Special operations forces who specialize in indirect action to stand up local security forces are achieving even more success in Afghanistan than Joint Special Operations Command’s kill-or-capture operations, according to the admiral who commanded JSOC until early summer.
Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee’s emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee, Adm. Bill McRaven, the new head of U.S. Special Operations Command, pledged to increase the resources of the regional special operations commands that focus primarily on indirect action.
“I believe that our future — SOCOM’s future — lies in the theater special operations forces and making sure that they are robust enough to handle the problems in their particular geographic areas,” he said Sept. 22.
The special ops community that McRaven now commands has long been divided between units that specialize in direct action, or “kinetic,” kill-or-capture missions and those that specialize in indirect action, such as unconventional warfare (training a proxy native force to overthrow a hostile government) and foreign internal defense (training friendly host-nation forces to combat an insurgency).
The largest force that specializes in indirect action, indeed, the largest single element in SOCOM, is the Army’s Special Forces, for whom direct action is just one of seven doctrinal missions.
The most elite direct action forces fall under the operational control of JSOC, headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C.
They include 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta, or Delta Force, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and 75th Ranger Regiment (all Army units) and the Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DevGru (sometimes called SEAL Team 6).
Many observers say JSOC played a significant role in turning the Iraq war around in 2006 and 2007 through the command’s relentless pressure on al-Qaida in Iraq’s networks, which it attacked using a combination of 10 or more raids a night and an ability to rapidly use intelligence gained on those raids to drive more missions.
JSOC, which McRaven led until June 10, is now similarly engaged in Afghanistan, where the admiral said it had recently conducted 2,000 raids in a year.
“I would contend that the reason the special operations forces on the kinetic side have been so successful in Afghanistan is because of that fusion of … ops and intel,” McRaven said.
But although McRaven is steeped in the direct action/JSOC world — he’s a SEAL who commanded a DevGru squadron and was deputy commander and then the most recent commander of JSOC — his testimony highlighted the role played by Special Forces, who have pioneered the establishment of Afghan Local Police forces, a program previously referred to as village stability operations.
“Our greatest success in Afghanistan has come from the Special Forces officers and [noncommissioned officers] who have been on the ground trying to change the landscape, if you will, in terms of our relationships with the Afghans,” he said. “The village stability operations, developing the Afghan Local Police, this is the most promising effort we have in Afghanistan right now.
“Much like Iraq, we’re not going to be able to kill our way to victory in Afghanistan,” McRaven said. “We’ve always understood that. Every soldier understands that you can’t do that in a counterinsurgency, so the effort that we’re putting into supporting the VSO, I think, is going to be critical.
“The real question is how do we take that concept of fusing ops and intel and get it down to the ALP level, the village stability operations level, and ensure that those young SF officers and NCOs and SEALs that are out there doing this have got the same sort of situational awareness that we have on the kinetic side.”
However, giving those special operators conducting indirect action missions the same quality of intelligence that informs JSOC’s kinetic missions would be harder, he said. “It’s a different requirement,” he said. “The kinetic side, frankly, is a lot easier than understanding the human landscape out there in the districts and the provinces.”
To that end, McRaven said, language training for all SOF officers and NCOs is one of his top priorities.
”We’re continuing to invest a lot of money in language because … I don’t think you can become culturally aware of a society until you can understand their language,” he said. “We’re putting a lot of investment in it and I know that’s going to pay huge dividends for us in the future.”
McRaven also told the subcommittee that as special operations forces are withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan over the next five to 10 years, he plans to strengthen the theater special operations commands. The TSOCs are the two-star headquarters inside the geographic combatant commands like European Command and Central Command and are responsible for the command and control of non-JSOC special operations forces in that theater. For instance, the special operations task force helping the Philippine armed forces in their operations against Islamist insurgents falls under Pacific Command’s theater special operations command, called Special Operations Command, Pacific Command, or SOCPAC. (However, the creation of a separate one-star special operations headquarters in Afghanistan cut CENTCOM’s theater special operations command out of the command and control function in Afghanistan.)
“One of the areas where I intend to put a lot of emphasis is building up the theater special operations commands, so that they have the entire spectrum of capability that I think they’ll need for the future,” McRaven said. This process would require different assets depending on the region, he said.
For instance, he said that “in certain cases,” such as disaster relief, SOCPAC “absolutely could” make use of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities delivered by unmanned aerial vehicles. However, said McRaven, who commanded European Command’s TSOC, “I’m sure our ability to fly into European air space with unmanned aerial vehicles is probably a nonstarter.”