The Worrisome Future of Special Operation Forces

by Daniel Pipes
Mar 23, 2014
Cross-posted from National Review Online, The Corner

I just had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with a Council on Foreign Relations group at the United States Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Its commander, the famed Admiral William H. McRaven, started the briefing, followed by his staff.

Cover of the SOF “operating concept” booklet, not online.

I expected to learn about Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and their air force and marine counterparts. I thought I would hear about the exploits of this 67,000-strong command operating in 84 countries, maybe even about the taking down of Osama bin Laden. But that was not to be. Instead, he and the other officers talked at length about their new mission, starting with the command’s motto, “You can’t surge trust.”

It took some time for it to sink in because of their turgid language, but here’s a key paragraph from the Operating Concept for special operations forces (SOF) that was handed out to the CFR group:

The Special Operations Forces Operating Concept captures the essence of the SOF heritage as it could be – as it should be in the year 2020 and beyond. The concept moves beyond the first decade of the 21st Century, when SOF primarily supported large-scale contingency operations by conducting counterterrorism operations to find, capture, or kill our adversaries. Although of great value to the Nation, these operations were never intended to be decisive. Operating through the Global SOF Network in support of our Geographic Combatant Commanders and Chiefs of Mission, SOF now have the opportunity to achieve strategic outcomes by working with and through interagency and foreign partners to understand and influence relevant populations.

Translated into English, this says:

Special Operations Forces used to be about capturing or killing America’s adversaries; its new mission is to shape public opinion.

Or, it the words of a bullet point in the Operating Concept, the goal is “Elevating SOF non-lethal skills to the same level of expertise as lethal skills.” As radical a shift as this is, at least I could comprehend it. Not so the following graphic, “Strategic Appreciation – 2.0,”which was projected onto a large floor for most of our briefing and which makes no sense to me:

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Comments: (1) I came away from this briefing unsure if the special operations leadership really believes this stuff or is mouthing it to distract the public from discussing its real mission. (2) If it’s sincere, I worry about our future defense. (March 23, 2014)

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