Special Operations Forces Aiming to Expand

The 2019 budget request for U.S. Special Operations Command — $13.6 billion — is 10% higher than the 2018 level and is the largest budget request ever submitted by US SOCOM.

U.S. special operations forces, which are currently deployed in 90 countries, have more than doubled in size from 33,000 personnel in 2001 to around 70,000 personnel in early 2018. Next year’s budget, if approved, would make them larger still.

For a newly updated overview from the Congressional Research Service, see U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress, April 13, 2018.

Other recent CRS reports that have not otherwise been made publicly available include the following.

Federal Election Commission: Membership and Policymaking Quorum, In Brief, April 12, 2018

Regulatory Reform 10 Years After the Financial Crisis: Systemic Risk Regulation of Non-Bank Financial Institutions, April 12, 2018

Abortion At or Over 20 Weeks’ Gestation: Frequently Asked Questions, April 11, 2018

Millennium Challenge Corporation, updated April 12, 2018

Latin America and the Caribbean: Fact Sheet on Leaders and Elections, updated April 11, 2018

Softwood Lumber Imports From Canada: Current Issues, updated April 12, 2018

Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention, updated April 12, 2018

Special Ops, Counter-Propaganda, Overclassification

The House Armed Services Committee took a retrospective look at US special operations forces earlier this year, thirty years after the establishment of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

“SOCOM has a lot of missions it is responsible for, and has had several new ones added to it,” said Rep. Elise M. Stefanik (R-NY) at a hearing earlier this year. “Are there any of those missions that should go away or be reassigned?”

SOCOM Commander Gen. Raymond A. Thomas was ready with the answer: “There are no missions that should go away or be reassigned.”

See Three Decades Later: A Review and Assessment of our Special Operations Forces 30 Years After the Creation of U.S. Special Operations Command, House Armed Services Committee, May 2, 2017.

Some other notable congressional hearing volumes that have recently been published include:

Crafting an Information Warfare and Counter-propaganda Strategy for the Emerging Security Environment, House Armed Services Committee, March 15, 2017

Examining the Costs of Overclassification on Transparency and Security, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, December 7, 2016

Next U.S. National Military Strategy to be Classified

In a number of national security policy areas, there is a long-term trend in favor of greater transparency and disclosure. For example, the U.S. Army openly published a manual last week on Techniques for Information Collection During Operations Among Populations (ATP 3-55.4). It supersedes and replaces a previous publication from 2007 (FM 2-91.6) that was for restricted distribution and was marked For Official Use Only.

But in some other areas, the arrow of transparency is pointed backwards and previously unclassified categories of records are becoming newly restricted or classified.

That appears to be the case with The National Military Strategy of the United States of America. It was publicly released as an unclassified document in 2015, but the forthcoming edition that is to be completed by the end of next year will be classified.

“The [next] national military strategy will be a classified document,” said Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a March 29 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He acknowledged that up to now the National Military Strategy was “an unclassified document that has historically, you know, been written for the public.” But the next Strategy will not be made public, although “we will certainly articulate to the public the guts of a national military strategy,” he said.

He did not elaborate on the rationale for classification of the hitherto unclassified document, except to say that “in my mind, what the national military strategy ought to do is drive the development of our operation[al] plans. And more importantly, drive the development of viable options that we would need in a crisis [or] contingency.” His speech was reported in Defense News (April 5) and the US Naval Institute News (March 29).

The Congressional Research Service said “it can be assumed” that Special Operations Forces “will figure prominently in DOD’s new classified military strategy document.” But CRS warned that “a high or increased level of U.S. SOF involvement in the nation’s new classified military strategy could come with a price…. there could be a tendency to assign them an inordinate amount of responsibility under this new strategic construct.” See U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress, updated April 8, 2016.

Special Operations Beyond War and Peace

“Power and influence are now diffusing to a range of actors, both state and non-state, who have not traditionally wielded it,” said Gen. Joseph L. Votel, Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), last month.

Under these circumstances, “Traditional approaches to deterrence are increasingly inadequate,” he said. “Adversaries [seek] to maximize their coercive influence while limiting their risk of serious retribution. They are becoming adept at avoiding crossing thresholds that would clearly justify the use of conventional military force.”

“The diffusion of power is decreasing the ability of any state, acting alone, to control outcomes unilaterally.”

The comparative advantage of U.S. Special Operations Forces, Gen. Votel told Congress in his 2015 SOCOM posture statement on March 18, “is built upon three pillars: 1) persistent engagement, 2) enabling partners, and 3) discreet action.”

“Our success in this environment will be determined by our ability to adequately navigate conflicts that fall outside of the traditional peace-or-war construct,” he said.

U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) consist of over 69,000 operators and support personnel deployed to more than 80 countries around the world, the SOCOM posture statement said (compared to “over 75 countries” in last year’s statement). They include Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Air Commandos, Rangers, Night Stalker helicopter crews, Marine Raiders, and others.

A newly updated report from the Congressional Research Service discusses the SOF command structure and the FY 2016 US SOCOM budget request.  See U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress, April 9, 2015.

Special Operations as a Technology Driver

The continuing prominence of special operations as an instrument of U.S. force projection is creating requirements for “revolutionary, game changing” new technologies and fostering the development of solutions to those requirements.

Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command until last month, told the House Armed Services Committee in two newly published hearing volumes that a range of new technologies are under development by SOCOM, including laser weapons, new emergency medicine techniques, color night vision, and more.

“USSOCOM is currently pursuing directed energy systems as a non-kinetic, stand-off anti-materiel solution. We have a requirement to surgically disable or disrupt a variety of fixed facility infrastructure and systems, with required capabilities ranging from breaching and access to disablement of critical equipment. The Man Portable High Energy Laser is one of several technologies under consideration for this critical mission,” Adm. McRaven wrote in response to questions for the record from a March 2014 hearing.

Emergency medical response is another concern. “Uncontrolled external hemorrhage remains the leading cause of death on the battlefield. Despite recent advances in hemorrhage control technologies, controlling the bleeding in large wounds (‘sharkbite’) remains difficult and a SOCOM Commander top priority. A ‘Sharkbite’ project developed a novel wound stasis dressing to treat SOF non-compressible hemorrhagic injuries. The ‘SharkBite Trauma Kit’ includes three revolutionary tools that are now pending FDA approval before transition to USSOCOM’s PEO–SOF Warrior’s Tactical Combat Casualty Care Program of Record and SOF medics.”

“Some of our most difficult advanced technology requirements include personal protection, signature management, first pass lethality, and color night vision,” Adm. McRaven wrote in response to questions from another hearing in February.

“USSOCOM… is leading the development of a series of technologies necessary to construct a Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) in order to increase Special Operations Forces survivability…. The development of powered exoskeletons, advanced armor, and lightweight power generation and distribution systems have wide-ranging potential uses…. It is envisioned that novel ballistic materials, advanced power storage systems, and exoskeleton advancements will be made available to other DOD and Federal agencies prior to the fielding of the TALOS prototype.”

“Our adversary’s capabilities continue to evolve and improve. To maintain our edge on the battlefield SOF needs comprehensive signature management in all environments to avoid detection. We are evaluating novel technologies to provide SOF aircrews and their platforms with first pass lethality by rapidly acquiring ballistic wind data for vastly increased accuracy of unguided weapon systems.”

“Finally, maintaining our tactical advantage at night will require revolutionary, game changing capabilities like color night vision. The goal of our color night vision effort is to provide the SOF operator the ability to see true color on a moonless night with just starlight–a tremendous tactical advantage,” Adm. McRaven wrote.

With or without such advantages, however, “I would be concerned about thinking that the special operations community is the panacea for all our problems,” Adm. McRaven testified in February. “We are not.”