Special Ops Moves from ‘Perpetual War to Perpetual Engagement’

By Ben Watson

March 11, 2014

After more than a decade of costly, direct combat for the nation’s elite troops, cozying up with friendly nations is likely the best way to cope with emerging extremist threats, U.S. Special Operations Command's Adm. William McRaven said on Tuesday.

This will mean strengthening our existing allied relationships and building new ones,” McRaven said, in testimony to present the Pentagon's fiscal 2015 budget request before the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee. “No nation alone can stem the rise of extremism. And we need our friends and allies more now than ever before.”

Alongside McRaven, Michael Lumpkin, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said, “We are moving from a state of perpetual war to perpetual engagement — engaging with partners to build their capacity, engaging problems before they become too big to fix and engaging in direct and indirect action to disrupt and destroy our enemies.”

Special operations forces are currently working in more than 70 countries. But as Syria and other hotspots continue to attract a growing number of foreign fighters, Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., ranking minority member of the subcommittee, said, “demand for these elite troops continues to far exceed supply, placing enormous strain on the readiness of the force.”

While the Defense Department seeks to cut costs in the coming years, including by reducting active duty troop totals for the Army and Marine Corps, special operations commanders plan to continue adding to their numbers. “We've been fortunate that we've doubled the size of the force from 33,000 [in 2001] now to coming up on 69,000. So there is available capacity out there,” McRaven said. That's less than the previously planned 72,000 troops, but more elite forces still are on the way at a price of more than $10 billion annually, compared to just $2.3 billion allocated for special operations in 2001, before the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. At the tail end of that war era, conventional forces are shrinking while special operations units are growing, to meet the global demand. McRaven warned Congress about what he called the “irreconcilable” extremists growing out of Somalia, Yemen, Syria and North Africa. “No amount of negotiations,” he said, “no amount of placation is going to put them in a position where they're prepared to support universal values as we know them.”

Lumpkin said that “left unchecked [and] left without the proper engagement and building the partnership capacity" — which is military speak for training foreign militaries — "…the problem is only going to get worse.” According to McRaven, much of the success of U.S. special operations forces hinges on the support of friendly partner nations. "The challenge is going to be whether or not the host nation wants to have a SOF footprint in their country," he said.

The great thing about special operations forces is we are a small footprint, we are low-cost, you can put a small Special Forces detachment in there or a SEAL platoon in there that I think gives you great return on your investment.”

By Ben Watson // Ben Watson is news editor for Defense One. He previously worked for NPR's “All Things Considered” and “Here and Now” in Washington, D.C. Watson served for five years in the U.S. Army, where he was an award-winning combat cameraman and media advisor for southern Afghanistan's special operations command during the 2010-11 surge.

March 11, 2014