Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Guest Post: Special Operations Forces and the Army’s Future

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
January 30, 2012

A special operations soldier hustles to his position on the roof of a training building during a fast rope training exercise. A special operations soldier hustles to his position on the roof of a training building during a fast rope training exercise.

Kevin Benson served in the U.S. Army for thirty years in eighteen posts, including in Germany. He is currently working for AECOM and teaching at the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

I am second to none in my admiration of U.S. special operations forces and our Army Special Forces. However, I am also suspect of the unnamed military officer and adviser to Pentagon leadership who recently stated, “What we really want is to see the Army adopt the mentality of special forces.” As the bad guy says in the animated movie, The Incredibles: “When everybody is special, nobody will be special.”

I am in the camp of Field Marshal William Slim, British commander of forces in Burma during World War II, who argued that the more special units you establish, the lower the quality of your regular infantry. Frankly, if the operation to rescue two hostages in Somalia on January 25, 2012, involved a parachute assault, short-range attack, and withdrawal via helicopter, why didn’t we use a company of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division or a company of Marines from an offshore amphibious ready group? Is it because the U.S. military does not trust the regular infantry to conduct such missions?

These questions become increasingly important as the Pentagon reduces the defense budget by $500 billion over the next decade. A leaner and more agile force should include the confidence to draw on conventional units to accomplish conventional tasks, such as limited raids and hostage rescues. Just as the special operations forces require skilled leaders and troops, so do the conventional forces of the Army. Indeed, I suspect the reasons offered for why only special operations forces can accomplish such delicate tasks are the unique quality of the troops and expertise of the leaders. This is precisely what Slim forewarned would happen if the best leaders and soldiers were drawn exclusively to the special forces.

The U.S. military does not need more special forces—since September 11, 2001, Special Operations Command has doubled in size to 60,000 personnel. Instead, what it needs is the highest quality and best trained conventional forces, especially as the Army is projected to be reduced from its current level of roughly 570,000 troops to 490,000 by 2017. With a smaller army, the U.S. military should preserve special forces for truly special tasks. For example, a time sensitive raid under high risk conditions—such as the operation that killed Osama bin Laden—should clearly fall under the purview of the special forces. In contrast, a raid to rescue hostages held by pirates in uncontrolled territory should be a mission conducted by conventional forces. The U.S. military will be better prepared for the wide range of tasks and missions if the armed forces are broadly trained and capable.

However, I have serious reservations of the utility of regionally aligned brigades, which are charged to “advise and assist” foreign militaries. First, U.S. ambassadors still lead country teams, and the U.S. military is not going to plunk a brigade in a country without the approval of its ambassador. Second, new regionally aligned brigades have to work with the broader theater engagement strategy of the regional combatant commander. Third, the U.S. military has a poor track record of guessing where the next fight will be and against whom. The joint Army-Navy rainbow and orange war plans of the 1920s and 1930s still viewed England, Canada, and Mexico as likely adversaries of the United States. Furthermore, from firsthand experience as a military planner, no standing war plans for Afghanistan existed in 2001, despite the fact that we had studied Soviet operations. The same was true for operations in Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s.

The U.S. military already maintains regionally focused special operations forces, such as the 7th Special Forces Group in Central and South America. For conventional forces to be more effective, the U.S. military must broadly educate officers and noncommissioned officers on local cultures, economies, politics, and the relative distribution of regional power. Once the need for operations is determined in “fill-in-the-blankistan,” general plans for action should be refined with mission-specific analysis informed by nuanced questions and research, coupled with focused rehearsal exercises and training.

The Army does not need to become more like special operations forces—nor does the Marines Corps, for that matter. For the best guarantor of conventional deterrence, the U.S. military requires a balanced and capable team of land forces with both general purpose and special operations units.

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