A Marine critical skills operator instructs Senegalese and Malian counterterrorism team members on movement tactics prior to a training operation in Theis, Senegal. More special operations forces will take part in missions in areas such as North Africa, according to a Pentagon official. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is moving aggressively to establish a “network” of elite American commandos across the globe as part of its changing strategy to combat al-Qaida cells in places like North Africa.
Senior Defense Department officials on Thursday also told a House panel that had Russia invaded Crimea before the 2014 quadrennial defense review (QDR) was completed, the Obama administration would not have altered plans to place more emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region.
Christine Wormuth, deputy defense undersecretary for strategy, plans and force development, told the House Armed Services Committee that DoD’s 2015 spending plan and the QDR include plans, equipment and dollars to “continue” using “direct action” where needed to target al-Qaeda leaders and operatives.
A major part of the Obama administration’s strategy to counter the changed nature of the violent Islamic extremist organization, which now is strongest in Yemen and North Africa, will be placing additional US special operations forces (SOF) in those — and other — regions, Wormuth said.
Under questioning from committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Wormuth said the need to directly strike al-Qaeda targets is a main reason that — in an era of defense cuts — Pentagon and administration officials maintained growth for special operations forces.
US Special Operations Command chief Adm. William McRaven has been pushing his plan for a “global SOF network,” which Wormuth — nominated become Pentagon policy chief — fully endorsed on Thursday.
The Obama administration wants to work more closely with US allies in the fight against al-Qaeda than has been the case over the “last 10 years,” Wormuth said, adding McRaven’s vision will be the backbone of such efforts.
The latest QDR makes clear the administration continues to be a big believer in SOF’s role in fighting al-Qaeda.
“The United States will maintain a worldwide approach to countering violent extremists and terrorist threats using a combination of economic, diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, development, and military tools,” the QDR states. “The Department of Defense will rebalance our counterterrorism efforts toward greater emphasis on building partnership capacity, especially in fragile states, while retaining robust capability for direct action, including intelligence, persistent surveillance, precision strike, and special operations forces.”
Notably, it includes a passage that the administration plans to “grow overall special operations forces end strength to 69,700 personnel.”
Such growth, it states, is necessary to protect “our ability to sustain persistent, networked, distributed operations to defeat [al-Qaeda], counter other emerging transnational threats, counter WMD, build the capacity of our partners, and support conventional operations.”
The QDR also says a more-robust cadre of elite commandos is needed to “preserve the element of surprise.”
Meantime, Wormuth and Vice Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld assured the House panel that had Russia invaded Ukrainian soil before the QDR was complete, its contents largely would have remained the same.
Winnefeld acknowledged to committee Vice Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, that an earlier Russian move would have changed “the tone” of parts of the quadrennial strategy document. And Wormuth told Thornberry that the underlying strategy — and its increased focus on the Asia-Pacific — would not have changed.
Some lawmakers and analysts have criticized the Obama administration for failing to anticipate the Russian invasion — and for being, as they see it, too “weak” in dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The QDR mentions Russia 10 times. Those passages mostly focus on how US officials will work with counterparts in Moscow to avoid conflict, maintain stability in Europe and Asia, and further reduce American and Russian stockpiles of nuclear arms. On the latter, Wormuth assured lawmakers that there are no nuclear arms talks with Russia, and she doesn’t expect new ones in the foreseeable future.
“The United States is willing to undertake security cooperation with Russia, both in the bilateral context and in seeking solutions to regional challenges, when our interests align, including Syria, Iran, and post-2014 Afghanistan,” states the beefiest QDR section on Russia. “At the same time, Russia’s multi-dimensional defense modernization and actions that violate the sovereignty of its neighbors present risks. We will engage Russia to increase transparency and reduce the risk of military miscalculation.”
Thornberry, seen by many Washington insiders as the favorite to replace retiring committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., pressed Winnefeld on whether the QDR is too flawed. Thornberry bluntly asked if lawmakers should simply repeal the legal provision requiring it be conducted every four years.
Winnefeld pushed back, saying he believes it is a “valuable process” inside the Pentagon and for new presidential administrations.