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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Highlights Of U.S. Special Operations Command

by Micah Zenko
March 13, 2014

U.S. Special Operations Command in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for FY2015 and the Future Years Defense Program,” Senate Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, March 11, 2014.

SENATOR JANET “KAY” HAGAN (D-NC): The ability of SOCOM to carry out the full range of missions it has been assigned does not solely rely on the size of its budget, but also on the authorities available to SOF [Special Operations Forces]. Last year the office of the ASD-SOLIC [Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict] completed a report which raised a number of concerns about the patchwork of authorities used by SOF to engage with partner-nation security forces

(3PA: Anyone interested in FOIAing this document?)

MICHAEL LUMPKIN:  Since October 2001, 385 special operators have been killed in action, and another 2,160 have been wounded. I am committed to doing everything I can to ensure these warriors have the best training, equipment and support we can provide. Working closely with Congress, we will surely have the right strategies and policies in place to employ them effectively…

ADM. MCRAVEN:  It is important for us to make sure we’re maintaining our readiness as we continue to project forces around the world. As was mentioned earlier, I think this week we are actually in 84 countries around the world and we’ve got approximately 7,000 people deployed globally right now and we think that, and possibly more, is going to be an enduring requirement…

SENATOR BILL NELSON (D-FL): Following up on Senator Fischer’s comments, take for example the Air Force’s plan of 55 steady-state drone patrols. Is that going to be enough for you for your ISR needs?

MR. LUMPKIN: If my understanding is correct, the SOCOM requirement is 44, what they call, caps. These are the orbits that the Air Force reduction is going to have an effect on support of USSOCOM. They can source 15 caps organically based on reprioritization of aircraft and movement, but that puts a significant burden on the Air Force, and their downsizing will have an impact. We’re still looking through what that will look like and the scope and regionally where it will be.

One of the challenges we see, as the threat disperses globally and takes on farther reaches, it makes it harder to get places. So basing for those RPAs, those remote piloted aircraft, becomes more difficult as you spread them across the globe. Your orbits don’t always have the same impact as they do in a more concentrated area…

SEN. NELSON: When we pull out of Afghanistan, do you feel confident that you can keep enough SOF forces in the area so that if, for example, something happened and we had to go back in we could do it on a quick turnaround and get back in?

MR. LUMPKIN: From a policy perspective, as we look at the absence of a bilateral security agreement is what I’m understanding you’re asking the question about. The absence of one will make things significantly more difficult to conduct the counterterrorism operations that USSOCOM and USCENTCOM work in conjunction with the interagency. So options are being looked at on what that would look like, but it becomes significantly more problematic on how we would do business and meet the threats to this nation without a bilateral security agreement

ADM. MCRAVEN:  One of the areas where, again, it becomes a little bit of an unknown for us is the access that we may be granted by a particular nation. The great thing about special operations forces is we are a small footprint, we are low-cost, you can put a small special forces detachment or a SEAL platoon in there that I think gives you great return on your investment, and if the policymakers decide that they don’t like the direction we’re heading, it’s pretty easy to reverse the decision and pull them out. So that is kind of fungible across the globe…

ADM. MCRAVEN: I would even go so far as to say our relationship with the CIA is fabulous. I’ve been on the ground with the agency continuously for the last 10 to 12 years. And I will tell you, they have magnificent intelligence officers. We are partnered not only at the chief of station level but at the chief of mission level in many of the nations we talked about. We have personal and professional relationships that were brought together under fire. I have never seen them this good, and I have a great personal and professional relationship with Director John Brennan. So it’s the best I’ve ever seen in my 37 years of doing this business, sir.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): If we went to the zero option in Afghanistan for whatever reason, Admiral McRaven, what do you think would happen?

ADM. MCRAVEN: …I’d be concerned that if we went to a zero option, as Secretary Lumpkin said, it would make that a lot more challenging. Does it mean that we couldn’t do it? No, sir. I think we would find a way to keep the pressure on, but it would make it significantly more challenging…

SEN. GRAHAM:  Secretary Lumpkin, do we have the authority, legally under the AUMF or other authorities, to deal with al-Qaeda threats that are emerging throughout Africa and in Syria?

MR. LUMPKIN: If it’s, again, one of those al-Qaeda affiliates, then the AUMF gives us the authority to act as necessary.

SEN. GRAHAM: Are we locked in by their organizational structure? I mean, can the enemy use their organizational structure naming to deny us capabilities to protect the country?

MR. LUMPKIN: I think that if there is an affiliate and an associate and it’s been recognized, regardless of what they call themselves and the relationship, I think that, of course we’d have to go to the (lawyer’s group?), but my sense is that we would probably be in a good place to use the AUMF.

SEN. GRAHAM: Does the Congress need to do anything from your point of view to enhance your legal standing?

MR. LUMPKIN: The AUMF has served us very well and gives the department the ability to do what’s necessary. Currently, however, I think we’re at a point where the AUMF—at some point we need to relook at it…

SENATOR JACK REED (D-RI): Admiral McRaven, can you just give us—and I know this is an open session—sort of a response to how you’re adapting SOCOM to a battlefield that’s increasingly dominated by cyber, operationally in terms of interfering with equipment that you have huge superiority into a whole spectrum? Can you give us a sort of sense of that?

ADM. MCRAVEN: Yes, sir. Our approach, really, has been to stay closely partnered with the National Security Agency and now Cyber Command as we look at our cyber requirements. So the National Security Agency and Cyber Command have done a great job for, again, the last 12 years that I have spent time kind of intimately with the cybersupport teams that come from Cyber Command, that come from NSA, in supporting us.

So what we do is we provide our demands. If we’re looking for a particular individual, then we will make sure that we are linked with the NSA. They will, through their technical means, figure out how to identify that person. So instead of us at U.S. SOCOM building an additional capability to conduct cyber operations, we use the experts at Cyber Command and NSA to do that. What we do have is a small element at all of the combatant commands now that help us with the planning and the access to NSA and to CYBERCOM…

SEN. KAINE: You know, just wrestling with what Congress should do, if the war is ending at the end of our 2014 activities in Afghanistan, should the authorization expire?

MR. LUMPKIN: Again, as I mentioned to Senator Graham earlier, I think we’re at the point where, while the AUMF has supported the needs of the department in order to execute the missions at hand—in order to protect the homeland and American interests—I think we’re at an inflection point that may be a time to look at the AUMF to see if it does need adjustment to better serve this country.

SEN. KAINE: Whether there might be a need to consider sort of a Chapter 2 version?

MR. LUMPKIN: Potentially. And I look forward to working with the Congress as they consider and shape these issues…

SEN. KAINE:  Has there been work done to the extent of either of your knowledge to determine, in the absence of the current AUMF, would the DOD, more broadly our defense establishment, have the tools necessary to wage the battle against terrorism that is needed circa 2014?

MR. LUMPKIN: Well, clearly, the president does have constitutional authorities as the commander in chief. Previously, al-Qaida, prior to 9/11, has been engaged in the past. So it can be done.

I think that we are at a natural inflection point. I think it’s a good time to sit back and look and see where we’re at, look at the threat in the future and make sure we clearly craft something that has left and right flanks, that has a program time to relook to make sure it serves our interests and gives us the ability to engage the threats that face us not only today but also tomorrow…

SEN. HAGAN: In my opening remarks, I mentioned something about the remediation process. Do you have any recommendations for improving the vetting process or for a remediation process? And what do the other partnering nations actually do for a remediation?

ADM. MCRAVEN: So the remediation process is an area where we have an interagency working group that’s going to see how we can improve the process. As Secretary Lumpkin said, I am fully supportive of the Leahy human rights vetting, always have been. My concern has always been the process and how expeditious the process is for us to get to a solution, whether or not a particular unit has in fact committed gross human rights violations or has not, and therefore we can either continue on with training or not. And that process, I think, needs improving between State Department and the Department of Defense. And actually Capitol Hill. We are working with all three of those in an effort to figure out how do we adhere to the letter of the law and the spirit of the law but do so in a manner that allows us to get back into a training venue as rapidly as possible if we can confirm that no gross human rights violations have occurred.

So I think there’s a good-faith effort going on among the interagency to get to that point.

SEN. HAGAN: And of the 170,000 do you have any idea of percent or number that people don’t make the vetting? And then you mentioned gross human rights violations. Is domestic violence included in any of these?

MR. LUMPKIN: My understanding is that 2 percent don’t pass the vetting requirement

SEN. FISCHER: Admiral, you used the term “irreconcilable” to characterize the most extreme elements of our adversaries, the terrorists. How do you separate those who you believe are reconcilable with those who are irreconcilable? What’s the difference here?

ADM. MCRAVEN: I think it requires thorough analysis. We don’t take any steps to go after anyone unless we know for a fact that they are kind of on the irreconcilable end on the counterterrorism part of direct action. And I’m not sure I can give you a great example of somebody—I mean, I know who we think is irreconcilable. Whether or not they are irreconcilable, I think, remains to be seen.

But we do look at a body of people: some of the most virulent members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, core al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Islamic lands of the Maghreb. We know that the leadership there, I would contend, is irreconcilable. That no amount of negotiations, no amount of placation is going to put them in a position where they’re prepared to support universal values as we know them.

And so as we look at all of the threats out there, I know a determination is made as we go through the process of determining whether or not an individual needs to have action against them. And that is, again, a very, very well-defined, thorough process to get to that point. But there are a lot of irreconcilables out there.

(3PA: Note that on February 27, McRaven declared: “We need to be prepared to conduct direct action when those threats have a clear and present danger to the United States or to our interests.” This categorization, like the “irreconcilables” label, is different from the “continuing and imminent threat to the American people” standard presented by President Obama last May.)

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