Strained by war, the military’s elite units can’t grow any faster nor deploy slower. Something in their mission set must give.
Special operations forces, stretched thin by 15 years of war and a perception that they’re the silver bullet for any security problem, can’t go on this way — even if it means re-evaluating how they fit into the U.S.’s various missions around the globe, the nominee for assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict told senators during his confirmation hearing Wednesday.
U.S. Special Operations Command has added thousands of troops since 9/11, but not enough to keep pace with demand. Two months ago in the same Senate Office Building room, SOCOM commander Gen. Raymond Thomas said his forces were “suffering.” The high pace of deployments to the Middle East and Africa to fight the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, combined with a host of other missions, was taking its toll on the mental health and readiness of SOCOM’s elite soldiers.
There are only so many ways of addressing that problem, said Owen West, whom President Donald Trump has tapped to oversee the Pentagon’s elite soldiers.
“The formula in my mind is fairly simple: It’s the number of troops times an exponent of dwell time minus the mission set,’” West told lawmakers. “Well, we can’t grow special forces very quickly, and Gen. Thomas has already dealt with dwell time, so that leaves us with mission set.”
SOCOM currently has about 8,000 soldiers deployed to more than 80 countries, Thomas said in May. Since 2015, most of the U.S. troops killed in action have been special operators, including five of the nine Americans killed in combat this year, according to an LA Times analysis. And the elite forces’ share of the burden might only get heavier as the new administration crafts its counterterrorism strategy.
West said that the U.S. must consider what role SOF will play in a fight against extremist groups that “will not soon wane.” ISIS will persist even after Mosul and Raqqa are liberated, as will other terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere.
“U.S. special operations forces will remain at the forefront in meeting this threat,” West said in written responses to policy questions. “SOF must maintain as a core capability building and advising foreign forces, especially in politically contentious locations. I do not advocate significant changes to the USSOCOM’s Title 10 missions, but in the vast spectrum of foreign internal defense there are missions that general-purpose forces can fulfill.”
Those advise-and-assist missions in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere are far from the only responsibilities tasked to special forces. Just this fiscal year, SOCOM replaced U.S. Strategic Command as the ones in charge of countering weapons of mass destruction.
“This is probably the salient threat to the United States, a nuclear device in the hands of a terrorist,” but “wow, this is a big, big mission to put on a force that is stretched very thin,” West said. “If I am confirmed, I will be totally dedicated to figuring out the staffing...but also the expertise, which they will need to build up. That will be a tremendous strain, in my opinion as an outsider, on that organization.”
If West is confirmed, he will find much of his attention taken up with questions of readiness and organizational concerns like these. The 2017 defense authorization act clarified the relationship between the SOLIC assistant secretary and SOCOM, saying that mirrors the service secretaries’ relationship to the military services.
“As a nominee, I view the role and impact as more strategic and ‘secretary-like’ than operational, where there is vast experience,” West said in his written answers. “As for mission planning, once policy parameters are established, that is the responsibility and core expertise of the military.”