Washington, D. C.—Barely one year after it launched a new “special operations” command, the nation’s defense establishment may be coming face to face with a daunting question. Should Washington pursue a kind of fifth military service—prepared to fight small, brushfire wars—in addition to the four it maintains for air, land, sea, and amphibious combat
The Pentagon has long suffered criticism that American forays into the world of special operations have been a disaster. This, it is said, made necessary the creation of the unified US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in April 1987 at MacDill AFB, Fla.
Proponents insist that the new command is designed mainly to coordinate the services’ efforts. But whatever the original intention, some experts believe that the unit might turn out to be a first step toward the development of a separate agency.
They note that USSOCOM has already accumulated unique power over budgets for Special Operations Forces (SOF). Plans call for it to exert even greater control over SOF personnel, programs, and doctrine. The question of the hour is how far this trend can go before the new command becomes—in fact, if not in name—a separate entity.
The man at the center of this controversy is Army Gen. James J. Lindsay, USSOCOM Commander in Chief. In remarks to Washington defense writers recently, he made clear that there will be no backdoor creation of a new service on his watch. He opposes the idea. Even so, he concedes such pressures exist. “If you look at the legislation,” says he, “you can see clearly a number of things that smack of my being a separate agency. There are still a number of people who have a deep and abiding interest in SOF who think I ought to be.”
The overall aim is to build military tools capable of intervening in local wars, beefing up friendly forces, carrying out antiterrorist actions, or striking behind Warsaw Pact lines in a major war. Already, SOF units have bounced back from post-Vietnam days, when their funding was cut ninety-five percent and many of the SOF units were disbanded. Since 1981, the $9 billion that the Pentagon has spent on SOF has created a new Army Special Forces Group, a Ranger battalion, more SEAL strength, and additions to the Air Force SOE Manpower, now 38,000 active and reserve, will soon rise to 41,000.
The truly major innovation, however, was creation of the 318-man command itself—but not, as is widely believed, because it will run wars. “People think of this as being a war-fighting headquarters,” says General Lindsay.
“I’ll tell you up front, I’m not. I’m a provider. I package, prepare, and provide forces” for others.
A “small, surgical operation,” General Lindsay states, could be run by the Pentagon. In a big operation, control would pass to a commander in Europe, the Mideast, Latin America, the Atlantic, or the Pacific. He would not press to run it.
The General is not shy, however, when it comes to the vital issue of acquiring resources for SOF. This is his “primary role.” Upon taking command, he says, he determined that “my focus was going to be on making sure that we built a good, solid foundation” for SOF.
It is here, he claims, “the logic behind [the development of] a fifth service makes sense.” How? “Very frankly,” the General asserts, “if you look at the focus of the services, it tends to be on their prime mission, the conventional battle.”
Now, the situation is being altered in ways that raise questions about where the command may go.
The Pentagon has created a new “Major Force Program—its eleventh—pulling together all SOF programs that are presently executed by the services. USSOCOM is empowered to peer over the shoulders of the services and protect this program. Backing this up is a directive from the Defense Secretary’s office that strips the services of authority to tamper with the money in this category.
The strength of this order was shown last December at a time of frantic budget-cutting by the services. Learning that SOF items had been cut thirty-three percent, General Lindsay went to Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci. “I laid out the program,” he says. “I got everything back.”
In the future, General Lindsay hopes to strengthen his hand by gaining the power to develop a SOF “Program Objective Memorandum,” or long-term force plan. The POM, now restricted to the services, is a bureaucratic tool of high order.
As General Lindsay tells it, the question is not whether but only when he will receive his own POM. He has already informed the Pentagon that he will begin building an SOF budget document this October.
USSOCOM appears to be getting a grip on service SOF manpower, too. A prime case in point: the Navy’s SEAL commandos.
When USSOCOM came into existence, the Navy successfully held on to the SEALs, keeping them in the embrace of the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. General Lindsay, appealing to Pentagon civilians, won out. These forces came under operational control of USS000M on March 1.
General Lindsay says Secretary Carlucci has told the Navy fleets to give up important “administrative control” of the SEALs—that is, to give up authority over pay, discipline, and internal organization. Control would then be exercised by the US Navy component under USSOCOM.
Backed by legislative authority, General Lindsay is pressing to impose order on the services’ development of SOF doctrine. His aim is to produce, by the end of this year, a new joint manual for special operations. This would establish a “framework” for further development of common tactics.
The goal, he explains, is “to make sure everybody thinks alike and works off the same sheet of music” in special operations techniques.
What’s more, plans call for integration, to the extent possible, of Army, Navy, and Air Force SOF schools in a Joint Special Operations Integration Center. “Some people get very antsy when I talk about that,” says the General. “But that is my ultimate goal.”
Air Force Programs
For the Air Force more than the other services, the emphasis on revitalization of special operations forces carries important hardware implications. Air Force SOFs, centered at Twenty-third Air Force at Hurlburt Field, Fla., provide means of clandestine infiltration and some fire support to Army and Navy teams. Current Air Force plans are outlined in its 121-page “Air Force Acquisition Statement” issued as part of the service’s 1989 budget submission.
Four SOF programs are singled out for special attention.
• CV-22A Osprey aircraft. This tilt-rotor craft, able to hover like a helicopter and cruise like a fixed-wing plane, is described as the “linchpin” of USAF special operations in the future. Designed for clandestine insertion and extraction of secret forces, the Osprey is currently in development, looking toward a first flight in June.
Initial operating capability of six aircraft is set for 1995. The Air Force plans to buy a total of fifty-five.
• MC-130H aircraft. Known as the “Combat Talon II,” this aircraft also would perform long-range SOF transport missions. It has an aerial refueling system, a high-speed, low-level cargo-delivery system, and special lighting equipment. Also included are avionics for terrain-following, precision navigation, secure communications, and electronic warfare.
The Air Force says its plans call for buying twenty-four new Combat Talons. The budget includes a healthy $209.5 million for four in 1989.
• AC-130U gunship. This aircraft also fared well in the 1989 budget wars, with $288.3 million being allocated for six gunships. AC-130H platform armed with a 105-mm howitzer and other guns, the AC-1 30U is being developed to provide fire support, such as interdiction of enemy communication sites and destruction of antiaircraft positions. Deliveries are to begin in 1992.
There had been some contention over how many to buy. The Air Force announced that it would procure seven. General Lindsay, for his part, claimed he needed twelve to replace twelve aging AC-130A models.
• MH-53J helicopter. This helicopter, a highly modified version of the CH-53 craft, is known as the “Pave Low III, enhanced.” A long-range, heavy-lift craft, it will sport integrated digital avionics for secret “black” flights into heavily defended areas. Twenty-third Air Force today possesses eight of the upgraded helicopters. Plans call for a total force of forty-one by the early 1990s.
The Air Force SOF program should be kept in perspective. Throughout the entire 1990-94 period, the Air Force and other services combined will spend a total of only $5 billion for new SOF airplanes and upgrades—less than the outlay that will be made this year alone for F-15s and F-16s and the Advanced Tactical Fighter.
The USAF S&T Effort
Of far greater significance, in the larger scheme of things, is what the Air Force plans to emphasize in the field of basic science and technology in the years ahead. The Air Force S&T effort encompasses fourteen laboratories backed by a $1.4 billion annual budget.
The acquisition report cites a dozen of the Air Force’s highest-priority research efforts for the future. A look at some of them:
• Battle information management work shows promise of giving the remote commander of the future an instantaneous, three-dimensional view of an entire region and the ability to communicate with forces via voice controls and touch. Making such a revolution seem possible are advances in display technologies, sensor integration, processing, and development of computer-driven “artificial intelligence.”
• Integrated photonics is being pursued vigorously to accelerate the arrival of military systems that make use of optical equipment as opposed to conventional electronics. One big payoff, in the words of the report: “Optics are invulnerable to electromagnetic interference and electro magnetic pulse, which promises to invalidate electronic warfare as we know it today.”
• High-performance turbine engines are expected to make use of advanced materials and better designs, among other things, to provide powerplants with twice the thrust of today’s engines with no additional weight. With such engines, “Mach 4-plus aircraft will be practical,” and radically new global transport aircraft will become possible.
• Supercockpit development, expected to be employed in the Advanced Tactical Fighter, aims to improve drastically the pilot’s awareness of his surroundings and to decrease his workload. What seems possible in the near term is a full head-up display with a head-aimed fire-control system. For the future: voice controls and advanced help from artificial intelligence systems.
Third-World Naval Threat
Special Operations Forces are not the only ones concerned about the prospect of having to grapple with small, “low-intensity” conflicts. The US Navy’s latest worldwide threat assessment contends that the main combat fleets are now up against mounting dangers from smaller powers.
The potential for conflict with heavily armed forces in the Persian Gulf and other Third-World areas figures prominently in the seventy-page intelligence report. Prepared by Rear Adm. William O. Studeman, Director of Naval Intelligence, the assessment paints a bleak picture of “significant threats” that US warships are starting to face.
What has caused the problem, in Admiral Studeman’s view, is an explosion of arms sales to Third-World nations in recent years. Says he: “[The presence of] increasingly sophisticated arms has become commonplace in virtually all regions of the globe, making the Navy’s role of protecting US interests worldwide more dangerous and complex.”
In a sharp departure from earlier times, current and potential Third-World enemies at sea can threaten US warships with modern submarines, advanced missiles, and high-performance aircraft.
In the Third World, he points out, the magnitude of the threat is underscored by the fact that there are:
• Forty-eight nations fielding anti-ship cruise missiles.
• Nineteen countries with diesel attack submarines.
• Twenty-one powers with naval mining capabilities.
That is not all. A big worry for the future, in the Navy’s view, is the proliferation of chemical weapon capabilities. Admiral Studeman claims that ten countries possess chemical warfare arsenals. What’s more, five Asian nations—China, Taiwan, North Korea, Vietnam, and Burma—are fast developing such capabilities. Iran is also a conspicuous contender for such weaponry.
What will be the impact of the spread of armaments? The most obvious danger is that an American warship will fall prey to the lucky shot from a Third-World adversary. With US task forces operating in confined waters, amid highly ambiguous threats and under restrictive peacetime rules of engagement, this danger remains ever present.
Other complications, however, seem to be of equal or even greater significance. One is the extent to which Third-World nations will be able to put stress, on a long-term basis, on the force structure of even a greatly expanded 600-ship, fifteen-carrier US Navy.
The problem is summed up this way by Admiral Studeman: “Greater numbers of more sophisticated submarines will tax our [antisubmarine-warfare] capability to distinguish friend from foe and increase the geographic areas in which our ASW forces may be required to operate. Expansion and improvements in [Third-World] air systems will further complicate US at-sea air defense.”
The most dangerous potential adversaries, in the view of the Navy, are Libya and Iran. The Naval intelligence document claims that Tripoli’s forces—armed with modern surface-to-surface missiles, hundreds of jet fighters, long-range surface-to-air missiles, and a large inventory of sea mines—pose “a considerable and increasing threat” to Navy warships operating in the Mediterranean. For its part, Iran can brandish its Chinese-made Silkworm antiship missiles and may be getting China’s F-7 aircraft and Soviet-made Styx surface-to-surface missiles.
The Navy report points up a heavy irony. Even as the indigenous naval threat in the Third World grows, Soviet naval operations in these waters appear to be stagnant or even receding. This runs counter to earlier predictions that the Red Navy was bent on expanding its power-projection capability for intervention in world trouble spots.
The new Navy assessment is unequivocal on this score: “Soviet forces abroad, such as those at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, or in Ethiopia, South Yemen, Cuba, or the South Atlantic, are still too few and too weak to enable the Soviets to engage in any significant power projection, particularly over a prolonged period.”
What’s more, Russian naval deployments overseas in 1987 declined by six percent compared to 1986, the third year in a row that this has occurred. The Soviet fleet in 1987 continued to conduct virtually all its major exercises in waters close to the Soviet mainland—a sharp departure from more aggressive maneuvers in years gone by. Moscow also appears to be deploying its fleet for home-water defense.
Why is this happening? The Navy speculates that Soviet naval restraint reflects tight defense’ budgets at home, increased emphasis on close-in defense of the homeland, and concern about the need to protect its nuclear-missile-carrying strategic submarines in the Arctic.
Turmoil in Latin America
If there is any one part of the world that could be viewed as the cockpit of “low-intensity” conflict, it is Latin America.
This area is the scene not only of the sputtering conflict between Nicaragua’s Sandinistas and US-backed Nicaraguan guerrillas. It seethes with sporadic warfare—in El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru—and with other civil disturbances ranging from economic conflict to feuds between the heavily armed narcotics suppliers and local governments.
These dangers are much on the mind of Army Gen. Fred F. Woerner, who as Commander in Chief of US Southern Command in Panama is in charge of 10,000 American servicemen and responsible for Washington’s military interests in nineteen Latin American nations.
In a recent talk with some Washington writers, the General observed that this “southern flank” of the United States historically has been insecure. Should Washington ever be compelled to make it secure, he adds, the drain on US resources “would have very, very significant impact on our worldwide commitments.”
What does General Woerner think Washington should be doing to cope with the turmoil in the region? The answer, says General Woerner, does not lie in expanding the number of US fighting forces in the region. “I don’t think that it’s [a need for] military forces,” he observes. “I think that we’re in the posture that we should be, with a symbolic force regionally and a relevant force, specifically, to the security of the Panama Canal.”
The first step, the General says, should be a substantial expansion of the number of US military advisors working to increase the professionalism of friendly Latin American militaries. He would like to see the US return to the days when it maintained about 800 advisors within the region. “I thought that was a very comfortable structure,” he says. “So use that fig-u re.’
Presently, the number of US advisors is minimal—a total of fifty-five, all of them deployed in El Salvador. General Woerner controls another ninety-two security assistance officers scattered across the nineteen countries in his sphere of interest.
To put those figures into context, General Woerner notes the following: In Cuba alone, the Soviet Union maintains a total of 2,800 advisors. It deploys another 150 in Peru, ostensibly a nonaligned nation. “The Soviet Union,” says he, “has … nineteen times more on one island—Cuba—than I have in nineteen countries.”
Secondly, in the General’s view, Washington should devote a far larger amount of security assistance aid to Latin militaries. “I believe very strongly that the security assistance program is an incredibly viable tool for the US military to maintain a positive relationship. . . . One could look at it as the foot in the door.”
The US today provides only about $128 million in grant aid to Latin America’s regional military establishments—about four percent of the worldwide US total. What’s more, eighty-six percent of that funding goes to only two nations—El Salvador and Honduras. The rest has to be spread around to the remaining nations.
The prognosis now for General Woerner’s proposal is bleak. He concedes that there is little realistic chance for any increase in his complement of military advisors, which is a most sensitive political issue in Congress. The level of security assistance, far from going up, is now being slashed in the face of budget pressures. The result, he says, is likely to be new estrangement from Latin military officers.
“I sense that the nations know what is happening to them,” says General Woerner. “The reaction has been quite negative. Quite negative.”