In this new era of perpetual sequestration, it seems that budget restraint conflicts with enhancing our national defense. Yet threats to our nation have not diminished in the face of our budget battles. Several years ago, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates accurately asserted that many future conflicts are likely to run the spectrum just short of full-scale war. Our experience in the last decade, if not the last four decades, confirms this notion.
An article last year in the New York Times reported criticism within the defense establishment of then-Special Operations Commander Admiral William McRaven. The article alleges that Admiral McRaven sought to create a fiefdom within Special Operations Command (SOCOM), thwarting the military’s predominant conventional leadership. Given current threats, does it not seem obtuse to have stood in his way?
As Admiral McRaven recognized, the authority to deploy and command forces is currently left to regional combatant commanders who oversee operations in the various operational theaters. However, our force structure must acknowledge current realities in the operational environment. Regardless of who sits in the oval office, the U.S. will, for the foreseeable future, be much more constrained in its employment of military force to affect emerging security threats. Even now, Iraq and Syria are unraveling, Ebola is threatening Africa and belligerent aggression by Russia undermines stability in Ukraine. The Commander-in-Chief and his aides have few appropriate conventional military options available. As a result, there is a great need for an enduring capability that will allow us to maintain our persistent global presence and pursue irregular threats on a more modest budget.
Much like we have separate services to engage the enemy in different physical operational environments (land, sea and air), we need a service to meet the enemy to secure key terrain in irregular warfare—human terrain. This force ought to have a component of veritable military ambassadors working with allied foreign militaries, coordinating with local civilian governments to improve governance and protect vulnerable civilian populations and translating that into a message that appeals to foreign audiences.
Our current posture suggests that groups of very able troopers need be the tip of the spear in places where the choice to employ force is ambiguous. To be successful, this force will often employ non-lethal and non-kinetic measures coupled with patience. During times of conflict, it can be the force to conduct precision operations where the target is politically sensitive or civilians are exposed.
How do we create a force that can do all this, and on a budget? The force already exists. They are the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines of SOCOM. SOCOM is a diverse command with a wide variety of capabilities that span the spectrum of conflict. From U.S. Army Rangers to Navy SEALs to Air Force operators, who seize airfields, conduct strike operations and rescue downed pilots. Toward the non-lethal end of the scale is Army civil affairs and psychological operations, which deal with civilian governments and populations to minimize or enhance battlefield operations.
Some have suggested that special operations tactics, techniques and procedures ought to filter to the conventional force. In this view, the “wall” that separates conventional and special operations forces ought to be removed in order to more broadly infect general purpose forces with SOF-like capabilities. This is doomed to failure as a last gasp to minimize the long-evolving threat to our overall warfighting capability. If an effort to pursue making the conventional trooper more akin to his special operations brother succeeds, then it is more likely that the trappings of the conventional force would suffocate all that is “special” in the SOF community. Conventionalization of special operations has long been under way, especially since the conventional military forces were given command of irregular operational environments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To underscore my point, I propose that the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the statute that established SOCOM, should be amended to establish a separate service component and department that would govern special operations.
Special operations as a constituted separate military service would give the special operations leaders the authorities that Admiral McRaven was purportedly seeking. The benefits would be a more nimble, healthier and more economical structure for our nation’s special operations forces (SOF). Firstly, under the new Special Operations Department, the Chief of Special Operations, as a service chief, would have a seat with the Joint Chiefs to adequately represent the needs of SOF. Presently, the special operations commander within each service relies on the conventional leader who may not know how best to train, equip and maintain this type of force. Now the commander can establish a more synchronized mission cycle of training, employment and recovery.
Secondly, it would allow a leadership development system specific to special operators that would give greater discretion to the SOF commander in maintaining good order, discipline and standards (physical fitness comes to mind). This new service would have a separate professional education system, and a separate system for rating and promotion of service members. The benefit is not just providing for relevant SOF governance, but it would also integrate the service components and improve unity of effort.
Lastly, all of the service components would fall under a unified budget that would allow for more long-term, equitable investment and sensible savings. Financing a SOF mission can be very different than financing a conventional mission. The current finance scheme can be cumbersome to a SOF mission, especially with regard to military contracting. Currently, the Navy and Air Force components have more generous budgets compared to the Army, mostly due to the cost of fielding and maintaining one jet versus equipping, training and maintaining a battalion of Green Berets. Unifying the budget would force each component to be more budget-minded, while ensuring that they get mission-essential financing. In addition, pay, incentives and retention could be streamlined so that SOF gets and retains the right operators.
To that end, special operations could develop, acquire and field equipment and uniforms more relevant for their mission. Prime examples are the long-stalled replacement of the Army’s uniform and the continued delay in acquiring a piston-operated replacement for the M-4 rifle. Military construction could also be unified under one service to allow the commander to base, house and provide training facilities that meet the needs of special operations.
This should not be seen as a blank check for the special operations commander. Certainly there will be an initial cost for establishing the service, but rapid, outsized growth should not be an outcome. In addition, there is some redundancy in the force. As a result, some elements would need to be consolidated, and some may need to take on additional capabilities. To be certain, this service would be powerful not only for the combined combat power, but also its significance within the American body politic. Accountability and oversight would be essential to mission success and to maintaining the confidence of the American public.
(Featured Image Courtesy: US Army)