A recent Washington Post op-ed asked the question, “[C]an the U.S. rely on SOF [Special Operations Forces] power?” As the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, and a combination of defense budget reductions and isolationist sentiments reduce America’s military presence, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) intends to expand its “non-kinetic” actions across the globe.
The answer to the WaPo author’s question is “yes” but only to a reasonable extent. While SOF are extremely capable when it comes to their core missions, President Obama and Congress should take care not to overuse or misuse them.
While the Navy SEALs’ raid on Osama bin Laden exemplified SOF’s “kinetic” or strike missions, USSOCOM intends to return focus to non-kinetic, indirect action. USSOCOM Commander Admiral William McRaven has led this effort with his command’s “Global SOF Network.” This strategy is intended to give SOF more autonomy over its missions and resources so that special operators can better execute low intensity missions such as training foreign military forces and humanitarian assistance.
Currently, USSOCOM only has authority over SOF until they are deployed. Once they reach the geographic combatant command (GCC), the local commander has ultimate authority over them. If USSOCOM had greater control, SOF members could field long-term and low-intensity operations to sustain peace and stability in various political climates in which they are uniquely suited. This has proven successful in Europe, where USSOCOM has partnered with NATO special forces since 2007, forming bonds which strengthen national alliances. The slogan that emerged from this partnership is: “You can’t surge trust.”
This does not imply that SOF can supplant every operation performed by conventional military forces, nor should it be considered a national security strategy writ large. USSOCOM’s low intensity forces are just one piece of U.S. security strategy necessary to protect American interests. Furthermore, increased use of SOF should not serve as an excuse for the Obama Administration and Congress to cut corners elsewhere.
The Obama Administration already made a misguided decision when he pulled two permanent Brigade Combat Teams out of Europe and replaced them with much smaller, rotational battalions. It cannot continue this trend by assuming that SOF can do everything, everywhere. As The Heritage Foundation’s Jim Carafano illustrated, “Special operations forces are a scalpel, not a Swiss Army knife. They are not a substitute for all the instruments of military power needed to protect the nation’s interests.”
While conventional forces will always be necessary, using SOF for low-intensity operations for both indirect and direct missions is an important part of a comprehensive security strategy. General James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, has outlined plans for a Marine SOF unit to perform low-intensity operations and maintain a long-term presence in one GCC. The new crisis-response unit would be deployed for six-month rotations and would provide the theater commander with reinforcement, humanitarian assistance, and training and advising capabilities. General Amos added these forces would be “rapidly employable—not deployable, because they’ll already be there.”
With threats to American interests evolving and with domestic pressure to pull back our forces and cut costs, the U.S. may no longer be able to engage its military as robustly as in the past. This is where the Global SOF Network can play a critical role. While SOF are unparalleled when it comes to lethal, precision strike missions, it is far better for U.S. interests—not to mention the safety of these service members—to work to prevent it from getting to that point.