There are as many as 30 special operations forces units that have worked recently with U.S. forces in combat, said Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, deputy commander of SOCOM."We want to continue to build upon it; it's one of the things we cannot lose as we withdraw from the tactical combat of Iraq and Afghanistan." (Sgt. 1st Class Eric Hendrix / Army)
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U.S. Special Operations Command wants to expand relationships developed with special operations forces units from around the globe during 11 years of coalition warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are as many as 30 special operations forces units that have worked recently with U.S. forces in combat, said Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, deputy commander of SOCOM, at a special operations conference in Alexandria, Va. "We want to continue to build upon it; it's one of the things we cannot lose as we withdraw from the tactical combat of Iraq and Afghanistan."
The general credits NATO Special Operations Forces headquarters with providing the mechanism to link these units in theater, a relationship he described as "unparalleled."
Looking for ways to build upon these new partnerships while also cementing its status as a major contributor to American power projection, SOCOM wants to export the NATO SOF headquarters concept, embedding regional SOF coordination centers with the theater special operations commands housed within the Pentagon's regional combatant commands around the globe.
The idea, Mulholland said, is to "establish some kind of organizing entity that allows regional SOF to come together to talk about challenges and training, [engage in] professional education and wrestle with the challenges particular to each region."
The participation of SOF from El Salvador in combat in Iraq was a direct outgrowth of a relationship forged in the 1980s, when American operators worked to create Salvadoran SOF and then maintained those relationships.
The coordination centers would combine the capabilities of the "historic friends that are always there in the fight with you, Brits, the French and the Aussies," Mulholland said.
But what SOCOM especially wants to cultivate are the newer relationships with nations in places such as Central Europe, where the SOF capabilities of "the Romanians, the Hungarians and the Czechs … have taken a decided U.S. [and] Western approach … adopting our tactics, techniques and procedures, our methodologies and our emphasis on the role of the noncommissioned officer," he said.
These relationships "absolutely have to be sustained and, to every degree possible, advanced," Mulholland said.
Working with these new SOF partners also allows the special ops community to get back to its regionally based roots. Eighty-five percent of American SOF units deployed today are in the U.S. Central Command area of operations, which means operators are spending less time studying the cultures and languages, and interacting with populations in critical areas such as Central and South America, Africa and Asia.
SOCOM wants to "regain our regional specialization," said Garry Reid, principal deputy assistant defense secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict. The high operational tempo in CENTCOM this decade has "come with a price in terms of regional focus, so we want to get back to that as we reset, and we will," Reid said.
One way to do that is closer cooperation with the Army as it moves toward its regionally aligned brigade concept, under which brigade combat teams are assigned to a specific country or region and train to better understand its politics, languages and culture.
When the relevant combatant commander needs more troops for training and advising, humanitarian missions, or other tasks, he can then draw on that brigade to "thicken" his assets and capabilities.
In a pilot test of this concept, the 2nd BCT, 1st Infantry Division, will be assigned to Africa Command in 2013, where the unit will collaborate with SOF units there, according to U.S. Army Africa officials.
Although the 2/1 deployment will be a pilot test, some SOF leaders are concerned about how prepared the Army is to conduct training, advising and other "soft" missions on such short notice.
Speaking at the SOF gathering Nov. 27, Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, commander of the U.S. Army's Special Operations Command, said that although he supports the new brigade concept, "I have cautioned the Army about all of those things like [teaching soldiers] language. It's expensive."
Cleveland added that in discussions with Army leadership, "I have told them that the first thing you need to do is increase your … exercise funds so you can increase multinational training events," since building those relationships on the ground will be key to the program's success.
Although there is increasing demand for more hands-on American involvement in training and mentoring host nation forces, the aligning brigades might be difficult to maintain in the long term. It is costly to train brigades in the nuances of local languages and cultures, in addition to the constant deployments of elements of those brigades around the globe.
"If nothing else, the Army is failing forward," Cleveland said.