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What’s Wrong with the Rest of SOCOM?: WARCOM, AFSOC, and MARSOC
Part III of “What’s Wrong with SOCOM?”
What’s Wrong With SOCOM? (Part I)
“What’s Wrong with SOCOM?” (Part II)
Sadcom via Happycom
The reason I have lumped NAVSPECWARCOM (or, “WARCOM”: Naval Special Warfare Command), AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command), and MARSOC (Marine Special Operations Command) into one article is simple: the rest of SOCOM outside of JSOC and USASOC are either bad fits (MARSOC) or too niche to really take up that much time on. When talking the Navy, we’re mainly talking the SEALs. Sure, there are other parts of WARCOM, but it would be like spending a lot of time on the 528th Special Operations Sustainment Brigade. These elements are immensely worthwhile, but do not drive much of the agenda within SOCOM. With AFSOC, there are two main groups: pilots and special tactics personnel. Within the special tactics, AFSOC has, among others, pararescuers and combat controllers. These forces are legitimate special operators, but they have a very niche mission and are mostly made up of NCOs, so, again, not likely to control the bureaucracy at SOCOM, therefore we will spend most of our time on reference AFSOF on the part made up of pilots and airframes. MARSOC, as will be explained, was forced on SOCOM and the USMC by Donald Rumsfeld after 9/11, and has never really been comfortably incorporated into the SOCOM fold. Of these elements, WARCOM has done the best in influencing SOCOM, most times in much better ways than ARSOF (Army Special Operations Forces) have.
It is no secret that the Navy SEALs do a hell of a job influencing others. Movies, books, video games, and now, even with the SOCOM commander telling them to “be quieter,” they have a TV show out. The SEALs, better than most, see the benefits of partnering with pop culture. This pragmatic realism has also allowed them to focus on infiltrating as many of their smartest folks into the SOCOM bureaucracy, either as senior officers or as civilians. ARSOF, by comparison, normally avoid SOCOM like the plague and, when they do assign folks to the headquarters, normally don’t compete well intellectually with the SEALs. One reason for this is that the SEALs do not have to follow the career track of Big Navy. The SEALs aren’t expected to captain a ship, so their career experiences are tailored to what is best for WARCOM. What is best for WARCOM is getting smart guys into positions of influence. Whether this means frequent rotations in and out of DC (the Navy as a whole does this remarkably well, with their Congressional liaison office running circles around the Army’s) or out of Tampa, the Navy ensures their best and brightest are able to specialize in helping WARCOM. This is in contradiction to the Army and ARSOF, who rarely, if ever, rotate the same people back into DC or Tampa, preferring instead to limit broadening assignments to one per officer.[i]
The other way in which the SEALs differ from ARSOF is that they have managed to make education a priority. Many, if not most, senior ARSOF officers have been known to denigrate education, saying, “if the Army wants you to get educated, they’ll send you to get educated.” SEALs, by and large, value education and, more importantly, value putting those who are educated and smart (not necessarily the same thing) in the best places that will benefit WARCOM. ARSOF normally manages personnel through the check-the-block mentality of the Army’s Human Resources Command, which prioritizes moving officers every 2-3 years and filling priority positions based on whatever the flavor of the month is within ARSOF. This usually means sourcing the never-satisfied deployed commands with officers, no matter their regional specialty or expertise, or pet projects that the generals focus their two years of command on. WARCOM, instead, manages their personnel for the long-term benefit of WARCOM and in a very talent-focused manner. It is not unheard of for higher-ranking SEALs to stay in the same job or place for a long period of time. This is normally discouraged within ARSOF, as the Army calls this “homesteading,” and envisions only bad things associated with officers spending more than two or three years in the same geographical area.
WARCOM, with all of its afore-mentioned positives when compared to ARSOF, however, get two things really, really wrong. First, they are known in many circles as the worst SOF planners. WARCOM’s fighting ranks are filled with relatively young folks who are full of piss and vinegar. They chomp at the bit for a mission and, when they get one, roll out as fast as they can. This often happens without proper planning, rehearsals, reconnaissance, or intelligence preparation. There is a reason there are so many stories about SEALs having to exert amazing efforts to make it out of bad situations or rescue their buddies: contingency planning is usually very bad or even non-existent. This is a cultural issue for the SEALs, but also a training, education, and maturity issue. It simply makes no sense to go into an area on a direct action mission without attempting in every way possible to confirm what is on the objective. Likewise, planning for two or three major contingencies is something most SOF do, for the SEALs this is not the norm. Lastly, emphasizing the value of rehearsing does not seem to be in most SEALs’ DNA, as their proclivity is to “just go!” This can be an admirable quality, but during high-risk direct action missions it can spell disaster.
The second issue with WARCOM is that they, like any other standing professional military force, falls prey to bureaucratic pressures to grow. Growing within WARCOM means expanding their mission set. The SEALs are mainly set up to do ship-to-ship direct action missions. The rescuing of hostages taken by pirates or dissuading those same pirates is a textbook SEAL mission. Likewise, the deception activity across the sea towards Kuwait which distracted the Iraqi Army during the Gulf War in 1991 was a great SEAL mission. What makes little sense for the SEALs is having them do direct action missions in land-locked Afghanistan. Killing Osama bin Laden by a SEAL unit was seen by many within SOF as an affirmative action program for the SEALs, since ARSOF had taken Saddam Hussein and had the lead in Iraq, and thus it was the SEALs time to do something.
It is natural for every standing military organization to want to grow, just like any bureaucracy. To grow within the DoD, organizations have to either convince DoD and Congress that they require more money and people to do what they already are responsible for or they have to convince them that they should be involved in more activities. In the case of SOF, and DoD in general, everyone is engaged in arguing they need more for what they are already responsible for. In the case of the SEALs, however, they have increasingly argued they need more to do new missions. This means arguing that they should conduct missions within land-locked countries, train foreign nationals in military operations, conduct Unconventional Warfare, and conduct every other mission within SOF. Within SOF ground combat units there is a lot of redundancy, as will be discussed further in the section on MARSOC.
It is worth, however, mentioning quickly the main areas of responsibility within SOF ground combat units. JSOC conducts counterterrorism. The SEALs conduct direct action missions that originate from and return to vessels on water. Special Forces (Green Berets) conduct training of irregular indigenous forces and unconventional warfare. MARSOC conducts… what everyone else conducts, supposedly. More on that later, but, suffice it to say that the SEALs have grown their mission set to include, much like MARSOC, what everyone else does. Officially the SEALs conduct special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, direct action, counterterrorism, and unconventional warfare. The reality is that they conduct direct action, best when done on water, but increasingly done anywhere they can get SOCOM to send them to. This needless redundancy means that the SEALs are larger than they need to be, conduct missions where they are not the best fit, and increasingly have an outsize amount of influence within SOCOM and on U.S. foreign policy. It is even more a testament to their influence and the bureaucratic nature of SOCOM that the SEALs (along with MARSOC) are the only SOF ground units of SOCOM that meet the 2-days-home-for-every-deployed-day DoD requirement. Thus, even with the addition of MARSOC ostensibly to assist ARSOF in their mission requirements, ARSOF still deploy too much.
Air Force Special Operations Command, AFSOC, is, as mentioned previously, made up of mainly two types: pilots and ground pounders (or “special tactics”). The guys that train for ground operations are great guys: combat controllers and pararescue personnel. Their units are very specifically focused on their core missions and they do them well. The rest of AFSOC, and really the bulk for our purposes, are the pilots and their associated support and airframes. These airframes are special for two reasons: the units they support (SOF) and the special equipment, training, and conditions in which their crews fly. These pilots are really good and they have some amazing equipment. They are not fenced to SOF however, and thus float back and forth between the conventional Air Force and AFSOC. This is because, for the most part, a pilot is a pilot and an airframe is an airframe. Running a conventional AF unit is much the same as an AFSOC (airframe) unit. This allows AFSOC personnel to ride up the corporate ladder whether in the SOF track or not.
AFSOC does a decent job of putting smart folks into places of influence within SOCOM. Just like the other units mentioned, however, AFSOC has felt the bureaucratic pressure to attempt to expand what they do in order to secure more resources. The most disingenuous argument AFSOC has had of late is that it does unconventional warfare (UW) and foreign internal defense (FID). For UW, AFSOC has argued that when it supports UW operations, it is conducting UW. This is about like saying that when I stood by my wife, supporting her in the delivery room, I was giving birth. In terms of FID, AFSOC argues that it can teach foreign nationals how to fly.[ii] This, as Afghanistan and Iraq are examples, means training foreign personnel how to fly and equipping them with airframes that their nation cannot support. This is normally done, not so that we can eventually stop supporting them with air power, but so that we can claim some kind of good news story, as is often wont to backfire on us (note the most recent asylum request by the Afghan female pilot).
In conclusion, AFSOC, outside of the pararescuers and the combat controllers, are only “special” in terms of who they support and some special equipment they use on their airframes. Including them within SOCOM has led, just as it leads to for everyone, an effort to expand and secure ever more resources. It makes sense to fund some Air Force units with SOF monies, but it makes less sense to have an entire command within SOCOM associated with only a few special units. Likewise, it makes little sense to allow pilots who have had more conventional time than SOF and no ground SOF experience, to man most key billets in the SOCOM headquarters outside of some unique experience or education.
The Marine Special Operations Command is the newest member of the SOCOM family. Forced on the Marines by Donald Rumsfeld, there was immediate dissension from within the USMC from the beginning. Arguing that all Marines are elite, the USMC finally succumbed to Rumsfeld’s pressure and the promise of more money in the form of SOF dollars from SOCOM. MARSOC was stood up from the ashes of the Force Recon units and have since struggled to find their place within SOCOM. As mentioned previously, they are supposed to conduct the official missions that all SOF supposedly conduct: CT, FID, UW, SR, and DA.[iii] Unfortunately, the reality is that they do none of those things well, besides, perhaps DA. But, having observed MARSOC units perform, their DA looks a lot like what an 82nd Airborne unit or the Rangers would do. In short, MARSOC struggles to work with indigenous forces, struggles with regional alignment and language specialties, cannot conduct UW, is only tangentially related to the CT mission, and its DA and SR are, for the most part much like the rest of the USMC (and Army infantry).
At first it might have made sense to have a MARSOC to some, since as Iraq became a heavier draw on SOF and Afghanistan was still requiring huge amounts of, mainly SF, other forces were needed to fill in the gaps where SF could not. This meant mainly things like FID missions within places like Africa and Asia that were under-resourced due to the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, much like the rest of SOCOM, MARSOC started to feel the pressure to deploy its formations to war, as vanilla FID missions to peacetime areas did not allow officers to compete as well as their peers who had commanded in combat. Thus, MARSOC started sending units mainly to combat instead of helping out where SF could not cover down. Instead of filling a gap in coverage, MARSOC became a rival to SF.
For just one example, a MARSOC company, employed by an SF battalion commander without any experience with MARSOF formations, was thrown out of Afghanistan after an embarrassing incident in which they appeared to cause more damage than those in charge deemed they should have. After the company came back into Afghanistan almost a year later, it spent months running up a road North of their FOB and getting into engagements in almost the same spot every time. They would expend a lot of ammunition and return to base to reload and refit, only to launch the same again a few days later. Commenting on this company’s efforts, a conventional 2-star general remarked, “what are they doing that is building any capability in the local forces?” Of course, the answer was “none.”
The fact is that the creation of MARSOC was made to meet a requirement of the Iraq war. After the drawdown in Iraq, MARSOC started to compete with the rest of SOCOM for missions, starting to argue that they could do all of the missions that everyone else is supposedly doing. The issue is that, absent another situation like two simultaneous counterinsurgency efforts, MARSOC is not needed. One might make the argument that they could fill in doing FID for SF when SF is stretched thin, as SF is now, but, unfortunately that would only be true if MARSOC and USASOC were not under the bureaucratic pressures to keep from cooperating. MARSOC today argues against picking up most of the missions SOCOM needs them to pick up due to a DoD requirement to allow two days home for every day deployed. Thus, MARSOC, knowing DoD and SOCOM prioritize the current fight, attempts to position its forces to support combat operations. SF, knowing MARSOC is doing this and SF being at less than the 2 to 1 ratio, are hesitant to give up combat missions, knowing full well that in a zero sum game that means more MARSOC officers competitive against SF officers and potentially more non-SF Army officers more competitive against SF officers. Therefore, Africa and Asia and other places go without SOF teams, even though SOF has increased with the addition of MARSOC and the increase in SOF overall.
The Rest of SOCOM Concluded
In summary, the rest of SOCOM: the SEALs, AFSOC, and MARSOC, each argue that they need more resources, as any good bureaucratic entity does, and each has outsize influence on SOCOM compared to their actual value and numbers. The SEALs should be focused mainly just on ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore (and back to ship) missions. AFSOC should provide extra funding to the regular Air Force and maintain the special tactics units. And MARSOC could be disbanded tomorrow and SOCOM would not lose value. This is because the needless incorporation of different elements within SOCOM create bureaucratic pressures to justify ever-increasing funding and personnel. This forces all units to argue two things: that their mission set is getting more difficult to do and that that mission set is increasing to new areas. Thus, all units within SOCOM argue that they now conduct FID, UW, CT, SR, and DA. This has led to SEAL units conducting DA missions in landlocked countries just to give them some combat time. Likewise, AFSOC argues they need to do “Aviation FID,” when the reality is that almost no country really needs us to develop an Air Force capability for them.[iv] And, of course, there is the curious case of MARSOC claiming they can do things like UW, when, in fact, they have zero capability to do so.
The fourth and final part of this series will offer some recommendations on how to fix these problems within SOCOM.
[i] This point was mentioned in earlier parts of this series, but it is worth mentioning again: for all of SOCOM’s talk of managing talent, outside of the SEALs this is really not something SOCOM does and ARSOF are the worst. Because of Mother Army’s personnel requirements, there is very little room within an ARSOF officer’s career for broadening assignments, alternative and unique experiences, and positions that will help ARSOF within SOCOM or DoD. When ARSOF are assigned to those positions it rarely, if ever is for more than one tour of duty. Thus there are few opportunities to build relationships and experience within key billets for ARSOF. The SEALs, managed differently than the conventional Navy, can afford to manage talent in more productive ways.
[ii] The Army Special Operations Aviation Regiment has also tried this tactic, arguing they do “Aviation FID.” This usually means some kind of effort to train foreign nationals on our equipment. It rarely, if ever, means assisting a foreign unit with their request to develop an air capability as much as it is a public affairs type of effort, showing the illusion of progress.
[iii] To put it in overly-simplistic layman’s terms: direct action is a raid, counterterrorism is a raid conducted against terrorists, special reconnaissance is reconnaissance deep within enemy territory on strategic targets, foreign internal defense is training foreign nationals, and unconventional warfare is overthrowing a government.
[iv] One of the biggest fallacies within COIN, FID, and stability operations doctrine is that U.S. military units are free to advise and capable of advising on context-dependent solutions for foreign militaries. Instead, there are tremendous internal and external pressures to simply copy ourselves. In addition, most SOF lack the necessary experience and education to offer anything other than the American preferred way of doing things.