Small Wars Journal

More Special Operations Not the Answer

Sat, 08/20/2011 - 7:58am

More Special Operations Not the Answer by LTG William G. Boykin (USA Ret.) at Roll Call. BLUF:

We should not fall into the proverbial trap of preparing for the “last war,” and we should not delude ourselves into thinking that special operations forces can be mass produced, or that even if they could be they would replace the vital and irreplaceable capabilities of our conventional forces.



Sun, 08/21/2011 - 11:59pm

"The operation to kill Osama bin Laden on May 1 was a fine example of the extraordinary capabilities of America’s special operations forces."
No doubt about it,
but, there is a bigger strategic issue behind it's success.  
I think there are times when we need to step back, and try and look at the bigger picture within a historical context.  We have now been in the Middle East (ME) engaging in War with numerous countries at one time for a long time.  Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, etc.  To a certain extent, from my limited perspective, I think our efforts have caused the ME to become unbalanced.  We, the U.S., have to a certain degree lost some leverage with the Arabs in helping achieve our respective strategic goals.  
I think we should have listened to Powell and left Iraq alone.  Hard to fathom why we are engaging with a country in which we practically destroyed their entire military in 101 hours during the Gulf War.  And the justification for going at it with them again were WMD capabilities in which we provided them in the 80s in order to get Iraq in a War with Iran.  Remember those funny stickers of Mickey Mouse saying "Bomb Iran". Saddam Hussein was not a threat then, just like he wasn't a threat when we put him in charge of Iraq.  Which is what is really going on in the ME, at least from my limited perspective.  So US boots on the ground came to Iraq to reform the government which in essence we created.
Afghanistan.  No doubt the Sept 11 events originated out of the AF-PAK, Pashtunistan AO, and definitely needed to be addressed.  Personally, I think mission accomplishment happened when the Taliban was kicked out of Kabul.  At that point, I guess nation building came into the picture, and more US boots on the ground had to make that effort a reality.
Of course 10 years later the Afghans, from what I am being told by them, say they aren't seeing much progress.  Also, the last election they perceive as illegitimate, and that Karzai is illegitimate and corrupt.  Additionally, you hear U.S. Soldiers complaining that ANA/ANP are corrupt, unmotivated, and seem to have growing issues with Man-Boy love on Thursdays.  Wow, sure sounds like Vietnam-esque complaints to me.  Of course though, they love our money, and are we sure it's a weapon in COIN?  The real weapon in COIN will always be Mao's "The people are like water and the army is like fish," and right now, it seems like there is more support for the Taliban than US supported, perceived illegitimate Karzai. 
Perception is reality they say.  True or not, it is a factor.  We can say all that we want about this not being a "war on Islam" but what are our actions saying.  Because actions speak louder than words.  And US boots on the ground in an Arab, Muslim dominated landmass, are sending messages without saying anything.  So what is really going on with perceptions.  Well the perception is too much U.S. involvement on the Cold War ME football field.  Going way back to the days of influencing political leaders which favored our particular strategic goals, versus those of Moscow.  And we all know that Mubarak is one of those, with respect to protecting Israel, and yes little Israel is part of the equation.  There are very strong perceptions among Egyptian Officers, with regards to Israel, in which I conversed with during an event in Cairo.  One actually asked if I were Muslim,  interesting.  But the reality is we support Israel and have been since Truman, with his high school education, decided to undermine SECSTATE George C. Marshal's advice not to recognize the State of Israel.  Marshall basically said it would start a war with the Arabs, and that would eventually require US involvement.  Wow, very prophetic because right after Chaim Weizmann took over as president of Israel we had a war within months, and have been at war, in varying degrees, ever since.  
Of course, the British started it all with the Balfour Agreement in November of 1917, by December 1917 British troops were rolling into Jerusalem to enforce the resettlement of Jews to their homeland, which at the time was dominated by Muslim Arabs.  Of course not all Jewish Rabbis were on board with this crazy Zionist idea, and in 1890, during a Chicago Convention, the Rabbis said something to the effect that their Palestine is not in Israel, but in the U.S.  So ever since we created our own little democratic state in May of 1948, and are required to support it, the Arabs see us through Israel, as part of the problem.  Unfortunately.  
Of course oil is a part of the equation too, even though we only get, what, seven percent from the ME.  But oil became apart of our strategic efforts in the 1920s and we became more involved with manipulating Arab leaders because of it.  That is a reality, another perception of long standing US involvement in the ME.
So what about the Arabs, and what have they gained from all of the above stated issues.  Well, from my limited perception, not much.  From listening to all of the complaints from Arabs is that these US backed governments have been corrupt, and have not done a good job for decades in providing for their economic well being.  The ME is frustrated to the point where they, the people, are trying to take matters into their own hands.  At least that is the perception.  When in Cairo, seeing the buildings, I was thinking, this is it. I was thinking Cairo should be much further along than this.
So how does all of this relate to the successful raid of Bin Laden, well for one, we, the U.S. did it.  That is the issue.  Where is the Pakistani ISI, or military, or police, or Frontier Forces in taking Bin Laden out.  Not happening. Why? Why are we, our SOF the ones doing the majority of the heavy lifting with regards to Surgical Operations/Direct Action? Why did the Pashtun Taliban take in the Arab Bin Laden and protect him, just like Pakistan protected him.  Yes, I'm tracking Pashtunwali.  This is the problem.  We do not have enough ME support in policing up terrorism.  It is a war that can not be won without "The people are like water and the army is like fish,".  The people of the ME provide ultimate sanctuary.  So, granted we are taking out leaders and cells left and right, but are we ultimately losing the ME in front of our very eyes. Granted, this may be a reality that is tied to decades of strategic decision making that has been going on for a very long time.  All events need to be taken within historical context, past and present.
Solution, more Arab face and less US face.  Rebalance the relationship, temper the perceptions, be a real friend in the efforts to lessen the underlying frustrations that are fostering more suicide bombers, which are weak governments supported by US interests.   That I think is the underlying perception and the reality for why we seem to be going backwards and not forwards.  Could be wrong.  Ultimately, the Arab culture has to police up their own, the U.S. or any other country can't do this for them.  
Lastly, SOF needs to stay the same since the days of WWII OSS conducting clandestine operations, and the days of JFK in being a friend to foreign military's making them stronger to fight against subversive military elements.  SOF Direct Action/Surgical Strike efforts will remain a key component in the war on terror, and protecting US economic interests.  However, they can not win without more Arab ME support.  Night raids are risky, such as the case with Karzai forcing a U.S. apology for innocent civilians being killed earlier this year.   Yes, that is war, but we will lose more support over the long haul because of repeat events.  Just the simple fact that Karzai is forcing the U.S. to  apologize sends a message to the rest of the Arab ME.  That is a hard perception to manage.  More Arab ME involvement will help lessen U.S. future apologizing, and greater success.
So, no need for more SOF, just more Arab ME support, and less U.S.  Let SOF be unique and not make them into something they were never meant to be.  You will only make the total force weaker, and will drive out great leaders who fit the mission set.  Both SOF and Conventional work together in winning wars.  We need to ensure that we don't change that so that we are prepared for the next war.  And the next war will not look exactly like the last one.  What did Plato say, "Only the dead have seen the end of war".

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 08/21/2011 - 7:13pm

In reply to by Bill M.


Well, "Peace" is a relative term to be sure, and certainly the term "war" has been much abused of late as well. I recognize that we have troops in very serious combat, my son and I have been part of those troops; but I do not think America has been "at war" since 1945, or perhaps '53. War implies a "strategic significance that exposes one or more nations to defeat." I don't consider a risk of illegal internal change of management of some allied nation to be a nation "subject to defeat." A government might fall, sure, but not a nation.

But that aside, what I mean is that currently SOF has tremendous combat skills that are honed and well recognized by Congress for what they bring to the nation. The things that SOF does (or should do in not excessively committed to a couple small corners of the planet) day in and day out to help promote US interests and security is not well appreciated or understood. The services consider that to simply be the same Theater Security Cooperation that they all do to keep the forces that they validated with wartime and contingency scenarios busy when they are not at home station training. My point is that "Prevent and Deter" (Peace) are not missions that are wargamed and used to validate critical capabilities.

If SOF does not elevate the importance of such activities, as well as the unique value that SOF forces bring to such activities into the QDR debate in a meaningful, measureable, recognizable way we will lose the debate for force structure preservation if big cuts are being made.

As to your second point, yes, I absolutely believe that the post Cold War era of US Hegemony that has served to freeze and deter many state on state conflicts is ending or already over. One must reasonably expect that there will be a revitalization of state on state competition, and that it will at times escalate to war, and that it could very easily escalate to very large war. In many ways 2011 is not much unlike 1911; when no one believed that large warfare was anything that anyone needed to be worried about. The "Guns of August" 1914 quickly demonstrated that such beliefs were naive. IW is just another term for peacetime military operations IMO; and If we only wargame specific IW contingency scenarios we will miss the persistent day to day IW that is SF's bread and butter and essential to our security in ways that are just damn hard to describe or measure.


I'm not following your comments on regearing Special Operations for peace. Do you consider irregular warfare, special warfare, etc. to be a form of peace as compared to nation state on nation state war? You also recently stated that you believe the risk of nation-state war is increasing, which I agree with, so what is the advantage of refocusing SOF on peace? Having a credible means/capability to conduct the various levels of war is viewed by many as DOD's role in peace, which I agree with to a point.

I don't think we need to refocus our highly specialized Direct Action organizations, they're doing a superb job and their services will be needed for the foreseeable future. I think what is missing from the discussion is how SOF will be employed in the next State on State war. Technology to some extent has limited SOF's potential to role to conduct SR as conventionally defined (I think SR is much broader than digging a hide site and reporting on enemy movments, but unfortunately our legacy plans have boxed SR into that definition). SOF is more about people than technology, but if our people don't integrate the existing technologies into their doctrine and mission sets we do risk having a number of legacy missions sidelined in the not too distant future. We can superempower SOF with the right technology and doctrine, or we can cling to the past and become less and less relevant.

Getting back to peace time operations, I recall a number of silly missions our teams went on to simply be engaged between the Cold War and 9/11. Missions that distracted from their warfighting readiness (by limiting training time on higher end SO skills) and over time it became the accepted norm to send SOF to teach foreign forces "basic" marksmenship", life saving skills, etc. Morale was hitting rock bottom for the warriors who joined to do much than this. If we return to peace time engagement in a major way I hope we're more creative in how we employ SOF, and not send them on low value missions just so a commander somewhere can put a green sticky on a map.

However, I don't see peace on the near horizon, rather I see a continued chronic conflict with various flare ups globally. If history repeats itself we'll involve ourselves militarly whether it is wise to do so or not. All the more reason to focus SOF on special operations appropriate missions to reduce the OPTEMPO to a sustainable level. We shouldn't confuse a temporary lull as world peace breaking out.

UW should grow in importance, and if we're serious about doing it then our SF types will have to spend more time at home doing higher end training to develop those skills. Being going 6-8 months out of the year doing JCETs and other assorted missions does not develop those high end skills, despite rhetoric from some with limited ODA time that it does. Yes, some skills/attributes are developed by these deployments, but they have to be balanced with higher end SO skills training.

Agreed we need to assist with the prevention and deterrence of conflict, but above all else we have to focus on readiness for war. Are you saying the same thing, or do you see it differently?

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 08/21/2011 - 10:22am

LTG Boykin's comments are all valid ones.

I suspect internal to SOCOM will be one of the greatest challenges, as we rebalance the SOF force for peace, rather than conflict. The peace role is less well understood by Congress, DoD, and even many within the SOCOM HQs; it is also a aspect of military operations that are not historically used in the scenarios gamed to determine requirements for resources. If SOCOM can find itself, it will still be then faced with a massive challenge of getting DoD to look at peace time operations in ways they have not done in recent generations.

The critical service in the larger, external debate will be the Army, IMO. As the nation transitions to greater focus on "Prevent and Deter" and looks for savings in that role, it is historically, strategically, and logicially the Army that must shrink to pay that bill. More accurately, the warfighting aspect of the Active Army that must pay that bill. The challenge for SOF is that the bulk of SOF is Army SOF; and particularly for the "Prevent" mission, Army Special Forces, Civil Affairs and MISO. This means SOCOM must retain current capacity in those areas in the midst of an Army that is being directed to make large, hard cuts.

This is an advocacy system, with each Service existing to advocate for their own existence and relative importance. GEN Dempsey is by all accounts a great general with a clear perspective of the big picture. I don't know how GEN Odierno sees this, but it will be his task to create the right mix of Active, Guard, and Reserve; Conventional and SOF; Army forces, and that will be an emotion-laced bit of in-fighting that he will have to oversee. Both men have a challenge on their hands.

Bill M.

Sat, 08/20/2011 - 12:59pm

The sad part is that only retired officers can make these comments. Active Duty officers would be accused of being disloyal and told to get back in their box. Some growth was required, but the growth has surpassed sustainability and common sense. We all too often confuse the business rule of thumb that if you're not growing you're dying, which does not apply to the military. Don't forget when you grow the operating force you have to grow the school house, support, etc. We also get most of our personnel from the conventional forces, which will no doubt be contracting in the relatively near term. A little growth and restrictin Special Operations Forces to missions that are Special Operaions unique would have reduced the optempo an appropriate level.

Brett Patron

Sat, 08/20/2011 - 11:49am

Echoing COL Maxwell's points below:

The main reason SOF is so cost efficient is that MFP-11 essentially prohibits duplication of Military-Department common items. In fact, that has frustrated some SOF procurement efforts (e.g. PSC-5 vs PRC-117F radios), and has been cited as a friction point in promotions and other personnel matters.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 08/20/2011 - 8:54am

I do think LTG Boykin is spot on and exactly right. We cannot make black and white either/or decisions when it comes to regular and special operations forces. These decisions require analysis, understanding of capabilities and our best guess of potential future threats. I certainly hope that those on the super committee have an understanding of military capabilities and are not taken in by SOF as the flavor of the month. And if the really do care about SOF and want to protect and nurture that capability in the our nation's arsenal (among all the other great and necessary capabilities) then they would be wise to heed LTG Boykin's advice