Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. (A1C Christopher Williams / U.S. Air Force)
AMMAN, Jordan — U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) wants to establish a worldwide network linking special operations forces (SOF) of allied and partner nations to combat terrorism.
Championed by SOCOM commander Adm. Bill McRaven and Deputy Director of Operations Brig. Gen. Sean Mulholland, the network would comprise regional security coordination centers, organized and structured similarly to NATO SOF Headquarters in Mons, Belgium.
“Imagine the power a confederation of SOF interests could have. It could collectively increase its influence and operational reach around the globe,” Mulholland told participants at a May 7 Middle East Special Operations Commanders Conference here.
Insisting that the U.S. lacks manpower, resources and in many cases the political will to meet mounting threats alone, Mulholland said a global network “of like-minded entities” was needed to address “mutual security concerns.” These centers would not be command-and-control nodes but rather centers for education, networking and coordination to gain regional solutions for regional problems.
He noted that NATO SOF Headquarters — after only six years of operations — has managed to standardize SOF practices across Europe, with a resulting fivefold increase in the number of operators deployed to Afghanistan.
“Operationally speaking, the increase in SOF capacity in Afghani-stan has directly supported the burden sharing,” Mulholland said. “It has allowed [the International Security Assistance Force] to optimize SOF roles across the country.”
In a follow-up interview, Mulholland estimated it would cost less than $30 million a year to operate and maintain each regional node. SOCOM plans to stand up the first one in Miami-based U.S. Southern Command later in 2013, with Mulholland tapped to command integrated SOF in Central and South America.
As for plans to extend the network into Africa, the Pacific and here in the divisive and rapidly changing Central Command, Mulholland said, “Some might see this as an unreachable goal. I believe it can be done.”
As evidence of the cooperation that exists among SOF in this region, Mulholland cited a massive, three-week exercise taking place here through the end of May. Eager Lion 2012 involves some 10,000 air, land and maritime operators from 17 countries, all operating under a joint task force.
Maj. Gen. Ken Tovo, commander of SOF in Central Command, is commanding the exercise with his Jordanian counterpart, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Jeridad, director of Jordan’s Training and Doctrine Command.
Mulholland said the global SOF network would support another SOCOM objective of increasing the effectiveness of theater special operations commanders (TSOC) working for combatant commanders.
Expanding the regionally restricted TSOC structure into a global network would augment the situational awareness of operators working for combatant commanders, he said.
“Let me be clear: We don’t want them to work for us [SOCOM] … but we can help them obtain a greater understanding of the intelligence picture outside of their regional [area of responsibility],” Mulholland said. Furthermore, the immediate needs for forces and resources can be addressed more efficiently by collaboration between SOCOM and combatant commanders.
“This, in my opinion, is one of the most important aspects of what SOCOM can do as it can illuminate the threat around the seams of a [geographic area of responsibility]. ... SOCOM’s global perspective gives it the ability to understand how the threat operates across the [combatant commands], and not just within one space.”
Commanders here were skeptical about the prospects of standing up a SOF headquarters within Central Command, whose area includes 20 countries spanning Central Asia and the Middle East.
In a region wracked by instability, clashing cultures, strategic competition and mistrust, it is practically impossible, leaders here say, to reach consensus on common threats. When one nation’s freedom fighters are condemned by neighbors as terrorists, they said, it is unreasonable to expect a regional SOF headquarters to operate as it does in NATO.
Lebanese Brig. Gen. Chamel Roukoz, special operations forces commander in a nation whose government includes Hezbollah — a U.S.-designated terrorist group — acknowledged varying assessments of the terrorist threat. “We have different opinions about this, but we view it as those trying to spread instability and fear and whose victims must be unarmed civilians,” he said.
Addressing the May 7 conference here, Roukoz insisted “resistance is not terrorism.” He urged additional U.S. and international cooperation in combating terrorism “starting with that caused by Israel,” Washington’s longtime strategic ally.
As for Jordan, a neighbor at peace with Lebanon’s enemy, officers did not embrace the SOCOM plan. “It’s a bit premature for now,” said Brig. Gen. Omer Al Khaldi, chief of strategic planning for the Royal Jordanian Armed Forces.
Al Khaldi cited joint training and other existing forms of cooperation that the kingdom has with the U.S. and others in the region. He warned, however, that the establishment of a physical headquarters should not interfere with domestic efforts to preserve “internal peace and security.”
When asked about near-term prospects for the regional headquarters, Tovo, the U.S. SOF commander in Central Command, acknowledged challenges given shifting friendships and lack of consensus, starting with where to establish the physical headquarters.
Tovo noted that NATO SOF headquarters was a special case that may not easily be replicated here. “They had an existing structure and an existing alliance, so NATO had a framework to work from.”
He added, “It’s going to be a bit more challenging to stand up a regional SOF coordination center here. So we’re going to kind of step back and let SOUTHCOM do it first and see what we can learn from that.”