American Special Ops Forces Now Operating in 71 Countries
Special operations forces descend from a Chinook helicopter.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons
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The recent news of a possible shift in the operation of drones from the CIA to the Department of Defense was by and large received with a shrug. Given that the programme would likely be operated by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and under conditions of strictest secrecy, and probably launched from inaccessible " floating bases" on especially configured naval vessels, the shift is not an indicator of a change in the US' assassination policy. And to the putative victims of the drone strikes, it is largely an irrelevant organisational change.
The reason, however, that the shift is of relevance more broadly is that it signals the irresistible rise of the special operations community in the post-counterinsurgency era. More than a year ago, in January 2012, President Obama inaugurated the US Defense Strategic Guidance. The document was strategically significant because it announced the "pivot to Asia" alongside continued commitments to the oil sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf.
Militarily, it clearly signalled the end of large-scale invasion and occupation of troublesome or intransigent countries in favour of the kind of operations in which the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and its counterterrorism component, the JSOC, excel. This ascendancy is confirmed by the planned expansion of the SOCOM by around 7.5 percent by 2015, from 66,100 civilian and military personnel in 2011 to 71,100 by 2015.
This expansion of the force, at a time when most US government departments - including the Pentagon itself - are contemplating possible sequestrations, speaks to the increasing importance of a force which can act in the shadows, leaving a "light footprint".
A recent report by the Center for a New American Security describes the light footprints as a "minimalist" and "non-intrusive" approach to asymmetric warfare combining "air power, special operators, intelligence agents, indigenous armed groups and contractors, often leveraging relationships with allies and enabling partner militaries to take more active roles". US Special Operations Command is perfectly suited for such tasks and is increasingly consolidating its hold over the broad spectrum of military tactics it entails.
'Minimalist and non-intrusive' approach
Established in 1980 and 1987 respectively, JSOC and SOCOM both have their origins in the US military's failed hostage rescue mission in Iran in 1980.
The most prominent operations in which the SOCOM has participated or had leading roles have included the invasion of Grenada (1983), rescue operations during the Achille Lauro hijacking (1985), the invasion of Panama and the kidnapping of Manuel Noriega (1989), the Mideast during the Gulf War (1991), the operation to arrest Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Somalia (1993), re-installation of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti (1994), classified missions in Bosnia and Kosovo (1996-2002), and of course Afghanistan (2001-present) and Iraq (2003-present).
The USSOCOM draws from the special operators of the various branches of the US military, including the US Navy SEALs, the Army's Green Berets and the 75th Ranger Regiment, the Marine Corps' Special Operations Regiment, and the Air Force's special operators.
The JSOC, the wholly classified sub-unit of the SOCOM, includes even smaller and more elite groups of the Delta Force and the US Navy's Special Warfare Development Group (or DEVGRU) which was responsible for the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. But while such operations capture the attention of mainstream media and Hollywood producers, other functions of the SOCOM are less commented upon but just as important.
In both the aforementioned CNAS report and the 2011 Congressional testimony of Admiral William McRaven, the SOCOM chief, such visible direct operations are said best complemented by indirect approaches.