Last week, many of our nation’s retired and active special operations forces (SOF) leaders and operators paused to remember the ill-fated Operation Eagle Claw and the men who died in the Iranian desert 40 years ago. That failed hostage rescue mission was executed with outdated equipment, personnel that had not trained together, and disjointed chains of command. It was a major turning point in the history of US SOF.
Subsequently, Congress intervened to create U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and mandated the services support their unique parts of that command. It was a long and difficult climb from the deserts of Iran in 1980 to the mountains of Afghanistan in 2001, but it resulted in the evolution of the world’s most effective elite fighting force. Indeed, there have been a multitude of successful special operations missions since 2001, some with substantial international implications, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, the rout of ISIS from Iraq and its subsequent destruction in Syria. With the Nunn-Cohen bipartisan amendment to the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986, Congress created the foundation for the world’s premier special operations force. SOF have since served our national interests with fidelity, courage, and great sacrifice.
Unfortunately, the proposed Department of Defense FY21 budget is undermining 35 years of progress in order to “pay for” future capabilities the services want for use in a theorized “Great Power Conflict," as described in the 2018 National Security Strategy. The proposed SOCOM budget for FY21 is $13 billion. Though that is a significant number, it still represents less than 2 percent of the entire defense budget. Most importantly, however, is that it would result in a 5 percent reduction overall to SOCOM, and a 12% reduction in procurement power. If these proposed cuts persist, then not only will SOF’s performance in existing conflicts be put at risk, but critical special operations capabilities in future state-on-state conflicts will be seriously compromised.
This budget decrement is analogous to robbing the paper boy to pay the mortgage.
The theory supporting this proposed cut to SOCOM is that SOF has no role in Great Power Conflict. This idea cannot be farther from the truth. Russia and China are identified as the key potential rivals in the National Security Strategy. Both possess significant capabilities to compete against the U.S. asymmetrically before a conflict begins, as well as advanced capabilities to attack the U.S. and defend against our responses during a conflict. In both instances, SOF plays a critical role in both the competition and major combat operations phases.
First, let’s explore the competition phase. Currently, Russia is “all in” on hybrid warfare (or “irregular warfare” in the common U.S. lexicon). The U.S., with its European allies and partners, can and are pushing back hard against this Russian line of effort using SOF, interagency, and intergovernmental teams. China also prefers to operate in the gray zone. It intends to avoid conventional armed conflict, instead spreading its influence through proxies and partners. It will take extensive networks of people and innovative technologies, competencies, and tactics to counter Russian and Chinese activities during “Great Power Competition.” SOF is building those networks and capabilities now, working to defeat asymmetric threats, in addition to continuing the pressure on terrorist organizations globally.
Second, let’s delve into the conflict phase. Russia has impressive defensive capabilities that can keep NATO forces away from its territory. Its air defense systems can reach deep into NATO territory to hit Allied aircraft; its coastal defenses can reach into international waters to attack Allied ships. Long range precision weapons, built in violation of multiple existing arms control agreements, can also reach deep into NATO territory. SOF— both U.S. and its NATO partners — play a critical role in countering these Russian capabilities in the event of conflict in Europe. Additionally, both Russia and China have substantial holes in their territorial defense on the periphery, where SOF can present significant operational-level dilemmas that will detract from primary defenses.
Additionally, among China’s strategic shortcomings is the fact it cannot feed itself. It also cannot sustain a prolonged military campaign that requires high industrial output. Specifically, they have to import many of their raw materials from around the world and those supply lines are open to interdiction. SOF can play a critical role in a strategic denial campaign which will have substantially coercive effects.
As stated earlier, it was a long climb from Desert One to Afghanistan. During that long climb, SOF played a key role in carrying out the United States’ interests during the Cold War. They operated in the thresholds short of major conflict, although their key role was not as well-known, keeping true to the motto of the “quiet professionals.” But this history serves as an important reminder to leaders who will make decisions on the budget cuts for SOF. These past 19 years since 9/11 reaffirmed one of our SOF truths: SOF cannot be mass produced, nor can competent SOF be created after emergencies occur. It takes years to rebuild any capability that is taken away today. It took more than 19 years to build to the capability that exists today. SOF provides a tremendous capability for a mere 2 percent of investment, a capability that will cost this country much more to rebuild once it is taken away, and we realize that we desperately need it.
For these reasons, Congress must protect SOF programs that will prove critical in both Great Power Competition and Conflict. Failure to do so would be a return to the disastrous consequences of Operation Eagle Claw 40 years ago. We already know how that story ends.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas Trask is an adviser to the Global SOF Foundation and former vice commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Mark Clark is an adviser to the Global SOF Foundation and former chief of staff of U.S. Special Operations Command. Retired Army Col. Stuart Bradin is president and CEO of the Global SOF Foundation.
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