The Pentagon’s “problem solvers”
U.S. special operations forces played the main role in the recent operation to eliminate one of the world’s leading terrorists, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This episode once again confirms the fact that Washington considers the special operations forces to be the main vehicle for achieving its goals both in the war against the international terrorist network and in confrontations with America’s other enemies and adversaries.
The international media have reported that soldiers from the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (commonly referred to as “Delta Force”), which comes under the Joint Special Operations Forces Command, as well as soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment, which comes under the United States Army Special Operations Command, were deployed in the operation in northwestern Syria.
As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley disclosed, soldiers from the special operations forces were dispatched to the operation site in helicopters and subsequently initiated combat. After the operation, the region in which it was carried out was “treated” with AGM-158 JASSM cruise missiles, GBU guided missiles and AGM-114 “Hellfire” missiles.
The commander of the operation, the head of the United States Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., stated that there were no American casualties (only a service dog was injured) but that six terrorists were killed at the operation site, those terrorists including the leader of the terrorist group, who blew himself up in an underground tunnel. (Two children perished with him.) Two fighters were also taken into custody. According to McKenzie, another 10 to 15 terrorists were eliminated when they tried to close in on the location of the operation.
It’s worth remembering that the “main executors” of another major operation – the elimination of Osama Bin Laden – were not soldiers from the American special operations forces but Navy SEALs from the Development Group of the Joint Special Operations Command. No one has commented on why the U.S. chose the “Delta Force” and the Rangers for the al-Baghdadi operation, but a possible reason lies in the fact that the Navy SEALs have recently provided many reasons to doubt whether they are prepared to handle top-level tasks.
This “Navy mess” culminated in the premature withdrawal of an entire unit of SEAL Team 7 from counterterrorism operations. The reason behind this extraordinary decision was a boozy party organized by the Navy SEALs and inappropriate behavior with respect to female colleagues. As a result, the entire team was removed from service, which is probably a first for the U.S. Navy special operations forces. And that’s not to mention the criminal cases pending against naval commanders of covert operations.
On the other hand, it’s not only the Navy SEALs who have been called to task but also their land-based colleagues, the Green Berets and the Rangers. Even now, the investigation into the ambush in Niger in October 2017, during which four soldiers from the 3rd Special Forces Group were killed, is still ongoing. This spring, former Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan even appointed an unnamed “four-star officer” (i.e., a full general or admiral) to carry out a new investigation into the tragedy. The issue is that both the military and Congress are still trying to answer the question: how was such a thing possible, and what needs to be done in order to avoid a repeat of this situation?
However, the White House and the Pentagon do not consider all these negative situations to be reason enough for refusing to employ special operations forces as the main means of waging war on terror and confronting America’s other enemies and adversaries in the “gray zone” – where it is impossible to effectively deploy traditional members of the American military apparatus – as well as on the battlefields of full-scale wars. The U.S. Army Special Operations Command recently unveiled a new strategy that also supports this new plan.
“The strategy of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command sets the direction for the evolutionary changes that will affect how we recruit, prepare and equip our units in the digital age,” said the head of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Francis Beaudette. “Our priorities – people, readiness and modernization – are being made effective by the purposes, ways and means described in this document.”
It’s worth noting that, in contrast to another recently adopted concept paper, the “2019 Army Modernization Strategy: Investing in the Future,” the authors of which were more cautious about defining America’s current and potential future enemies, everything is sketched out much more explicitly: “Great power competition means the Nation is in conflict right now … the USAOC remains ready and engaged in a war against violent extremist organizations while also adapting to compete with Russia and China, and preparing for war as part of the Army Team … The USAOC will provide the government with disciplined and improved solutions, which will create conditions for achieving victory in war.”
In this respect, from a short-term perspective, by 2022, the special operations forces intend to be able to effectively carry out counterterrorist operations of any scale, and in the long-term, by 2028, the Green Berets, Rangers and their colleagues should be prepared for victory in “confrontation, the intensity of which is lower than the level of armed conflict.” The long-term goal is to be able to dominate in a full-scale war by 2034.
The special operations forces will be moving toward “Multi-Domain Dominance,” such a short but succinctly outlined, ambitious goal, in the coming years. Naturally, this will be done together with the entire U.S. Army and the remaining branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Teams of combined forces able to lead operations in all five domains or spheres – on the ground, at sea, in the air, in space or in the cybersphere – will be created from the various components of the U.S. Armed Forces in a fashion that resembles building something out of Lego blocks.
“From an operational point of view, the U.S. Armed Forces can carry out an attack on any target in any location and at any time,” Milley emphasized at a briefing on Oct. 28 while commenting on the Pentagon’s ability to conduct operations similar to its most recent undertaking.*
But in these words, there also lies an answer to the question of why Washington is devoting so much attention to the development not only of the special operations forces, but also of the system of expeditionary, i.e., global, warfare. Only in this way will the Pentagon be able to fulfill the wide range of tasks aimed at protecting America’s national interests, tasks designated by military and political leaders day after day, night after night. So, by the look of things, it is the special operations forces soldiers who will be the problem solvers for these specific situations.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, the quoted remarks could not be independently verified.