- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By "SF Guy"
Best Defense guest columnist
Interesting post by Mr. Russell yesterday and glad to see that people are looking critically at SOF and its role in the future. However, Mr. Russell’s post is not really contributing to the dialogue that much.
Saying that SOF is a unique, niche military capability sounds great — but really means nothing. What particular service, unit, or capability is not a unique, niche military capability? Need overwhelming armored force? Call 3rd ID. Vertical envelopment to capture key terrain? 82nd. Massive rotary wing lift capability? 101st. Submarines a problem? The silent service is here! Each of these forces has a unique role to play in warfare, and SOF simply is no different. It’s a tool in the toolbox for policymakers to wield, nothing more and nothing less. SOF has gotten attention and funding over the past decade because of the unique nature of the wars we’ve been fighting. And policymakers have learned that fighting terrorists and insurgents may require a scalpel rather than a tank division. Of course one wouldn’t attempt to defend Taiwan with SOF only; anyone who says otherwise is a ninny.
Full disclosure: I am an SF guy, with experience in both active and reserve SF units, as well as a background in the conventional infantry. I believe strongly in the ability of SOF, both white and black sides, to affect global conflict. But both the public and the policymakers must understand that we are a tool with specific uses and limitations, and even when we are used correctly things will not always go as envisioned. I think the SOF effort in Africa is going to be largely successful, and is an excellent COA by our national security establishment. Mali, however, shows that things will not always go as planned, and even the best SOF effort may not solve issues in place like Libya. A little humility, or recognition of the limits of power, by our military leaders and elected officials may be in order
At the same time, I believe that what’s going to hurt SOF in the future are these:
- Putting the community in the limelight as part of a funding battle. How about we don’t make that terrible SEAL movie, or allow 60 Minutes to follow an ODA around Afghanistan? It’s not about the public’s right to know, it’s about senior leaders jockeying for funding dollars and glory. Let’s keep it low key; those who live by the news segment die by the news segment, and we can’t afford to lose SOF.
- Growing the force at the expense of quality. This has happened to every SOF component in the last 10 years. Need more people, lower standards and get ’em tabbed (or badged, or whatever). Mr. Russell, to his credit, recognizes this. We are where we are in terms of perceived effectiveness because of the quality of those who came before us. SOF people need to be held to high standards. Selection needs to be, obviously, selective. Didn’t Charlie Beckwith say he’d rather go up the river with seven studs than a hundred shitheads?
- Senior SOF leaders getting greedy. I get it, you need missions and goals to keep the funding, but overreach for mission sets is going to hurt us. We need to be good at everything but masters of our assigned craft. For us in SF it’s UW and its subcomponents. For other services, they need to know their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s grow slowly, be very good at a few things, and leave non-SOF missions to non-SOF. Yes, I think this is what Mr. Russell was trying to say, but he used a lot of words to say a simple thing — and, looking back at this, so have I.