Special Operations: SOCOM Copes With Growth


May 12, 2015: Since 2001 U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has expanded enormously. Personnel more than doubled from 32,000 to 70,000 while the annual budget went from $2.2 billion to $10 billion. SOCOM controls the U.S. Army Special Forces, as well as U.S. Navy SEALs and U.S. Air Force special operations aircraft. SOCOM expanded mainly because its personnel and equipment were the most effective at dealing with Islamic terrorists. This was not, as popular myth would have it, because of the SOCOM commandos, but more because SOCOM, specifically U.S. Army Special Forces, had thousands of personnel who spoke the languages and understood the cultures that the Islamic terrorists came from. This provided greater understanding of the enemy, which tended to make the news mainly when that resulted in a spectacular commando raid (like the one that cornered and killed Osama bin Laden). But it was intelligence collection and analysis skills that made all those raids possible. As a result SOCOM found itself working more closely and more frequently with the CIA and foreign counterparts.

In 2009 this reached the point where the U.S. Army Special Forces and the CIA sought permission from Congress to allow the two organizations to officially merge some of their operations, and share personnel. That effort was only partially successful. This is a process that started both during World War II and quietly continued ever since. The CIA had long requested Special Forces operators to work directly for them, a custom that went back to the early days (1950s ) of the Special Forces. But SOCOM increasingly found that they could compete with the CIA in producing quality intelligence. As a result by 2009 the Department of Defense officially allowed Special Forces troops to be trained for plain clothes, or uniformed, espionage work in foreign counties. The Special Forces have unofficially been doing this sort of thing for decades, sometimes at the request of the CIA. In 1986, the Special Forces even established an "intelligence operations" school to train a small number of Special Forces troops in the tradecraft of running espionage operations in a foreign country. In practical terms, this means recruiting locals to provide information and supervising these spies, agents and informants.

By law, the CIA controls all overseas espionage operations. But the CIA and Special Forces were both founded by men who had served with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during World War II and the relationship continued after the OSS veterans retired from their CIA and Special Forces careers. Meanwhile the army wants to more aggressively use Special Forces troops for espionage so that the "battlefield can be prepared" more quickly. This is seen as necessary in order to effectively run down fast moving terrorist organizations. Until 2001 the Special Forces depended on the CIA to do the espionage work in advance of Special Forces A-Teams arriving. After 2001 that began to change. That meant that some Special Forces troops were often there, along with CIA personnel, doing the advance work of finding who exactly who is who, what is where and, in particular, who can be depended on to help American efforts. The CIA never made a big stink about this Department of Defense effort, if only because the CIA was always short of people qualified for the works and after 2001 began to aggressively recruit people for anti-terrorism operations. Besides, a prime source of new CIA agents has long been former, or retired, Special Forces operators. With the new espionage training Special Forces troops are getting, the CIA will be able to hire these guys later and put them to work without having to train them in a lot of espionage techniques.

In 1998, the CIA revived an organizational name they originally created in the early 1960s; the Special Operations Group. The original SOG (which eventually had its name changed to "Studies and Observation Group" for security reasons) used CIA personnel, Special Forces troops and local tribesmen to run intelligence patrols into Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam during the early days of the Vietnam war. Actually, the CIA was doing this since the late 1950s. But once SOG was set up, the CIA handed it over to the Special Forces, but continued to run their own SOG missions in other parts of the world until bad publicity and Congressional hostility, pretty much brought the organization to a halt in 1990.

So, as the Cold War ended, the CIA was getting out of the daredevil field work business. The new (1998) SOG was created to do what the original SOG did, go into hostile territory and get the information any way they can, and do something with it. The new SOG has only a few hundred agents. Most of them are former military, with preference given to Special Forces, SEALs, Air Force paracommandos and marines with interesting service records. Some of the SOGs are retired military, with at least twenty years of experience. The minimum requirement is five years military experience. The starting pay was about $50,000 a year and you have to get through a one year training course first.

But while the CIA was recruiting military people for field operations, the Department of Defense was setting up its own espionage service that duplicated a lot of what the CIA does. Part of this is driven by dissatisfaction with the inability of the CIA to provide the military with timely intelligence. These lapses have frequently come to light after the fact, and the generals have not forgotten. When SOCOM was set up in the 1980s, a major capability it acquired was the thousands of Special Forces troops who spent several months a year overseas working with foreign armies. This was always seen as an excellent way to collect quality intelligence, and even the CIA depended on the Special Forces reports to keep current. This was one reason the CIA revived its SOG. While this growing duplication seems inefficient, it also provides competition. If the president doesn't like what he's getting from the CIA, he can ask SOCOM to take a look. This keeps everyone on their toes. Competition in the shadows, so to speak. The new law, if passed, would simply formally recognize a lot of the cooperation that has been going on for over half a century.

The Special Forces always had an advantage in this field intelligence work because Special Forces operators spend a lot of time overseas training and advising, not fighting. In 2014 SOCOM (mainly using Special Forces troops) had training and advising activities going on in 81 nations. Those countries were glad to receive this assistance as it helped the locals better deal with Islamic terrorism and similar security problems. It is no secret that the Special Forces operators who train you in the latest weapons, tactics and counter-terrorism techniques, and do so in your own language, are also collecting information on the recipient country. This is seen as a fair trade because the Special Forces are always eager to learn about the local culture and conditions, the better to train and advise the locals and to give the senior people back in the United States a more realistic view of what is going on overseas. What the Special Forces specifically stay away from is getting involved in local politics while training and advising. If Special Forces are brought in to fight (as was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq and a few other places) there is no ambiguity about that. The locals appreciate this. In most cases the Special Forces are only doing what they do; respecting the local culture. That means being a useful and honest guest.

The downside of the great SOCOM expansion is that SOCOM personnel now have to deal with a larger and less responsive bureaucracy. While many in SOCOM see the larger bureaucracy as inevitable, especially given the much larger budget, the operators (Special Forces personnel and commandos) often seek ways to get around the bureaucrats. This leads to a growing number of the highly skilled operators and commandos to leave SOCOM. This, ironically, gets the attention of the bureaucrats more than just complaints from the operators. It is, however, a very expensive (in terms of SOCOM capability) to get the bureaucracy to be helpful rather than a hindrance.



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