The new U.S. Defense Department budget documents released by the Pentagon this month confirm one thing we knew and another we didn’t. As expected, the documents show that the Obama administration plans to maintain strong funding support for the Special Forces in the coming years, even while spending on more conventional forces will grow slower and in some cases even fall. But the documents also reveal that the Defense Department plans to deploy a new floating base that can support hostage rescues, clandestine terrorist assassinations, and other special missions along the world’s littorals.
President Barack Obama’s attraction to the Special Operations Forces (SOF) among other unconventional operations has perhaps only been rivaled by President John F. Kennedy, who saw unconventional warfare as the tool that would prevent Soviet- and Maoist-backed communist revolutions from taking over much of what was then called the Third World. The Green Berets and others SOF units supported friendly governments in Asia and elsewhere under assault by communist insurgents. They also conducted daring operations on the territories of foreign adversaries.
The Obama administration has invested heavily in unmanned vehicles – air, land, and sea – and has conducted many more drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere than previous administrations. More visibly, the administration has sent the Special Forces to free hostages, kill terrorists, and perform other important missions. Rather than Colin Powell-type overwhelming force missions, the Obama team is partial to the deft and swift surgical strikes conducted by missile-armed drones and helicopter-transported commandos.
The Pentagon’s new strategy and budget documents show that the administration expects the agility and flexibility of the Special Operations Forces to compensate for the drawdown in the conventional forces. For example, SOF units will undertake the present missions for lower priority regions such as Africa and Latin America. Instead of being visited by a carrier, these countries would host a rotating SOF unit for a few weeks or more, for joint training and exercises.
The Special Forces have had many triumphs during the Obama administration, including killing Osama bin Laden in the heart of Pakistan last May, and rescuing two aid workers this month held hostage by Somali pirates. In 2009, Navy SEAL snipers also killed the Somali pirates who had held Capt. Richard Phillips hostage.
Obama has met with the SEALs who killed bin Laden and conducted other missions. The head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Adm. William McRaven, was a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union Address on Tuesday. Obama remarked during his speech, after just having learned of the Somali rescue, that one of his favorite possessions was an American flag that the SEALs carried on the bin Laden mission.
During the last few years, much of the regular Army and Marine Corps has been transformed away from the heavy forces of the Cold War and toward the light and agile profile of the Special Operations Forces. One reason Obama may have selected Leon Panetta as his replacement for retiring Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a champion of larger counterinsurgency operations, was that, as CIA Director, Panetta was involved in many of the drone strikes and other special operations the administration has supported since coming to office. Meanwhile, the conventional military has been bogged down in Afghanistan and is expected to undergo major budget cuts.
The latest revelation is that the Pentagon will soon deploy a transportable floating base somewhere in the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility. In response to a CENTCOM request, the Navy is retrofitting the USS Ponce, a 40-year old warship that was scheduled for decommissioning, into the Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) long requested by Special Operations Command.