People Power Drives Special Operations

May 2006
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

A U.S. Army special forces soldier trains members of the Philippine armed forces in counterterrorism capabilities as part of operation Enduring Freedom. Language skills are an important capability for special operations forces as they train more allied militaries in foreign countries.
Psychological operations and language skills join new technologies as important parts of the arsenal.

The global war on terrorism and new technological capabilities have changed the way special operations forces fight and how they are employed in the battlefield. Nontraditional missions require nontraditional skills, and the U.S. Special Operations Command is training a new type of warrior to use skill sets vital in the war on terrorism.

With the nature of warfare changing almost monthly, the U.S. Defense Department is depending on special operations forces to be the agents of change in asymmetrical combat against a dynamic enemy. The result is that special operations forces today have a greater requirement for more direct action capability with close quarters combat.

Gen. Bryan D. “Doug” Brown, USA, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), states pointedly how the command will change over the next few years. “We’re going to continue to grow; we’re going to continue to get more capable; and we’re going to continue to get more authorities at Special Operations Command Headquarters.”

The recently issued Quadrennial Defense Review, along with the fiscal year 2007 defense budget, places much greater emphasis on special operations forces and calls for their growth. Gen. Brown allows that these new priorities emphasize how the world has changed to favor the type of warfare conducted by special operations forces.

“The type of wars that we are going to fight in the near future are asymmetrical wars,” he states. “I don’t think any adversary would dare take on our world-class Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. So, [an adversary] will fight an asymmetrical battle—and we are this nation’s asymmetrical warriors. The indirect approach to this war is more important than the direct approach,” Gen. Brown declares.

“We want to enable the soldier, sailor, airman and Marine out on the ground,” he explains. “The key is to assess and select the right person, give him world-class training, give him world-class technology and then empower him to go out in small teams and do the mission.”

The individual’s new skills are complemented by technology advances that are dramatically enhancing the capabilities of special operations forces. These forces are becoming able to conduct multiple missions in the field, including requesting external support, without ever returning to their base for mission planning.

“The bottom line for all of our technologies is that they must enhance the operator,” Gen. Brown declares. “The key to all this is a properly selected operator who has been assessed, trained with world-class training and then provided with world-class technologies to get on the battlefield.”

Roughly 90 percent of the command’s deployed forces are in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq. However, this emphasis in CENTCOM has reduced SOCOM’s traditional presence elsewhere in the world. Increasing SOCOM’s size will allow it to return to those traditional areas of operation in Africa, South America and the Pacific while maintaining an effective presence in CENTCOM’s region.

Gen. Brown explains that many of the plans and initiatives covered by the Quadrennial Defense Review have been well underway in SOCOM. Theater special operations commands that work for geographic combatant commands will grow. SOCOM is increasing in size significantly and is adding three more Ranger companies and a direct action force. Each special forces group will add a battalion.

When SOCOM received additional resources, it first improved its schools before it added operators. This approach is paying great dividends now, Gen. Brown warrants. “We graduated 791 Green Berets last year, the biggest [number] in our history,” he adds. The command has increased the requirement for language skills and increased resources for language training.

“One of the critical pieces of this global war on terror is our ability to go out and assist our willing but incapable allies in training their forces to provide protection of their borders and to fight terrorism inside their countries,” the general maintains. “Special forces—with their ability to do the foreign internal defense mission, their language capability, their cultural awareness and their ability to do unconventional warfare with surrogate forces—are extremely important.”

The U.S. Marine Corps just created its own Special Operations Command, and Gen. Brown describes SOCOM as excited about the capabilities this new force will bring. The Marine Corps force comprises three main elements. One will consist of foreign military training units that have language-capable small teams that can bring expertise around the world. The first deployments took place last month. These teams will provide basic military training instead of special counterterrorism forces.

A second element comprises Marine special operations force companies. These 100-man companies, which will be specially trained and equipped with special gear, will sail with the Marine expeditionary units (MEUs). Gen. Brown says that they will give the command an afloat presence around the world, including areas where SOCOM does not have forward bases. These Marine special operations forces will report to the theater special operations commander, who could pull them out of their MEU for special missions.

The third element is what Gen. Brown describes as an enablers’ brigade. This is a nontraditional support brigade that has many special operations capabilities that are lacking at the brigade level. These include a signals intelligence unit, a human intelligence capability and more force protection.

“The way we’ve designed it is exactly what special operations forces needed,” the general declares. “It will give us more capacity around the world—more capability—and it will allow sending a more mature team of SEALs [sea, air and land forces] or Green Berets into an area.”

SOCOM assets are increasing on several fronts. The Navy Special Warfare Command is growing, as is the Air Force Special Operations foreign internal defense squadron at Hurlburt Air Force Base, Florida. SOCOM has stood up a warfighting center known as the Center for Special Operations.

SOCOM headquarters also will grow. In the past, this headquarters was set up to train, organize and equip special operations forces to be provided to the combatant commands. Now, the command is managing what has turned out to be the biggest deployment in the history of special operations. More than 7,000 special operations forces are deployed, and that number will increase as SOCOM returns forces to its longtime areas of operations.

Gen. Brown emphasizes that the command will not be increasing its forward basing. However, it will have a much larger number of joint special operations forces available to the combatant commands worldwide.

The command also is transforming to emphasize operations in the war on terrorism. SOCOM is increasing its civil affairs presence and its psychological operations, or psyops. “The key to this war is not the direct action piece,” Gen. Brown posits. “That [direct action] is the key to defending the homeland.

“The key to the long war is the elimination of underlying conditions and the enabling of our partner nations,” he continues. “That is where our civil affairs and psyops forces will be critical to the future.”

The U.S. Air Force receives its first CV-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft. This variant of the U.S. Marine Corps’ MV-22 is designed to serve as a part of the Air Force Special Operations Command, and it will add considerable capability to special operations forces worldwide.
The general allows that his goal has been to develop more-capable special operations forces. Many skills have become more important than before the onset of the global war on terrorism. Graduates from special operations schools will have different skills so that they can operate in the type of battlefield in which they are likely to operate. This battlefield likely will not be traditional, so streetcraft and tradecraft skills are more important to the special operations warfighter.

Afghanistan and Iraq have proved to be classrooms for special operations forces and their doctrine. Gen. Brown states that one of the key lessons learned is how critical it is to integrate special operations forces with conventional forces. This includes how conventional forces support their special operations counterparts. “We are much better at it than we’ve ever been in our history because of the lessons learned on the battlefield,” he declares.

The command has its own task force for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This effort includes working with allies that have some experience with IEDs, the general relates. He notes that IEDs are causing most of the casualties in the command, and SOCOM teams have trained others in dealing with the devices. “Any technology that industry can bring to bear to help us with IEDs is a number-one priority,” he states.

The interagency partnerships and requirements for the interagency task force have been another major lesson learned, the general continues. Interagency and coalition partners play a large role in special operations, and issues include elements such as networking and communications across organizational lines.

The situational awareness requirement for the lowest-level operator has changed because of the type of battlefield in which special forces fight. Operations often take place at night in a complex and confusing area, such as an urban setting rife with hazards and uncertainty. These forces must have well-refined situational awareness as well as the ability to fuse intelligence rapidly.

This intelligence in turn must be used to hit a target quickly instead of being placed back in a database for future reference or analysis. Special forces must be able to use street intelligence quickly to go from one target to the next and beyond, Gen. Brown says.

And, intelligence must be more transparent, he adds. More special forces people require that detailed intelligence than ever before. “It’s not good enough to have intelligence that sits in databases—it’s got to be immediately available to the operator on the ground,” Gen. Brown declares.

The command is responsible for ensuring that special operations forces equipment is interoperable, and the general allows that it is an issue. SOCOM works with the services to ensure interoperability in areas ranging from collaborative planning to computer tool connectivity. Going one step farther to interagency and coalition interoperability increases the difficulty of this task. A command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) road map will help the command integrate with the Defense Department’s network-centric environment, but the command must preserve its flexibility to conduct its missions.

The command’s nontraditional organizational approach may help solve these challenges, the general offers. SOCOM is organized around centers of excellence, and these focus on capabilities. One center covers networks and communications, while another deals with knowledge and future. When linked, those two centers can ensure that the command’s future course can provide the necessary interoperability.

Some of the interoperability issues are technological, whereas others are related to standardization of Defense Department components. “The C4ISR road map is the number-one goal of our sonic folks,” the general says. “There is not a day that goes by that we don’t have discussions on how to solve this problem.”

Today’s information battlefield is more complex and difficult than ever, the general observes. The enemy’s ability to use Web sites and to move information throughout the infosphere vies with the ability of special operations forces to counter it.

SOCOM is ensuring that it is tapped into the Defense Department’s network operations initiatives. But the command also is growing its collaborative planning environment and its ability to network with all U.S. and allied forces in the global war on terrorism. “We must have a collaborative planning environment that will allow everybody to be involved in all of these processes,” the general says. The result will be a robust network for having ready information at hand or for moving it rapidly.

The general states that the most important technologies for SOCOM will be technologies that allow its forces to find; to move quickly; to locate, track and target; and to   operate remotely. “Anything that makes us faster, stealthier and more lethal is important,” he observes.

This includes night vision devices, which are especially valuable for the many operations that special forces conduct at night. Other sensor technologies are critical, including unattended sensors and their network.

A greater emphasis on psyops increases the need for enabling technologies that allow broadcasting into denied areas to reach both friends and enemies. Gen. Brown says that SOCOM is working in several areas related to psyops broadcasting, including how to link the message from an EC-130 Commando Solo aircraft to an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for relay broadcasting. This way, the manned EC-130 would not be threatened by ground fire while flying over a hostile area.

Among the command’s important communications and information technologies are the Special Operations Forces Deployable Node (SDN) light, SDN medium and net-centric warfare architecture access technologies. Gen. Brown describes the multiband inter/intra team radio, or MBITR, as the greatest success for special operations forces. “When our first troops went in [Afghanistan] on the ground in October 2001, we didn’t have a decent handheld radio,” he relates. “Now, MBITR has been a great success story for us. When you link it with the PSC-5D 512-megahertz, you have two great success stories on the battlefield.”

Battery technologies loom large in future SOCOM requirements. The command needs smaller, lighter power sources for its individuals. The preponderance of weight that a SEAL team member or a special forces soldier carries on his back comprises batteries, and reducing that weight is key.

SOCOM’s commander emphasizes the importance of on-time, on-cost delivery. Saying that it is a bit of a problem for SOCOM, Gen. Brown offers that the command “is not afraid to go back to industry and tell them when they haven’t done that.” All of SOCOM’s plans are based on key technologies being delivered at a certain time, he relates.

Large equipment purchases tend to focus on platforms that can move forces rapidly around the battlefield, Gen. Brown relates. The V-22 Osprey, when added to the special operations stable, will change the way forces operate. “It will give us a much greater capability to do things in one period of darkness,” the general says.

Other platforms that the general can discuss include UAVs. The command is building its own Predator squadron that will be placed in the Air Force Special Operations Command. This was unheard of before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the general offers, and he describes this as a transformational change.

UAVs do much more than just find the enemy on the street, the general points out. They provide situational awareness before helicopters must enter a landing zone in the middle of the night, for example. They can provide situational awareness for convoys out in the field. “Having a UAV linking back to my helicopter to provide a picture of where I am about to land is extremely helpful,” he suggests. “And, linking a UAV with streaming video directly to an AC-130 gunship gets you a pretty powerful solution to some of your problems.”

But, these systems must improve, he says, especially in terms of individuals being able to obtain imagery directly from the vehicles. These images from diverse vehicles must be fused to take advantage of their different sensor packages.

“The technology is changing the way we do business in our ability to find, and to move quickly against, a target and then exploit the situation to go immediately to another target,” the general states. “The situational awareness you get from overhead platforms, from signal intercept capability on the ground—fusing all of this together allows you to go from one target to the next target, vice going back to your base and replanning a mission and going out a second time. You can move very rapidly because all that information is immediately available to you.”


Web Resources
U.S. Special Operations Command:
Quadrennial Defense Review:
National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism:


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