Socom’s biggest job is training others, chief says
The man who planned the raid that killed Osama bin Laden told an audience of defense industry leaders Tuesday that if they wanted to know the full picture of how special operations forces work, they shouldn’t pay attention to movies like “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“That counterterrorism piece, we do better than anybody in the world,” Adm. William McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, told the packed ballroom at the Tampa Convention Center. “We take care of bad guys and rescue good guys better than anyone else in the world, but that is a small part of our portfolio.”
Unlike the “direct action” raid on bin Laden that he planned while head of the Joint Special Operations Command, McRaven said the bigger job for commandos is working with allies to “have them take care of the problems so we don’t have to do counterterrorism and they can take care of their own security problems.”
McRaven was the keynote speaker during the first day of the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference.
After more than 12 years of war, reduced defense spending, the looming drawdown of combat forces in Afghanistan and the promise of increased reliance on special operations forces, teaching foreign residents and militaries to help themselves “is the value of U.S. Special Operations Forces past, present and certainly as we go forward in the future,” McRaven said.
Under the military’s guiding principle laid out under former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, special operations forces were set to play a key role in projecting U.S. military influence. That plan was delivered in January 2012, more than a year before the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration kicked in.
But McRaven said that even if the budget cuts change the Defense Department’s vision, Socom will continue to play a key role.
“There will still be a place for a force that is small, light, agile, networked and partnered,” he said.
In laying out his vision for the future — “Socom 2020” was the title of his speech — McRaven said the first step is to “win the current fight.”
“Every commander in my position has to take care of the first problem,” he said. “For us it is Afghanistan. We are making great strides.”
McRaven said he has consolidated several commands there, bringing together NATO special operations forces, U.S. commandos such as Green Berets and SEALs who are building up Afghan local police, and the troops “who capture and kill bad guys.”
But on any given night, commandos are in more than 70 countries around the globe. Using a video dramatization of world affairs, with red lines bouncing from one hotspot to another, McRaven said the “bad guys” are “interconnected.”
McRaven said that one way to better improve the special operations forces network was a plan to streamline control of the smaller commands that oversee special operations forces.
Socom does not have operational control over any forces; all decisions on the use of commandos, McRaven emphasized, are made by geographic combatant commands such as U.S. Central Command and the U.S. ambassador for a given country.
The plan, pushed for by McRaven and approved a few months ago, places the six geographic special operations commands under direct control of Socom.
Previously, those commands, called Theater Special Operations Commands, were under the control of commands such as Centcom. But those commands are concerned with all military operations in specific areas of the world, not just special operations.
Centcom, for instance, is responsible for military operations in much of the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Adding to the complexity in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force is in charge of military operations there.
Under the new plan, geographic combatant commands still call the shots when it comes to what happens on the battlefield, but Socom will have control over coordination, allowing greater focus and cooperation on global special operations issues.
The geographic special operations command for the Centcom region is called Special Operations Command Central, and like Socom and Centcom, is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.