Special Operations Best Weapon Against New Adversaries
Of course, granting increased autonomy should not mean giving SOCOM carte blanche
February 17, 2012
While much has been made of the Obama administration's call for a pivot to East Asia (read: refocus on China and North Korea after 10-plus years of war in Southwest and Central Asia), there are still threats and challenges, particularly of the transnational and amorphous variety, that wish harm upon U.S. and allied national security interests. The threats posed by actors such as al Qaeda and its associated movements, drug cartels, illicit arms dealers (especially chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons materials), and criminal gangs and organizations are different in terms of scope and capabilities from their historical kin. In some cases, the use of special operations forces will be the best instrument to handle these sorts of adversaries. In this vein, according to the New York Times, Adm. William H. McRaven, the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, has called for the increased autonomy to assist the geographic combatant commands in rapidly responding to such threats with the right capabilities. Granting such autonomy is justified, albeit with some reservations.
With the Iraq war concluded, the war in Afghanistan seemingly winding down, and the budgetary cutting knives at the ready, the U.S. military will be asked to do more with less in maintaining global security interests. Granting greater autonomy to SOCOM will allow it to better distribute a mixture of trained, experienced, and culturally attuned soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to work "by, with, and through" local allies or unilaterally in areas and in situations where larger formations of the military are oftentimes ill-suited. And such increased autonomy should provide increased flexibility to SOCOM to allow for a better work-around when geographic seams add untimely bureaucratic delays or hiccups to operations.
All of the above having been said, there are a few words of caution. First, it should be remembered that special operations forces are not a "magic bullet" capable of achieving any objective. Second, as the military theorist and retired Army Col. John M. Collins has argued, special operations forces need non-special operations support and cannot often go it alone. Last, granting increased autonomy to SOCOM does not mean giving it carte blanche. Strong oversight needs to take place, especially as the lines between intelligence collection and analysis increasingly merge with clandestine military activities.