As the man responsible for synchronizing the global war on terrorism, Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, laid out for congress his vision for the future of a force that continues to fray, but will be increasingly called upon around the globe.
“The greatest threat to the homeland is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula,” said McRaven, referring to the jihadi “franchise” group active in Yemen during his remarks to the House Armed Services Committee. McRaven flew from his MacDill Air Force Base headquarters in Tampa to present Socom’s annual “posture statement” — a report on the command’s present operations and future goals and needs — to the House Armed Services Committee.
As “core al-Qaida has been degraded significantly” after 13 years of war, McRaven told the committee that the jihadi group and its ideology has “metastasized” worldwide.
To counter that, commandos will remain at the tip of the spear, said McRaven. The budget plans unveiled Monday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, while cutting the overall level of military spending, will enable the command to continue its mission, McRaven said.
But even as he plans for the long-term future, McRaven still has to deal with the present, where his top objective is Afghanistan. He said the command, which is expected to take up a good deal of any missions there after the scheduled conclusion of combat operations at the end of the year, is planning for several options.
The White House is threatening to pull all of the remaining 33,600 troops out by Dec. 31 over frustration with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement giving legal protections to U.S. forces.
“We have good options,” said McRaven when asked how global counterterror efforts would be affected if there are no more commandos in Afghanistan. “But if we go to zero it will make things difficult, no question about that.”
McRaven’s comments in Washington came on the same day his Tampa headquarters was breaking ground on a new, $34.5 million campus for the Joint Special Operations University, a $12 million-a-year learning center that helps provide commanders “with the most educated [special operations forces] operators to support their objectives,” McRaven stated in his posture statement. Approved by congress before the latest budget, the 90,000 square foot building, expected to be completed next fall, further highlights the Pentagon’s commitment to special operations.
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In his posture statement, the third of his tenure, McRaven said that Socom’s budget, about $10 billion last year, was “not expected to reach levels projected in the five-year budget plan submitted by the President last year.”
On Monday, Hagel said that the number of commandos would increase from about 66,000 to 69,700. Those numbers reflect Congressional and Pentagon “intent to rebalance the Nation’s defense,” McRaven wrote in his posture statement, “despite current fiscal austerity and drawdown.”
During the two-hour committee meeting Thursday morning, McRaven repeated his call for working with other nations to build their ability to defend themselves, pointing to the successes in Colombia and the Philippines.
He said that despite reduced military spending, his Vision 2020 plan, hammered out before the latest budget and calling for a globally networked force of commandos, representatives from agencies like the CIA, NSA, FBI and DEA, allies and partners, is on track.
“I see it moving forward,” he said of the plan, which relies on host nations to signal their needs to the State Department.
McRaven said that after more than 12 years of constant deployment, the force “continues to fray.”
Since becoming Socom’s ninth commander in August, 2011, one of McRaven’s top priorities has been an effort called Preservation of the Force and Family, designed to take care of the mental, physical and spiritual needs of troops and their families before, during and after deployment.
Calling for constant, embedded presence of behavioral health staff, McRaven in his posture statement said that “we need these specialists more than ever because suicides continue to be a challenge. While the Department [of Defense] saw a marked decline in suicides this past year, the SOF community’s rate remained tragically steady.”
“I came into the military in 1977...most of the folks who raised me were Vietnam vets,” he told the committee, “We did not do a very good job of taking care of our veterans and we are not going to let that happen again with this generation.”
McRaven’s effort took a budget hit last year, with more than $20 million transferred to the Defense Health Program.
“I’m okay with that,” McRaven told the committee.
Socom, as with all large military headquarters, has been forced to reduce its staff after Hagel called for 20 percent cuts in those budgets last year. That would represent about 500 jobs leaving MacDill.
McRaven told the committee that he had already instituted a 20 percent staff cut at MacDill and is reviewing the latest guidelines.
“I’m perfectly OK with that,” he said. “Over the course of the last 10 years, we grew the staff to address problems dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan. We figured out how to do business better and some of the cuts make sense to me.”
In addition to those cuts, McRaven told the committee he had also transferred personnel from his MacDill headquarters to the seven Theater Special Operations Commands, which are responsible for carrying out commando operations on behalf of geographic combatant commanders like Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who runs MacDill-headquartered U.S. Central Command, overseeing U.S. military operations in most of the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
Special Operations Command Central, also headquartered at MacDill, is the largest of those, with a budget of about $40 million to $45 million, McRaven said.
Though Socom is not taking the same kind of hit as the services — the Army, for instance is going to be reduced from about 520,000 soldiers to about 450,000 — McRaven said those cuts will be felt by commandos.
Socom, he said, receives personnel from the services and, in battle zones, commandos rely heavily on general purpose forces for supplies, transportation and force protection among other requirements.
Overall defense cuts, he said, will “affect special operations globally,” he said.
And, as important as special operations forces are, McRaven warned that commandos should not be considered “a panacea.”
“Special Operations can’t stop North Koreans from coming south,” he said. “They can’t keep the Straight of Hormuz open.”
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“On any given day, our [special operations forces] are deployed in over 75 countries,” McRaven said in his 13-page posture statement.
Aside from laying out future threats from northern Africa to the Levant, where “the flow of foreign fighters into Syria is unprecedented, even compared to what we saw in Iraq,” the document spells out McRaven’s goals.
“Augmenting the capability of local forces equates to perhaps the most cost-effective way of deterring adversaries worldwide and protecting American citizens abroad,” he stated. Special operations forces are “uniquely suited for operations that win population-centric conflicts, oftentimes, and preferably, before they start.”
To meet his goals, McRaven said he will take advantage of the drawdown in Afghanistan by redistributing forces to other regions and making sure that troops cycling back to the U.S. are given training that will make them “true experts in terrain, languages, and cultures in their respective areas of responsibility.”
He also called for increased coordination with the interagencies.
“One of our most significant partners is the National Security Agency,” wrote McRaven of the organization under fire for its sweeping data collection. “We could not perform our counter-terrorism mission without the NSA - period!”