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U.S. Reliance on Special Forces May Hurt the Country

For all the talk of defense cuts, Admiral William H. McRaven actually has some happy news to discuss. A former Navy SEAL and current head of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), McRaven was scheduled to testify, as reported in Tuesday’s edition of Politico’s Morning Defense to the Senate Armed Services committee about proposed changes to the Special Forces in the Obama administration’s submitted defense. The budget relies heavily on a new leading role for Special Forces, which may end up damaging our Special Forces, our safety, and our security.   

While the new budget proposes cutting total ground troops by 100,000, the number of special operations forces, now at more than 60,000, is set to increase at a rate of about 5% per year.  Special Forces are all the rage right now and rightfully so, in an era when the country appears on the decline and every level of government seems incompetent these shadow warriors step out of the mist and lore to accomplish incredible things. However, the growing reliance on Special Forces is troubling. A common sense analysis of this new direction would have to start with a point Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute made to Newsweek, “The whole idea of Special Ops is quality, not quantity,” says Singer “But there are concerns in that community of, how big could it reasonably get before it gets bogged down?” It’s the most basic point to comprehend if the Special Forces are the elite how big can they get before they stop being special?

This new policy is predicated on the notion we can predict the future, or at least future conflicts.  During a recent defense oriented talking heads show (yes those exist just like the political ones) one of the commentators correctly pointed out that the Department of Defense has a near perfect record of being unable to predict and plan for future conflicts. We drew down the size of the armed forces post-World War II only to have to reverse course and recall veterans for the Korean Conflict. We built up for an eventual showdown with the Soviet Union only to find ourselves in rice patties and jungles fighting in Vietnam. After we took a “peace dividend” at the conclusion of the Cold War, we looked to revitalize our military at the beginning of the 21 century only to find ourselves unprepared for post 9/11 conflicts. I do not think anyone would argue that the Pentagon was prepared for the kind of enemy or tactics we encountered in Iraq or Afghanistan. 

While known for hunting terrorists, USSOCOM’s website lists many “core activities” that could read from a Hollywood action movie menu. One eye catching core activity is Counter-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Actions taken to locate, seize, destroy or capture, recover, and render such weapons safe. According to former National Security Council counter-terrorism strategist Michele Malvesti, USSOCOM is solely and uniquely positioned for this mission. Yet the previous head of USSOCOM, Adm. Eric Olson in written testimony to Congress in 2010 stated that, “Fewer elite commandos are available for the hunt and their expertise has been degraded by “the decreased level of training. They now have only a “limited” capability for this mission,” he said. “As the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down, training for counter-proliferation must be redoubled. We need to redeploy, reconstitute, and retrain forces returning from overseas,” he wrote. This is what they are willing to state they need to refocus on, I shudder to think what they don’t want to talk about in public that they need to refocus on. The remainder of the list of their core activities is no walk in the clouds so to two years later look to expand the group and their mission without a break in operational tempo seems preposterous.

“Mission creep” is explained as the expansion of a project or mission beyond its original goals, often after initial successes. Mission creep is usually considered undesirable due to the dangerous path of each success breeding more ambitious attempts, only stopping when a final, often catastrophic, failure occurs. How more closely would this have to look like the beginning of a textbook case of mission creep before we reconsider? 

Photo Credit: isafmedia

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