Obama’s Special Forces Fascination

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Obama’s Special Forces Fascination

Barack Obama’s attraction to unconventional operations has perhaps only been rivaled by John F. Kennedy. But plans for a floating base have their limits.

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.

The public documentation for this contract suggests that this floating base will become a kind of SOF “mother ship” used for the forward basing of fast boats and helicopters that could rapidly deploy SEALS, Rangers, and other commandos throughout the Middle Eastern littoral.

Last week, the Military Sealift Command posted a bid for a contract to convert the Ponce, a well-services amphibious transport docking ship, into a floating sea base to be delivered to the Persian Gulf. The requirements specify a capacity to support small aircraft and inflatable boats that can carry a dozen or more commandos ashore and then deflate into portable bags.

The use of so-called “mother ships” has been perfected by sea pirates as a particularly effective means of conducting long-distance attacks. These vessels, typically seized commercial trawlers, can operate at a much longer distance and for a much longer duration than the traditional Somali pirate skiff. In fact, the pirates use their skiffs for rapid attacks and then return to the more secure “mother ships.” SOF units could do the same from their new base.

The Ponte is just a stop gap for the dedicated AFSBs the Pentagon recently announced it would start building in 2013. These AFSBs could deploy throughout the world, including in the contested waters found in several key Pacific Ocean regions near the Asian mainland.

One obvious use for the first CENTCOM floating base would be for rescuing hostages held at sea, in Somalia, Iran, or other Middle Eastern countries. SOF units could also rapidly counter any sea mines laid by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz or intercept suspicious cargo – like a possible weapon of mass destruction – sailing there. One would suppose the commandoes supported by the base could also launch covert operations to recover a lost drone or destroy a nuclear facility in Iran, kill terrorists in the remote locations of Yemen and Somalia, or rescue a friendly head-of-state of a Gulf Cooperation Council country, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

The United States already has the most powerful naval forces in the CENTCOM region. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain. The fleet normally has a Carrier Strike Group, an Amphibious Ready Group or an Expeditionary Strike Group, and other ships and aircraft with approximately 25,000 military personnel serving afloat and 3,000 support personnel ashore in Bahrain.

The fleet also supports security missions in regions outside the Persian Gulf. These areas include the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and parts of the Indian Ocean such as the coast off East Africa as far south as Kenya. Twenty countries fall within the Fifth Fleet’s area of responsibility.

Still, a floating forward base could be more useful in some situations than regular U.S. Navy ships that are constantly on the move to, from, and within the CENTCOM area. In addition, being at sea rather than at land, the Pentagon doesn’t need to ask a host government to use the base to support a controversial mission.

The most likely function of the floating CENTCOM base would be to provide essential support for U.S. military operations designed to protect freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, especially for the vital oil deliveries that proceed through the 29-mile Strait of Hormuz near the Gulf’s entrance. In any major military conflict involving Iran, an obvious Iranian move would be to threaten to, or actually attack, the ships sailing in the Gulf or the vital offshore energy platforms of GCC members.

Of course, the Special Operations Forces can only partially compensate for the reduction in U.S. conventional forces. Although the Obama administration has soured on counterinsurgency operations, the Special Forces learned many useful skills and developed numerous important capabilities fighting Afghan and Iraqi guerrillas.

Furthermore, the SOF base could have only a marginal impact on regional piracy. Originally concentrated in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates have extended their operations in recent year to other bodies of waters. Their raids now extend deep into the Indian Ocean, both eastward and southward, and threaten a maritime expanse estimated at some 2.5 million square miles.

And even in their forte mission of hostage rescue, the Special Operations Forces aren’t perfect. In 2010, they reportedly killed British hostage Linda Norgrove during a botched rescue attempt in Afghanistan.

Solving the wars in Afghanistan or Somalia requires sustained joint force missions and whole-of-government operations. Fortunately, the Pentagon’s new Defense Strategic Guidance makes clear that the Obama team understands that many of the security challenges the United States will confront in Asia will demand sustained efforts rather than a few lightening in-and-out special missions.