- Filed Under
U.S. Special Operations Command is changing the structure and organization of its task forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, while realigning the traditional regional orientation of most Special Forces groups.
The changes will mean longer deployments for Special Forces and some other special ops personnel, but overall should lead to more dwell time between deployments, SOCom deputy commander Army Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney said in a Wednesday interview with Army Times.
The new plan, announced in an Aug. 21 SOCom directive, is aimed at delivering "continuity of leadership" for the combined joint special operations task forces in Iraq and Afghanistan while developing depth in experience, culture and understanding of the mission, the country, and relationships with host nation leaders and people, Kearney said.
The plan, which SOCom intends to fully implement by Feb. 1, divides the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, which previously had been the sole preserve of 5th Special Forces Group, between 5th and 3rd Groups. Under the plan, 5th Group will focus on the western and southern half of the CentCom region, including Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. The eastern and northern parts of the CentCom region, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyszstan, will become 3rd Group's responsibility.
With regard to Afghanistan and Iraq, the plan formalizes the reality that has developed on the ground since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the leadership of the combined joint special operations task force, or CJSOTF (pronounced see-juh-so-tiff), in that country has swapped back and forth between two Special Forces groups on seven-month rotations.
In Iraq, 5th Group has shared responsibility for commanding Joint Special Operations Task Force - Arabian Peninsula with 10th Group, a unit traditionally focused on Europe. Fifth Group's Iraq focus has meant 3rd Group, traditionally oriented on Africa, has been heavily committed to the fight in Afghanistan, where it has shared responsibility for running CJSOTF-Afghanistan with 7th Group, whose area of responsibility is Latin America.
Under the new plan, the 3rd and 7th Group headquarters will no longer have a role in running the two CJSOTFs, although they will continue to provide battalion-level special operations task forces to the CJSOTFs.
In Afghanistan, 3rd Group will become the "framework group" for CJSOTF-A, with 5th Group playing the same role in Iraq, according to an Aug. 25 SOCOM news release.
As "framework groups," 3rd and 5th Groups will each provide about 40 percent of the staff to their respective CJSOTF. The other 60 percent of the staffs "will be manned by personnel from across the joint special operations community," according to the news release.
As part of the plan, 10th Group will assume responsibility for Africa from 3rd Group, while also retaining responsibility for Europe. Asked whether U.S. Army Special Operations Command might move some 3rd Group personnel with deep experience and language skills tied to Africa to 10th Group in order to make the transition as smooth as possible, Kearney said he was not aware of any USASOC proposal to do so, but that it was "a suggestion with merit that Lt. Gen. Mulholland should consider."
The new plan also directs 7th Group to support U.S. Northern Command "as required for matters related to Mexico while retaining [the group's] regional orientation with U.S. Southern Command," the SOCom news release said. Of the five active-duty SF groups, only 1st Group's regional orientation — the U.S. Pacific Command area of responsibility — remains unchanged.
While the tours for the CJSOTF staff will lengthen from seven months to 12 months, the tours for the battalion-level task forces will increase from seven months to nine months.
The new rotation cycle should ease the operational tempo for Special Forces personnel, some of whom only spend three or four months at home between deployments. Lengthening the "dwell time" between rotations was a factor behind the new plan, Kearney said. When combined with the ongoing addition of a fourth battalion to each active SF group by 2013 (5th and 3rd Groups have already stood their fourth battalions up), Kearney said he expects the new plan to result in all SF troops spending longer periods between deployments.
Tours for the CJSOTF leaders and staff will lengthen from seven months to roughly 12 months. However, while the colonels who command 3rd and 5th Groups will likely spend one year of their two-year command tours at the head of a CJSOTF, it appears that the new plan will for the first time leave the door open for other special operations officers, not necessarily from Special Forces, to also command CJSOTFs.
SOCom still has to decide exactly how commanders will be selected for the CJSOTF, Kearney said. "Clearly the [SF] group commanders are perfectly positioned and command selected to command a CJSOTF, but as we are a joint command with components capable of 06-level joint command of a CJSOTF, we believe we need to keep this door open to select the right commander to lead these headquarters," he said in an e-mail to Army Times.
The potential for non-Special Forces officers to command the CJSOTFs has spread ripples of unease among some SF soldiers. But Kearney dismissed as "conspiracy theories" speculation in the SF community that SOCom commander Adm. Eric Olson, a Navy SEAL, had set the system up to enable Navy SEALs to command CJSOTFs.
"I don't think we've said that we're going to put a SEAL in command," Kearney said, but he added that limiting the field to just SF officers would amount to "narrowing" the options unnecessarily. "Ideally, don't we want to find the best guy?" he said.
Up until now the CJSOTFs in Afghanistan and Iraq have always been led by SF group commanders, who are products of the Army's command selection process. Kearney acknowledged that appointing non-SF group commanders to head up the CJSOTFs would require SOCom to establish "a command screening" system that would be viewed as fair across all the service special operations components.
While the "framework groups" will provide about 40 percent of the personnel for their respective CJSOTFs, no decisions have been made as to whether these personnel will be organized as a "cohort" and deployed together, or whether troops will be identified and deployed individually from the group headquarters. U.S. Army Special Operations Command head Lt. Gen. John Mulholland "will work this out with his staff and commanders and brief SOCom on their plan," Kearney said.
The SOCom plan does not include any attempt to grow the size of the SF group headquarters, but SOCom is studying whether to change the structure and composition of the CJSOTF, he said.
Each CJSOTF will command at least three battalion-level special operations task forces, including one from the "framework group" and one from another SF group. (There are five active-duty and two reserve SF groups.) The third battalion will be provided by Marine special operations forces in Afghanistan and the Navy SEALs in Iraq.
The new plan will allow Marine Corps Forces - Special Operations Command (MarSOC) to focus its training on Afghanistan, Kearney said. "The key was to focus them," he added, explaining that MarSOC and its commander Maj. Gen. Mastin Robeson have been working with SOCom "to determine areas to focus their language and cultural depth."
The MarSOC deployment to Afghanistan next year will be the first battalion-level deployment to a combat theater for the Marines' fledgling special operations component. There have been complaints within the Special Forces community that SF units are being forced to give up communications gear and training slots in order to help the Marines reach full readiness. Kearney's response to this criticism was matter-of-fact.
"I assume everyone understands that when SOCom decides to send forces, in this case a MarSOC SOTF, into harm's way, we are going to equip them to be successful and since they are a unit still reaching full operational capability, it was a requirement to outfit them for success," he said. "This is not unusual, we have done this with any unit preparing to deploy. What commander would not do this?"