President Obama’s infatuation with Special Operations Forces–he is more enamored of them than any president since John F. Kennedy– continues this week with the release of the new Pentagon budget. While the military as a whole is sustaining punishing cuts of nearly $500 billion, and the ground forces in particular are losing more than 100,000 soldiers and Marines, the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is slated to get more money and personnel. Not only that, but SOCOM’s commander, Admiral William McRaven, a hard-charging SEAL who oversaw the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, is pushing for SOCOM to be granted additional authority to move its forces around the world without going through normal Pentagon channels.
No doubt the level of infatuation with the Special Operators will only increase after the Feb. 24 release of “Act of Valor,” a movie showing actual Navy SEALs in fictional scenarios.
I join President Obama, and indeed all Americans, in expressing admiration and gratitude for the skills, dedication and heroism of our Special Operators–especially those on the pointy end of the spear. (In SOCOM, as in the rest of the military, most personnel are in support functions and are not actual trigger-pullers.) But I would also urge caution about relying too much on these warriors and granting them too much authority to run their own operations free of oversight.
In the first place, as retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno and Travis Sharp of the Center for a New American Security, point out, two of the essential “SOF truths” are ”quality is better than quantity” and the special operations forces “cannot be mass-produced.” Already SOCOM has experienced explosive growth since 2001. As Barno and Sharp note, “Its manpower has nearly doubled, its budget has nearly tripled, and its overseas deployments have quadrupled.” How much larger can SOCOM possibly get without compromising its high quality? In fact, the past decade’s expansion has already raised painful questions about whether incoming troopers are up to the standards of their predecessors, especially when it comes to the non-kinetic skills, such as knowledge of languages and cultures. These are a hallmark of the Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, who comprise the single biggest group of “operators” within the Special Operations community even if their work is not as glamorous as that of the SEALS or Delta Force, which are sent after the highest value targets.
Moreover, for all of SOCOM’s impressive achievement in hunting down terrorists, there is another essential truth to be kept in mind regarding any counterinsurgency campaign: We cannot kill our way to victory. If they are left alone in ungoverned territory, terrorist groups are likely to regenerate themselves no matter how many top leaders they lose. To succeed in the Global War on Terror–that now-forbidden term–we must engage not only in manhunting but in nation-building–another verboten term. Otherwise, we will not be able to change the conditions that allow terrorist groups to flourish.
Unfortunately, Special Operations Forces, while very good at manhunting, are less useful for nation-building. That is especially true of the top-tierdoor-kickers, such as the SEALs, who get so much publicity. Bolstering weak states may be a job for Green Berets, but it is also a job for conventional military forces, albeit in small numbers, for example, on training teams. It is, in addition, a job for diplomats, intelligence operatives, information warriors, and development officials. Alas, we are much weaker in all those skill sets than we are at kinetic Special Operations, and indeed it is possible in some instances SOCOM’s propensity to target individuals may actually further destabilize a country and prove counterproductive in the end.
The use of force needs to be managed carefully and should not be freed from the normal oversight mechanisms of the Pentagon. Nor should we be growing SOCOM while eviscerating the conventional forces and failing to bolster our ability to project soft power. We need a more balanced approach to the security challenges of the 21st century; one that does not place excessive or exclusive reliance on an already-overstretched Special Operations community.