Three years ago, Adm. William McRaven, the new commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, stood in a hangar at MacDill Air Force Base and delivered his vision for the future to 3,000 workers at the commando headquarters.
Support current combat operations. Strengthen the global special operations forces network. Take care of the health and well-being of those who fight and their families. And ensure that endeavors and acquisitions are quickly and responsibly funded.
Through those objectives, McRaven helped transform how commandos operate, interact and are cared for.
There are now 69,000 active duty, National Guard and Reserve service members and civilians working for Socom, which has a budget of $9.2 billion. During McRaven’s tenure, commandos have operated in a total 156 countries, spokesman Ken McGraw said, performing high-octane kill-and-capture raids, hostage-rescue attempts like the one in Syria, advising Iraq’s military in its fight against Sunni extremists and more subtle missions working with foreign partners to build up their own forces.
McRaven’s tenure came at a critical time. The White House and Pentagon have called for increased use of special operations capabilities. At the same time budget realities have led to the flattening in growth of the number of commandos and a reduction to the services that provide much of the support in the field. But as current events show, commandos will always remain at the tip of the spear.
In a ceremony at the Tampa Convention Center Thursday afternoon, McRaven, 58, will hand over command of Socom to Army Gen. Joe Votel, 56, a Ranger who ran the Joint Special Operations Command.
During his time at Socom, McRaven, who declined comment, was able to accomplish most of his goals, with some notable exceptions.
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“The two things with Adm. McRaven are empowerment and trust,” says retired Army Col. Jim O’Brien. “It came into really sharp focus working for a guy like McRaven. He would empower you and trust you.”
O’Brien, a longtime Ranger officer, was one of four men McRaven selected to move his initiatives forward and run operational planning teams. O’Brien was chosen to run the Afghanistan team. The mission was to bring three different special ops commands in Afghanistan into one umbrella organization.
The end result was the creation of a unified special operations headquarters in Afghanistan, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan. Launched in March 2013, it was the first division-level headquarters bringing together all U.S. and NATO special operations forces and assets in Afghanistan.
The new task force “is far more effective than the sum of its parts,” according to the citation for the Joint Meritorious Unit Award recently given to Socom. “Unprecedented in its inception,” the task force has “greatly contributed to the accomplishment of national goals and NATO objectives.”
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Though the bulk of special operations forces have been amassed in Afghanistan, there are an average 9,500 commandos deployed across 90 countries on any given week, says McGraw.
McRaven put Army Col. Stu Bradin, who had started up the NATO Special Operations Forces (SOF) headquarters in Europe, in charge of the Global SOF Network team with the goal of figuring out a better way to synchronize efforts worldwide.
“You will hear me talk about ‘taking Socom global,’” McRaven said in a Sept. 14, 2011 memo. “It also means having the authorities to move forces globally in order to resolve problems” that the President, Secretary of Defense or regional commanders — like Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, “need resolved.”
The mission of Bradin’s team was to transform how Socom related to commandos in the field, with other U.S. government agencies and with foreign allies.
Socom has no control over what commandos do, how they are trained, equipped and doled out to the regional commands. Each regional command has a subordinate command called Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs), which provide command and control of special operators in the region, based on the wishes of the regional commanders. Special Operations Command Central, also headquartered at MacDill, is one of those subordinate commands.
One of McRaven’s key goals was to have direct control over the TSOCs, which acted independently of each other, so that he could coordinate their efforts and adjust commando levels according the needs communicated to him by the regional commanders.
Bradin’s team worked with Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, and the other five regional four-star commanders, as well as the service chiefs, to help craft that change. But as word leaked out, there were concerns about what McRaven was trying to create.
“I worry about speed making it too easy to take the easy answer — let’s go whack them with special operations — as opposed to perhaps a more laborious answer for perhaps a better long-term solution,” a former Joint Chiefs chairman, retired Gen. Peter Pace, said in an Associated Press piece from May 2012.
In nearly every public appearance, McRaven repeatedly stresses that everything he does is at the behest of the combatant commanders, the Pentagon and the State Department.
In February 2013, after unanimous approval by military leaders, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta approved giving combatant command authority of the TSOCs to Socom.
The move, which will take several years to fully implement, is “McRaven’s main legacy,” says Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at RAND.
With the authority granted to Socom, TSOCs would be “capable of doing what military doctrine says they should do, which is be in charge of planning and conducting special operations in a given theater,” she said. “I can’t emphasize enough how important that is.”
Others worry that having authority over the TSOCs will give the command too much power. “What you are doing by pulling that away from combatant commanders is that you are putting (commandos) in their own silo,” says Matthew Hoh, a former State Department official who resigned in protest in 2009 over the direction of military operations in Afghanistan.
The Global SOF Network team also succeeded in creating an International Special Operations Coordination Center at Socom’s MacDill headquarters, bringing representatives from 10 nations inside the command and allowing them to communicate over a secure system. Now called the J3-I, the move helps integrate foreign special operations forces into McRaven’s vision for a global special operations force that ensures small regional issues don’t become major theater operations the U.S. can’t afford in blood or treasure. More nations are expected to join in.
There were setbacks as well. McRaven wanted centers to coordinate efforts nationally and globally. He wanted a Washington D.C. headquarters, called the National Capital Region, to bring together Socom staff working in Washington D.C. under one roof. And he wanted Regional Special Operations Forces Coordination Centers, that would coordinate efforts between various military, intelligence and law enforcement organizations in specific spots around the globe. In July, 2012, the Colombians expressed interest in a center in Bogota, said a report compiled by the group run by Bradin, who since retired and founded the non-profit Global SOF Foundation. Bradin’s team and Special Operations Command South supported the effort. But Congress refused to fund any Regional Special Operations Coordinations Centers, calling for further study of the plan. Congress also declined funding for the National Regional Center, which it said was not cost-effective and potentially duplicated other Socom efforts.
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Back in May 2012, Carl Tiska, a Navy SEAL captain now serving as an instructor at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, coordinated then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tampa to deliver the keynote speaker at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference dinner, a seminal moment in State Department/Socom relations.
The day after the speech, Tiska set off on McRaven’s most important non-combat mission: a wide-ranging effort to take care of commandos and their families, after years of constant deployment to warzones.
McRaven often said the force was “fraying” and later that suicides were on the rise. He wanted a plan that would ensure commandos and their families would have their mental, physical and spiritual health care remain resilient.
With his program a command priority, Tiska and his team worked across the services, experiencing occasional roadblocks, but eventually came up with a plan that became a contract — worth upwards of a half billion dollars — awarded to Booz Allen Hamilton in January 2013. It called for a wide range of mental and physical health professionals to work with commandos and their families.
But soon after it was announced, Congress, concerned with the cost and duplication of effort with the services, began pushing back. The most recent budget plan — passed by the House but awaiting Senate approval that may not come this year — calls for trimming that effort by more than $20 million.
“This initiative ... has been the most important undertaking during my time in command,” McRaven said in his application for the chancellor post at the University of Texas System, obtained by the Houston Chronicle. “I have said repeatedly that if my soldiers and their families do not have the strength and resiliency to keep going, no amount of high-tech equipment or training is going to keep us as a world class special operations force.”
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The command Votel takes over is more agile and globally networked than ever, with better resources for warfighters and their families.
But the tremendous growth the command has since 9/11 is over. What started with 45,600 people will peak next year at 69,700, says McGraw.
As McRaven prepares for the next phase of his life, it is now up to Votel to plan for the next step in Afghanistan and figure out how to run a command that will continue to be a key component of U.S. power projection, while faced with increased budget pressures and Congressional oversight in a dangerous and uncertain world.