Night Strike: A US Army Ranger squad keeps watch during a nighttime raid in Iraq. A plan to link operators, interagency personnel and allies into a global network is encountering resistance from lawmakers and at least one combatant commander. (US Army Special Operations Command)
WASHINGTON — Sometime next month, the heads of the US military’s global combatant commands will convene at the Tampa, Fla., headquarters of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to be briefed on an ambitious and controversial plan to revamp the way special operators deploy around the globe.
The concept is the brainchild of Adm. William McRaven, who has been working toward fully unveiling the plan since taking command of SOCOM in 2011. The idea is to establish a formal framework in which US special operations forces (SOF), interagency partners and foreign allies join an alliance that promotes the sharing of intelligence, partner engagement, training and, if necessary, direct action.
McRaven has been on the stump actively promoting the idea for well over a year now while taking great pains to assure skeptical military officials that he isn’t trying to usurp their power by setting up a new global command structure. Despite his efforts, however, lawmakers on Capitol Hill and at least one combatant commander have expressed concern over the proposal, called the “Global SOF Network.”
The move comes at a heady time for a defense bureaucracy stressed by simultaneously wrapping up a war and planning for a new era with smaller budgets. These stressors are particularly acute at SOCOM headquarters, where the moment also represents a rapidly closing window of opportunity to solidify gains in manpower, budget and prestige it has won since 2001.
In explaining the need for more SOF-led coordination across the US military’s regional commands, McRaven told an audience at an SOF convention in May that “there is no such thing as a local problem any more. If you have a problem in Mali, it will manifest itself in Europe. And that problem in Europe will manifest itself in the Far East. Then the problem in the Far East will manifest itself in the Middle East.
“The world is linked, and therefore we need to be linked,” he said. “We have to build a network to defeat the enemy network.”
But what that network would look like, who it would report to, how it would interact with established command structures, how it would be funded and how the 66,000 — soon to be 72,000 — members of SOCOM would fit into it are all questions that have yet to be fully answered.
Officials at SOCOM did not reply to multiple phone and email requests for comment.
According to multiple sources, these issues came to a head this summer, when the chief of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, rejected a key part of the plan after he was briefed on the idea of building a “regional SOF coordination center” in Colombia.
The center is a cornerstone of McRaven’s plan, as it would serve as a place where military and civilian agencies can coordinate efforts while advising host nation forces.
The problem with the site in Colombia was that representatives from SOCOM began discussions with Colombian officials about building the $15 million facility without working through SOUTHCOM first, according to several sources with knowledge of the situation.
“SOUTHCOM is saying no way, and SOUTHCOM has the trump card on that,” one former SOF officer said.
In a statement, Kelly took issue with reports of his opposition, saying that “I am absolutely for this concept and I talk with Bill McRaven all the time. There are things we need to work out with the State Department, but the more for this area of the world, the better.”
“I think there are concerns about redundancy in an era of fiscal austerity and perhaps a lingering sense of SOF going off on its own,” said Linda Robinson, whose book, “One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare,” comes out this fall.
“Those concerns may not be well founded but they have not yet been sufficiently addressed” by SOCOM leadership, she added.
SOCOM is also running into some skepticism on Capitol Hill.
Some staff members “don’t think SOCOM is being transparent and is not being a team player, and that SOF is getting too big for its britches,” one former operator said. “What I’ve heard from staffers is that every time they’re asked how they’re going to deal with sequestration, [SOCOM] asks for more money.”
Lawmakers also have raised questions about the idea. The House Armed Services Committee’s version of the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill proposed gutting the $10 million SOCOM request to establish a Washington office to coordinate the interagency process. It also would slash the $15 million requested to create the regional SOF coordination centers in Colombia and Hawaii.
Concerns also exist on the other side of the Capitol, with senior GOP and Democratic Senate Armed Services Committee members making clear McRaven has work to do.
“There’s a lot of questions to be answered before we just go into it. I’m not rejecting it — don’t get me wrong,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Defense News July 31. “But it’s going to take a lot of hard work before something like that would become reality.
“I think the brakes ought to be put on that until we get really briefed as to what that entails,” he said. “Right now, the American people are very suspicious about what we’re doing around the world. So we’ve got to ensure there’s transparency as much as possible.”
McCain and other committee members said McRaven has yet to explain to lawmakers how the Pentagon will ensure the proposed “Global SOF” entity will not operate willy-nilly around the globe — potentially stoking embers Washington would prefer remain untouched.
“I think we have to take a hard look at the organization of that. My first reaction is, I don’t want to do anything until we ensure there’s accountability and oversight in place,” another Armed Services Committee member, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said during an Aug. 1 interview.
“When you spread out a command like that across the globe,” she said, “it makes the accountability piece harder.”
Senators also worry about creating another Defense Department organization just as budgets are shrinking and Pentagon leaders want to pare staff sizes.
“We’ve got to ensure it’s not encroaching on the mission of another command,” McCain said. “Are we just creating another command, only one that’s global?”
The Senate Armed Services Committee, in its version of the 2014 authorization legislation, also placed restrictions on SOCOM’s envisioned regional centers and Washington office.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., explained his panel’s proposed cut at a SOF conference in June by saying, “We have limited resources, and some people don’t understand what he’s trying to do where he can build up commands.”
Still, pro-Pentagon lawmakers are not totally resistant to McRaven’s proposal.
“I think it’s something that we need to have hearings on. Maybe that’s something that you need to have in the 21st century,” a Senate Armed Services Committee member, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Defense News Aug 1. “But I think it’d be worth our time and effort to look at it deeper — that makes sense to me.”
SOCOM won a pretty big prize in February, when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed an order that placed the theater special operations commands (TSOCs) under SOCOM — which means Tampa now staffs and funds the regional offices that oversee deployed SOF.
The TSOC remains under the operational control of the relevant combatant commander, however.
The proposed regional centers, Robinson said, are “only one part of the global SOF network” and as such are not as important as continuing to reform the TSOCs, which “can do a lot of the ‘networking’ and many countries with SOF that are maturing can also spearhead — and, yes, fund — some of this collaboration.”
The former SOF commander said that while the larger global plan “should be embraced” by the combatant commanders, they “will fight everything tooth and nail ... a lot of this comes down to perception, and the [combatant commanders] don’t want to be told that ‘We’re from SOCOM, and we’re here to help.’ ”
In essence, McRaven is trying to emulate a program he led as head of Special Operations Command-Europe between 2006 and 2008, when he established a training program for NATO special operators heading to Afghanistan.
In 2007, NATO’s SOF headquarters had just 19 staffers — 18 Americans and a Norwegian. But by 2012, that number had swelled to 220, and a high-tech NATO SOF center was completed in December to house the command.
The number of NATO SOF deployed to Afghanistan rose from 300 to 2,500 under McRaven’s watch, while Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, which encompasses all NATO and Afghan SOF under one divisional command, was established in 2012.
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.