Tampa is headquarters for the commandos who are gaining a bigger role in military operations around the globe. Military writer Howard Altman travels with them this month in Afghanistan.
They make small footprints at the edges of the Earth.
Sometimes they hunt and kill. Sometimes they teach rural tribes how to govern and farm.
But after more than 12 years of war, special operations forces are frayed — and in more demand than ever. With the military facing big spending cuts and a new emphasis on places around the globe, U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, is working to adapt to new realities.
Where will they make footprints next?
“There has been a shift in strategy away from war to defensive tactics,” said Stuart Bradin, an Army colonel helping bring a new global special operations network to life.
“The primary pieces are a pivot to Asia while keeping a very strong eye and focus on the Middle East, as well. We are going to go out in small footprints and work with key partners to ensure that small regional issues don't become major theater operations. We can't afford that in blood or treasure.”
The new network has a name, “Global SOF Network,” and a theme, “you can't surge trust,” and it's the vision of Socom commander Adm. William McRaven.
His first military priority remains winning the fight in Afghanistan. For commandos, that likely will extend well past 2014, when President Barack Obama has ordered that combat troops leave that nation.
At the same time, though, commanders in other parts of the world have a “pent up demand” for special operations forces, according to the Pentagon.
They'll be working with the new network of operators in the field partnered with members of agencies like the CIA, FBI and DEA and State Department personnel, as well as their as counterparts from other nations.
The goal is to prevent conflicts before they start and to keep U.S. troops off the battlefield by teaching others how to provide for their own defense, McRaven said.
With less money to spend, and a nation weary of war, the Pentagon wants the military of the future to be “agile, flexible, ready,” according to its planning documents. It will be leaner and rapidly deployable, the documents say, as well as persistent and possessed of operational reach.
These are precisely the qualities of special operations forces, which can fan out quickly across the globe, usually in small numbers, usually working with other militaries and governments to provide training and guidance, McRaven said.
But when it's necessary, no one delivers a lethal response like special operators — Navy SEALs and Special Warfare Combat Crews, Army Green Berets, Rangers and aviators, Air Force pilots, pararescue jumpers and combat controllers and Marine commandos.
As Socom commander, McRaven has no direct authority over where these forces are sent or what they do in the field. But he does control the doctrine by which they operate.
Col. Bradin, in his last year of service after a career that began in 1984, is leading a team of more than 100 men and women as chief of the Operational Planning Team with the new Global SOF, for special operations forces.
His mission is to meld McRaven's vision with a framework established by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that calls for increased use of special operations skills.
Bradin's team has been working since April 2012 and has until August to present its plan to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The end result, Bradin said, is a plan that allocates special operations resources in a synchronized way to the six U.S. commands that control troops around the world.
Socom has about 66,000 uniformed personnel and civilians. About 18,000 are the uniformed operators who go out on missions. About 9,500 operators and unit support personnel are deployed at any one time.
They are in more than 70 countries at any given time with about 6,500 now in Afghanistan — a focus of U.S. military effort since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were traced to Osama Bin Laden and that nation's isolated mountainous regions.
Socom officials say it is too early to know how many will remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
There are too many unknown factors, including a status of forces agreement between the United States and Afghanistan — required for any military personnel to remain there. No such agreement was reached in Iraq, so nearly all troops departed.
Bradin's team is working to find out what special operations leaders in six geographic commands around the globe need, and then distribute special operations forces accordingly.
Those commanders lead what is called a Theater Special Operations Command. They have been asked to list their top three priorities.
They actually control the special operations forces in each of their regions, but their orders come from a higher headquarters, called Geographic Combatant Commands.
One of those six regions is under control of U.S. Central Command, also based at MacDill and responsible for military actions in much of the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Another MacDill command, U.S. Special Operations Command Central, controls special operations missions in most of the Centcom region.
One challenge Bradin's team faces is a need that is great but a complement of operators that is, by design, small. It won't grow much larger, either, because commando training is intense. “Special Operations Forces Cannot Be Mass produced” is one of Socom's guiding principals.
The new network provides a clarity Bradin welcomes.
“At the end of the day, this allows us to illuminate all our operational requirements, which is huge,” Bradin said. “I don't know of anyone else in the Department of Defense that can do that.”
Bradin's team is also addressing what kinds of missions operators should perform, once they get orders from headquarters in coordination with State Department country teams.
McRaven has described as a small part of the special operations portfolio those direct-action missions like the successful assault he planned on Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.
Indirect actions, like training foreign militaries and working with leaders at the village and tribal level, make up a larger percentage of what operators do, he said.
A key element of the new network is longer deployments to specific areas. That will increase their language skills and cultural knowledge, Bradin said, making it easier to influence and interact with foreign military and civilian leaders.
“It's all about relationships,” Bradin said. “The reality is it takes six months in a lot of these place for them to even let you in. A friend of mine was in Afghanistan and it took him 11 months to get the tribal elders to meet on a consistent basis.”
The same rationale applies to working with the State Department and other agencies, Bradin said.
“People will do a lot of things for friends,” he said, echoing McRaven's motto that you can't surge trust — a reference to the wave of additional troops sent into battle in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “They are willing to accept personal and professional risk for friendship.”
McRaven is a student of popular culture who bristles at the popular image of commandos fostered by films like “Zero Dark 30.” Every so often, he will include a clip from the animated action satire “Team America” in his public briefings.
Given his vision, McRaven might consider clips from another movie: “Back to the Future.”
A program special operators run in Afghanistan, for instance, where they work in villages training locals as police, is a modern version of what Green Berets did in Vietnam.
This program can work around the globe, Bradin said.
Scott Mann, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, agrees.
Mann, who left the service last year and lives in Riverview, was an architect of the Village Stability Operations program in Afghanistan and now runs the Stability Institute. The civilian-led organization does what Mann did during his military career — training and advising on stability issues and foreign internal defense.
Creating stability, said Mann, helps stave off violent extremism. In rural countries like Afghanistan with little central control, that means working with village and tribal leaders, he said.
“Where the future is for Afghanistan and other countries, is to start knowing what it was in the first place that worked before creating other stuff,” Mann said. “This is nothing more than a revitalization of traditional systems in rural areas, to get them security, development and governance.
“Al-Qaida is going to undergoverned countries,” said Mann. “They are exploiting these rural areas for strategic safe havens.”
A top-down, big military footprint approach has failed in the past, Mann said. He advocates for the small footprint approach that special operations forces provide best.
“You are never going to stabilize the rural areas from the top down. We tried that for decade. You have to go in at the local level and work with the community to help them reestablish their resiliencies.”