Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran (in
which eight U.S. service members died), U.S. Special Operations Command
was established in 1987. Made up of units from all the service
branches, SOCOM is tasked with carrying out Washington’s most
specialized and secret missions, including assassinations,
counter-terrorist raids, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare,
psychological operations, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass
destruction counter-proliferation operations.
In the post-9/11 era, the command has grown steadily. With about 33,000 personnel in 2001, it is reportedly on
track to reach 72,000 in 2014. (About half this number are called, in
the jargon of the trade, “badged operators” — SEALs, Rangers, Special
Operations Aviators, Green Berets — while the rest are support
personnel.) Funding for the command has also jumped exponentially as
SOCOM’s baseline budget tripled from $2.3 billion to $6.9 billion
between 2001 and 2013. If you add in supplemental funding, it had
actually more than quadrupled to $10.4 billion.
Not surprisingly, personnel deployments abroad skyrocketed from 4,900
“man-years” — as the command puts it — in 2001 to 11,500 in 2013.
About 11,000 special operators are now working abroad at any one time and on any given day they are in 70 to 80 countries, though the New York Timesreported that, according to statistics provided to them by SOCOM, during one week in March 2013 that number reached 92.
Last year, Admiral McRaven, who previously headed the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC –
a clandestine sub-command that specializes in tracking and killing
suspected terrorists — touted his vision for special ops globalization.
In a statement to the House Armed Services Committee, he said: “USSOCOM
is enhancing its global network of SOF to support our interagency and
international partners in order to gain expanded situational awareness
of emerging threats and opportunities. The network enables small,
persistent presence in critical locations, and facilitates engagement
where necessary or appropriate…”
In translation this means that SOCOM is weaving a complex web of
alliances with government agencies at home and militaries abroad to
ensure that it’s at the center of every conceivable global hotspot and
power center. In fact, Special Operations Command has turned the planet
into a giant battlefield, divided into many discrete fronts: the
self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; the sub-unified command of U.S. Central
Command in the Middle East SOCCENT; the European contingent SOCEUR;
SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the
rest of the Asia-Pacific region; and SOCSOUTH, which conducts special
ops missions in Central and South America and the Caribbean, as well as
the globe-trotting JSOC.
Since 2002, SOCOM has also been
authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces, a prerogative normally
limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM. These include Joint
Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, 500-600 personnel dedicated
to supporting counter-terrorist operations by Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Abu Sayyaf.
SOCOM’s reach and global ambitions go further still. TomDispatch’s
analysis of McRaven’s first two full years in command reveals a
tremendous number of overseas operations. In places like Somalia and Libya, elite troops have carried out clandestine commando raids. In others, they have used airpower to hunt, target, and kill suspected militants. Elsewhere, they have waged an information war using online propaganda.
And almost everywhere they have been at work building up and forging
ever-tighter ties with foreign militaries through training missions and
“A lot of what we will do as we go forward in this force is build partner capacity,” McRaven said at
the Ronald Reagan Library in November, noting that NATO partners as
well as allies in the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America “are
absolutely essential to how we’re doing business.”
In March 2013, for example, Navy SEALs conducted joint training exercises with
Indonesian frogmen. In April and May, U.S. Special Operations
personnel joined members of the Malawi Defense Forces for Exercise Epic
Guardian. Over three weeks, 1,000 troops engaged in marksmanship, small
unit tactics, close quarters combat training, and other activities
across three countries — Djibouti, Malawi, and the Seychelles.
In May, American special operators took part in
Spring Storm, the Estonian military’s largest annual training
exercise. That same month, members of the Peruvian and U.S. special
operations forces engaged in joint training missions aimed at trading
tactics and improving their ability to conduct joint operations. In
July, Green Berets from the Army’s 20th Special Forces Group spent
several weeks in Trinidad and Tobago working with members of that tiny
nation’s Special Naval Unit and Special Forces Operation Detachment.
That Joint Combined Exchange Training exercise, conducted as part of
SOCSOUTH’s Theater Security Cooperation program, saw the Americans and
their local counterparts take part in pistol and rifle instruction and
small unit tactical exercises.
In September, according to
media reports, U.S. Special Operations forces joined elite troops from
the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations member countries —
Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei,
Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia — as well as their
counterparts from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, China,
India, and Russia for a US-Indonesian joint-funded counterterrorism
exercise held at a training center in Sentul, West Java.
Tactical training was, however, just part of the story. In March
2013, for example, experts from the Army’s John F. Kennedy Special
Warfare Center and School hosted a week-long working group with top
planners from the Centro de Adiestramiento de las Fuerzas Especiales —
Mexico’s Special Warfare Center — to aid them in developing their own
special forces doctrine.
In October, members of the Norwegian
Special Operations Forces traveled to SOCOM’s state-of-the-art Wargame
Center at its headquarters on MacDill Air Force Base in Florida to
refine crisis response procedures for hostage rescue operations.
“NORSOF and Norwegian civilian leadership regularly participate in
national field training exercises focused on a scenario like this,” said
Norwegian Lieutenant Colonel Petter Hellesen. “What was unique about
this exercise was that we were able to gather so many of the Norwegian
senior leadership and action officers, civilian and military, in one
room with their U.S counterparts.”
MacDill is, in fact, fast becoming a worldwide special ops hub, according to a report by the Tampa Tribune.
This past fall, SOCOM quietly started up an International Special
Operations Forces Coordination Center that provides long-term
residencies for senior-level black ops liaisons from around the world.
Already, representatives from 10 nations had joined the command with
around 24 more slated to come on board in the next 12-18 months, per
McRaven’s global vision.