for an
exponential growth in SOF, but unbridled growth is not without risk.
As SOF remain decisive on the battlefield, USSOCOM is working to
reconstitute its world-class forces while carefully expanding capability.
SOF is not a solution for every problem. Special operations personnel
and tactics must continue to be applied at the right place, at the
right time, facing the right adversary. Any growth must be targeted
toward unique SOF skills because of the extended time it takes to
develop a fully qualified and experienced operator. And growth must
not come at the expense of quality.
To meet the challenges on the battlefield,
USSOCOM is judiciously adding force structure in Special Forces,
civil affairs, psychological operations, Naval special warfare,
and Air Force Special Operations, as well as providing additional
staff to its Theater Special Operations Commands. To create more
Special Operators, the command is increasing the number of instructors,
support personnel, and facilities within the training institutions
to expand capacity without lowering standards. Throughout this process,
USSOCOM will emphasize quality over quantity.
In the next 4 years, USSOCOM will increase
by some 2,300 personnel, including 2 additional SEAL team equivalents
and 500 Special Forces Soldiers. The command, for example, is enlarging
the Army Special Forces (SF) community by one battalion per Special
Forces group. This force structure improvement will realign SF for
expeditionary deployments for purpose, ending the Cold War concept
of presence and reducing the strain on overutilized SOF. To equip
the new battalions, USSOCOM utilizes MFP-11 to acquire all SOF-unique
equipment but relies on the standard service agreement with the
Army, whereby that service provides SOF with all service- common
equipment, for items such as the M4 rifle, machineguns, laser-aiming
devices, and high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles. In the
case of aviation, the services provide the basic airframe, and USSOCOM,
with MFP-11 funds, modifies and enhances the airframe to meet SOF
requirements. This is a critical distinction. When SOF grows in
any form, so must the corresponding service. Adding SF battalions,
SEAL team equivalents, or special operations aviation detachments
requires the component service to reallocate portions of its budget,
give up force structure, or grow more force structure to compensate.
One of USSOCOM's most important issues, with
considerable impact on its ability to grow, is retention of experienced
operators. With the help of the services and the Office of the Secretary
of Defense, the command has instituted retention initiatives that
include targeted bonuses for specific operational specialties and
some of the more seasoned operators, with over half of those eligible
taking the bonus within the first few months. Additionally, new
educational benefits for all members of SOF were approved, offering
advanced education through the PhD level. USSOCOM's Joint Special
Operations University has expanded to improve joint education for
SOF personnel and will continue to develop new and pertinent military
curricula while making civilian education opportunities available.
While USSOCOM's operations tempo is high, recruiting is good, training
programs are full, and retention remains strong.
Engaged Around the World
One of the primary goals of the SOF-led coalition
in Afghanistan was to capture or kill al Qaeda and Taliban forces,
and indeed SOF, together with Afghan National Army units, coalition
partners, and conventional U.S. forces, have conducted hundreds
of operations throughout the country. These successes resulted in
the overthrow of the Taliban, capture of anticoalition forces, and
destruction of thousands of weapons and immeasurable quantities
of explosives. The successful elections of October 2004 are the
true metric of SOF achievement.
Today, SOF is working to rebuild infrastructure
and establish a rapport with the populace. Deployed in small detachments
throughout Afghanistan, Special Operators are working directly with
the National Army, conventional U.S. forces, and central and local
authorities, allowing them to identify problems and work toward
cooperative solutions through local governments. This relationship
also allows them to gather information about anticoalition efforts
invaluable to long-term national interests.
In Operation Iraqi Freedom, Special Operators
were at the vanguard of the invasion. Assigned several critical
missions on three simultaneous fronts, they operated deep inside
Iraq to prevent the V Corps in the north from reinforcing Baghdad,
conducted special reconnaissance and direct action missions in western
Iraq, and supported Combined Forces Land Component Command movement
from the south toward Baghdad. Other units searched out and destroyed
mobile missiles, conducted support and stability operations throughout
the country, and interdicted borders and lines of communication.
After the invasion, special operations units were crucial to the
capture or elimination of most of the key personnel within the regime,
including Saddam Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay. SOF are still
on the ground capturing high-value targets.
Following the collapse of the regime, SOF continue
to play a major stability role with the long-term goal of assisting
in the building of a free and democratic nation. Army Special Forces
and Navy SEALs are performing foreign internal defense missions
and training Iraqi soldiers in the skills necessary to win the fight.
Today, every direct action mission launched against anticoalition
forces is led and conducted by Iraqi soldiers, while Special Operators
advise and provide critical support. Elections and reestablishment
of self-governance are highlights of SOF success in the region.
While significant attention has been placed
on the command's direct action capabilities as Special Operators
find, fix, and finish the enemy, that is only one element of the
command's warfighting capability. Another role, more critical to
the long-term success of the war on terror, is keeping warfare from
igniting in other regions. The preferred solution is for individual
nations to subvert terrorism using internal capabilities, but if
that is not feasible, U.S. Special Operations Forces can advise
the host nation and, if necessary, work in conjunction with its
forces. As forward- deployed warrior-diplomats, culturally sophisticated
Special Operators are continuing to build long-term, positive relationships
with host nations worldwide and undermine those who spread the seeds
of terrorism. SOF are in dozens of countries conducting theater
security cooperation events specifically to train and work with
host nations to eliminate terrorism. This engagement is always accomplished
with the knowledge and coordination of host nation leaders, their
American Ambassadors and U.S. country teams, and combatant commanders.
Regrettably, the current operations tempo has severely stressed
the command's ability to support theater security cooperation events
and train with coalition partners. As the situation in Iraq continues
to mature, it becomes imperative that SOF be incrementally replaced
by their conventional force counterparts, lest we win the peace
there at the cost of success elsewhere.
Today's deployments are focused. The command
is working closely with the geographic combatant commanders to determine
where Special Operators can achieve the best effects. USSOCOM will
continue to emphasize its unconventional warfare capabilities and
use foreign internal defense, civil affairs, and information operations
skill sets to enable willing partner nations to eliminate the conditions
that provide fertile ground for terrorist causes. We consider this
the "deep fight," but not in the traditional sense of
battlespace-rather, in the sense of time. Defeating terrorists will
require not only capturing or killing today's operatives, but also
influencing the conditions that will impact the vulnerability of
future generations to terrorist recruiting. Through careful engagement,
the goal is for Special Operations Forces to provide nations with
the tools, training, and capabilities to secure their own borders
and provide their own internal stability, thus helping civilized
people around the world to live free from fear of terrorist attacks.
The Key to the Future: SOF Operators
In Program Objective Memorandum (POM) 2006,
USSOCOM radically refocused, choosing to equip operators with the
best and latest technology at the expense of important aviation
modernization. Individual operator equipment, including the latest
body armor integrated with modular load carrying systems, miniature
day/night weapon sights, extreme climate clothing, and the latest
generation night vision devices were identified and fully funded
within our budget. With the help of Congress, acquisition was accelerated
through supplemental funding, delivering this and other critical
equipment rapidly to the battlefield.
Additional USSOCOM force structure requirements,
focusing on growth in appropriate skills to the right size without
losing quality, were also identified and validated. While the command
is planned to grow by nearly 2,300 personnel, this approved and
funded growth is less than required. Limited by its relatively small
budget (1.7 percent of the DOD total), the command continues to
reassess and reprioritize force structure requirements. The ongoing
Quadrennial Defense Review may direct new resources to USSOCOM for
additional appropriate growth.
As POM 2008 is constructed, the command is
emphasizing training in critical skills, education, and increased
regional focus to ensure not only that its warriors have the technical
capabilities, intellectual skills, regional expertise, and language
and cultural proficiency to win today's conflicts, but also that
they remain prepared to face the uncertainties of tomorrow. To remain
a synergistic and decisive force, SOF warriors will need to remain
globally engaged and postured to respond on short notice against
diverse targets. Modernization of aviation assets, the arrival of
the Special Operations variant of the tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft
(CV-22), and maritime mobility assets such as the Advanced SEAL
Delivery System will ensure SOF are ready to respond.
Among its future goals, the command is focusing
on objectives that will guide the development of a global SOF network.
The goal is to position and manage SOF, in conjunction with other
DOD, interagency, and partner assets, in simultaneous operations
around the world against terrorist organizations along with their
allies and sponsors. This will necessitate the synchronization of
global information to gain persistent visibility and coordination
while integrating the command and control of all SOF. Identification
of operators, leadership, and infrastructure across the spectrum
of terrorist networks requires an integrated and adaptive blue force
network. Special Operators will remain essential in this role while
they continue to develop indigenous capabilities to fight terrorists
and rogue regimes. By positioning and networking SOF in key locations
to obtain and disseminate information, supported by specialized
equipment and advanced technologies, USSOCOM continues to develop
ever greater situational awareness throughout vital regions to enhance
its effectiveness in combating terrorist networks and remain a force
Long-term success depends on the continued
ability to employ a sustainable mix of capabilities rapidly. In
addition to finding and eliminating terrorists, civil affairs and
information operations forces will conduct stabilization, construction,
and reconstruction operations early on to help partner nations reduce
or eliminate the underlying conditions that feed terrorism. Civil
affairs personnel are involved in Operations Enduring Freedom and
Iraqi Freedom, working with conventional forces to win hearts and
minds through construction projects, medical assistance, education,
and placing a friendly face on the U.S. presence.
The Essence of SOF
Throughout history, success by a small force
against a strategic or operational objective has required units
that combined selected people with unique training, experience,
and equipment employing tactics not found in conventional units.
Such small forces can be employed quickly and act with speed and
agility in all facets of operations. These characteristics epitomize
SOF, who accomplish missions that are tactical in nature but have
impact across the strategic spectrum from peacetime engagement to
The defining quality of SOF has always been
its distinctive warriors, whose development is guided by four truths.
First, humans are more important than hardware. Special Operations
Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen are the most critical component, a
fundamental truth that USSOCOM is reinforcing in its funding priorities.
Second, quality is better than quantity. A few carefully selected,
well- trained, and well-led people are preferable to larger numbers
of lower quality personnel.
The third truth is that SOF cannot be mass-produced.
There is no easy formula for creating them. They are specially recruited,
assessed, and trained. Today, there are those who would designate
various conventional units as "SOF" to speed growth or
simply because they believe they are like SOF. This would be a tragic
mistake for those units, who are not prepared for what they will
face, as well as for USSOCOM, as it would ultimately destroy a very
capable force. Finally, competent SOF cannot be created after emergencies
occur. Time is perhaps the most critical element: time to select,
assess, train, and educate personnel and to gain the experience
to perform the complex operations required. Experience-a key element-can
only be gained over time. Highly specialized skill sets are required,
including mastery of technology (spanning the spectrum from no-tech
to high-tech), cultural and regional awareness, and operational
expertise. Since competent forces SOF accomplish missions that are
tactical but that have impact across the strategic spectrum cannot
be fashioned instantly, decisionmakers must plan ahead.
Like their predecessors through the years,
today's Special Operators are an integral part of the joint force.
The war on terror is different from any struggle the Nation has
faced. Success requires patience and the application of every instrument
of national and international power. Special Operations Forces are
the natural pick when the mission requires capabilities not found
elsewhere. Innovation, initiative, and judgment are the hallmarks
of Special Operators. They remain the only force with language proficiency
and cultural awareness for specific regions, allowing them to operate
more effectively on foreign turf in conjunction with host nation
forces. With the continued support of the President, Congress, and
the American people, the Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the U.S.
Special Operations Command will continue to apply energy, focus,
skill, and determination to quell the roots of terrorism and, when
necessary, bring terrorists and their supporters to justice . .
. or bring justice to them.
1. Bradley F. Smith,
The Shadow Warriors (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 157-168.
2. James R. Locher III,
Victory on the Potomac (College Station: Texas A&M University
Press, 2002), 47.
3. Ibid., 48.
4. Ibid., 319-413.
5. U.S. Congress, Senate, Public
Law 99-661, S. 2638, 99th Congress, 2d Session (November 14, 1986).
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