WASHINGTON, DC M– U.S. special operations forces are postured to take on the global counterterrorism challenges the nation faces in the years ahead, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command said Nov. 16.
Navy Adm. William H. McRaven took part in a panel discussion at the first Reagan National Security Forum at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., examining what will be required to effectively fight terrorism in 2025.
Numerous senior Defense Department officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the forum. McRaven’s panel included Michael G. Vickers, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, along with U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry. Washington Post national security reporter Craig Whitlock moderated the panel.
McRaven said the role of U.S. special operations forces in the coming decade-plus is “a very timely topic.” Through the 1990s, he said, “the international special operations community had a lot of great [special operations] forces. And frankly, there were many that were as good, if not better, than we were.”
Since 9/11 and continuing today, however, “I can tell you, there is nobody in the world who can compare to U.S. special operations forces and U.S. counterterrorism forces,” the admiral said.
Thanks to the support of Congress, he reported, Socom has since 2001 doubled its people, tripled its budgets and quadrupled its capability — not just in the areas of hardware and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, but also in noncommissioned officer training, officer education, and language and cultural studies.
The question now, McRaven said, is whether the special operations force that has evolved to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is also adaptable to today’s threats. He said it absolutely is.
The admiral noted that the U.S. special operations forces now postured in Afghanistan will, as the drawdown of troops in 2014 proceeds, be available for new missions.
“A lot of what we will do as we go forward in this force is build partner capacity. … We will always be the best in the world at rescuing Americans and taking care of threats to the nation, but a large part of what we will do [in future] is build partner capacity,” he said.
U.S. forces have worked over the past decade with partners in Colombia, the Philippines, Chad and a dozen other countries around the world to strengthen their special operations programs, he said. U.S. allies and partners including NATO, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and Asian and Latin American nations “are absolutely essential to how we’re doing business,” he added.
Interagency collaboration across the U.S. government is also crucial, McRaven said. “I have special operations support teams, liaison officers, in 38 agencies and departments within Washington, D.C.,” he noted.
Socom’s relationships with other agencies such as the CIA and FBI are “phenomenal,” he reported.
“Lives are important, and the security of the nation is important, and it has brought us together,” the admiral said. “My concern is that as we draw down in Afghanistan, and we don’t have the opportunity that, unfortunately, war brings you to continue to work together, we’ve got to be careful about moving apart.”
The whole-of-government approach is “absolutely crucial to getting after these threats,” he said.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t make any difference to me whether it’s a Department of Defense guy, or a law enforcement individual or an intelligence individual that takes care of the threat,” McRaven said. “We’ve got to work together to make sure that those threats don’t end up on our shores.”
McRaven said his special operators also rely on regular U.S. forces.
“I am the biggest supporter of the conventional forces, because frankly, we can’t do our special operations job without support from the big Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps,” the admiral said. He added, “If we are going to have a viable force in 2025, it’s all about the people.”
He pointed out that 12 years of war have exacted a high price from his troops. “We have had more suicides this year than [at] any point … in the history of special operations forces,” McRaven said. While that “single data point” can’t capture the overall health of his force, the admiral said, it is important.
“The stress on the force is pretty significant,” he said. “We are going out of our way to work with the services to make sure that the individual soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines are healthy physically, mentally and spiritually.”
Resilience within families is equally important, he said, and Socom’s “preservation of the force and families” initiative is one approach the command is taking to help families learn adapting and coping skills.
“If you want a strong [special operations] force for 2025, or frankly for 2014 and 2015, we have got to take care of our force,” he emphasized.
But McRaven said that overall, he is confident the nation’s special operators are ready to take on current and future missions. “I think we’re going to be ready to go now and in the future,” he said. He noted that Socom is channeling more troops into language and cultural training that will make them effective in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
“Up to 2025, this building partner capacity is going to be important,” he explained. “You can’t build that partner capacity well unless you speak their language, unless you understand their culture, and unless you have gained their trust.”
Such engagement is not effective if it’s episodic, the admiral said. Special operations forces bring sustained engagement, backed by language and cultural knowledge, to the task of improving partner forces, he noted. “Episodic engagement with our partners will not get us to the point where they have a competent and capable force that can deal with the threat,” he said. “We’ve got to have persistent engagement.”
Vickers addressed a question from Whitlock on how the Pentagon determines who the enemy is as terrorist groups shift membership and affiliation.
“It is a governmentwide issue,” he replied. While al-Qaida has many branches and all of them are considered enemies, he said, other groups claim ideological similarities with terrorist organizations while not, themselves, posing a threat to America or its allies.
Vickers said fusion of intelligence and operations, and sustained pressure on terrorist groups, are both vital to addressing counterterrorism missions effectively. During the years when America was fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, al-Qaida wasn’t pressured and was able to reconstitute, resulting in significantly increased threats to the United States.
“Our government then responded quite effectively, and we’ve beaten those threats back,” Vickers said. “But even when there have been smaller pauses in the pressure on these groups, whether it’s in Yemen or Pakistan or elsewhere for, say, just months, you see them reconstituting. It emphasizes the real importance of sustained pressure, but also precision application of power.”
McRaven said the best solution the United States can work toward with partners and allies in many parts of the world is to “train them to deal with their own problems.” The admiral said U.S. special operations forces are currently in 81 countries. In some cases, that may mean one or two people working in an embassy, he said, while other times it may mean a couple hundred trainers on the ground.
In each case, he said, “we do a very, very thorough review, and we understand those risks ahead of time.”
The State Department plays a big role in deciding what forces the U.S. military will train with, he noted. Special operations forces don’t train with other nations unless the regional combatant commander, the ambassador and the country team all give the go-ahead, McRaven said.
“We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are forces out there that … have questionable reputations,” the admiral pointed out. “I think we need to assume some risk in helping them. Libya would be a prime example. So right now, as we go forward to try and find a good way to build up the Libyan security forces so they are not run by militias, we are going to have to assume some risks.”
McRaven said the Libyan training mission, which Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said today will take place in Bulgaria, will involve both conventional and special Libyan forces.
Between 5,000 and 7,000 Libyan conventional forces will take part, he said, while a U.S. special operations component will train “a certain number of their forces to do counterterrorism.”