Special Operations: Inventing A New Future

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July 2, 2021: For over a decade U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has been reorganizing and planning for operations focused more on the Chinese threat in the Pacific as well as new challenges in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Currently SOCOM has about 70,000 personnel, including reserve units that were often put on active duty after 2002. The largest component is from the U.S. Army, which furnishes about 47 percent of SOCOM personnel, including the Special Forces, the Ranger Regiment and SOAR (160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment) which operates most of the specialized, all-weather helicopters. Finally, there is an army Civil Affairs Brigade plus several battalion size psychological warfare units.

The U.S. Airforce component AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command) which contributes about 30 percent of SOCOM personnel. AFSOC handles specialized fixed-wing aircraft and crews who can operate non-AFSOC transports for SOCOM missions. AFSOC also provides ground controllers, combat air rescue helicopters and personnel. There are also AFSOC combat aviation advisers who work with allied nations where SOCOM is active in dealing with airbase security and foreign military aviation working with SOCOM.

The U.S. Navy provides 14 percent of SOCOM personnel in the NSWS (Naval Special Warfare Command) that consists of eight SEAL (SEa, Air, and Land) teams of amphibious commandos plus the specialists who operate the special boats that get SEALs ashore from surface ships or submarines.

The U.S. Marine Corps contributes MARSOC (Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command) which is about four percent of SOCOM personnel. The marines provide the Marine Raider Regiment and a support battalion. Think of Raiders as amphibious Rangers. The Raider battalions can operate independently or to reinforce SEAL or other SOCOM operations.

The remaining five percent of SOCOM personnel are SOCOM headquarters and support personnel that handle coordinating SOCOM operations, especially those that involve operations in one of the non-SOCOM theater commands that divide up the entire planet into separate commands that control all American military operations in a certain geographic area. CENTCOM, for example, covers most of the Middle east. Then there is JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) which was formed in 1980, six years before SOCOM, to coordinate operations involving two or more services. JSOC was useful and led to the formation of SOCOM in 1986 and became part of SOCOM. JSOC became very active after 2001 coordinating SOCOM operations during major campaigns aimed at degrading major Islamic terrorist campaigns.

What SOCOM headquarters personnel are currently working on is coordinating the acquisition of new weapons, equipment and training for all SOCOM components. This is something SOCOM staff have always had a major role in but the new tech needed for the current reorganization is more extensive than any equipment upgrade in the past. SOCOM has always had more freedom to select, buy and use new tech before any of the other services could. This is especially important for non-SOCOM army and marine ground troops, who depend on SOCOM to select and verify that new tech is suitable for combat use. Getting budget approval from Congress for new weapons and equipment is much easier for the army and marines if they can refer to SOCOM forces already using this gear successfully. Part of the new reorganization concentrates on obtaining more effective versions of new equipment SOCOM has pioneered for years; like lightweight loitering munitions, small UAVs and special communications gear. SOCOM is seeking better equipment to handle EW (Electronic Warfare) problems like jamming and interfering with GPS signals and space-based communications. Any other useful new tech is examined and often purchased in small quantities for testing.

The oldest SOCOM element is the U.S. Army Special Forces and any SOCOM reorganization has to start there. The Special Forces reorg has been underway for over a decade and one of the more visible moves has been the Special Forces redeploying for a post War on Terror world. A major part of that was returning the 3rd Special Forces Group to Africa where, before 2001, it had long specialized in. But after 2002 the 3rd found itself spending most of its time in Afghanistan and after 2006 was hardly in Africa at all. This shift back to Africa is already underway and by 2016 the 3rd will again be specializing in Africa. The 3rd Group had specialized in Africa from its formation in 1990.

What is happening to the 3rd Group is part of changes that began in 2009 when the Special Forces began to plan “post war” changes to what had evolved since September 11, 2001. The post 2001 changes happened because there are only seven Special Forces Groups altogether, and, with the personnel shortages, only about 7,000 "operators" were available in 2001. After 2001 it was decided to assign most of these troops, the best counter-terrorism operators America had, against Islamic radicals threatening the United States. Several thousand Special Forces troops were initially held back for possible use in Korea, South America or Africa. That eventually changed.

Each of the five active-duty Special Forces groups has three battalions (about 1,400 troops altogether). In 2001, the 5th Group (responsible for the Middle East) was keeping two battalions overseas and one back in the states for rest and training. On top of the heavy workload, the 5th Group was also about twenty percent under strength. The two reserve groups usually have fewer personnel, usually former or retired operators from all five of the active-duty groups as well as the Rangers and other services.

Each of the five Special Forces Groups long specialized in one region of the world, and the 5th had responsibility for the Middle East and Afghanistan. The other four Groups began helping the 5th, even though they don't have the language and cultural awareness talents of the 5th Group. That said, the Russian speakers of the 10th Group (specializing in Europe) found lots of people in Afghanistan and Iraq who spoke Russian. The two National Guard Groups (the 19th and 20th), have also been called up, as these groups are full of Special Forces veterans who retired or got out to get away from the frequent overseas duty. These men had experience and skills, although they soon found themselves spending a lot more time overseas than the average reservists. Some Special Forces operators have spent 70 percent of their time overseas since September 11, 2001, and the average is close to fifty percent.

The 1st Special Forces Group specializes in East Asia and the Pacific (Southeast Asia, Korea, China and the Pacific in general). The 3rd Special Forces Group specializes in the Caribbean and West Africa. The 7th Special Forces Group specializes in Latin America.

By 2006 the 3rd and 7th Groups were taking care of Afghanistan, swapping places regularly between home and Afghanistan. By 2009 the 3rd Group had Afghanistan to itself, with one or two battalions from the 7th Group as needed. In effect, the 3rd Group was responsible for Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The 3rd Group still maintained a battalion for use in its original area (the Caribbean and West Africa). The 7th Group also kept a battalion in its original area (Latin America). The 10th Group also devoted some of its troops to Africa (for the newly formed AFRICOM). After 2009 the 5th Group concentrated on the western half (Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt) of its original area of operations.

Special Forces has always been the largest component of SOCOM, but the U.S. Army Special Forces account for only eight percent of all army personnel. The majority of SOCOM personnel are providing support for the 13,000 operators (Special Forces, SEALs, commandos, Rangers and a few others who regularly operate under hostile conditions) who are constantly overseas chasing down terrorists.

SOCOM is who you call when you absolutely, positively have to get something done. But when it comes to dividing up the military budget, SOCOM is not nearly as effective in lobbying for an adequate share of the defense budget. This can cause problems, which will show up when it's too late to just apply money to quickly solve it. For the moment SOCOM gets whatever it wants but SOCOM commanders know that is changing and are seeking to adapt. To do this SOCOM is seeking to develop the most effective forms of combat with all the new tech available or about to be. One thing SOCOM is certain of is this will need SOCOM operators to become even more familiar with tech. This is no problem because new tech has always been an attraction for qualified new recruits. Now the non-SOCOM combat forces have to prepare to cope with whatever future the operators come up with. That is the way.

 


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