The Evolution of U.S. Special Forces

Imagine a plot summary reading session on Ben Affleck’s 2012 Argo, only this time the guest speakers are actual former military with real-life experience both in the field and in the boardrooms of the Pentagon & White House. On Tuesday, February 13th, Retired Lieutenant General Jim Huggins and former Navy SEAL Chris Fussell transported the ballroom at the Junior League through time – from the humiliating failure of the Iranian Hostage Crisis to the horrifying scenes of smoke rising from lower Manhattan as the Twin Towers collapsed in front of our eyes, and finally to war-ravaged Iran and Afghanistan – all in their attempt to the answer the question: how has the U.S. Special Forces changed since 9/11?

Desert 1: The Iran Hostage Crisis

Credited as a debilitating blow to President Carter’s re-election efforts, the unsuccessful attempt to release the hostages through Operation Eagle Claw highlighted a major overlooked component in the modus operandi of the U.S. Military, launching a damaging blow to U.S. international prestige and then President Carter’s re-election ambitions.

Fussell was quick to note that while on paper the planning might have seem bulletproof, the actual operation was everything but. Citing the failure of cohesive inter-service collaboration and the absence of adequate special operations training, Huggins highlighted the critical advancements resulting from this international fiasco. The formation of the Joint Special Operations Command would address the shortcomings of military operations at the time. Not only would they offer oversight for interoperability on various platforms, they would also ensure a well-trained cadre of special operatives. Huggins called for caution, warning us that we often run the risk of forgetting the lessons of the past and regressing once again.

One is Both, But the Other Is Not?

Most civilians are tempted to, out of no error of their own, use Special Operations and Special Forces interchangeable. Huggins, perhaps credited to the years of raising three wonderful daughters, graciously educated the audience on the difference and relationship between the two.

Special Operations Forces refer to the elite forces of a respective service (they may be found in each branch of the military) and trained to transcend the purview of a conventional unit. By the same token, the Special Forces (while indeed they are a type of Special Operations Force) are an elite unit within the U.S. Army only (aka, the Green Berets).

Turning slightly into a lesson in semantics, both Huggins and Fussell argued that while each unit, each member in the military is indeed special, perhaps the better choice would be to substitute the word “special” with “unique” – emphasizing the unique training and missions undertaken. Additionally, Fussell cautioned that while these are elite members with unique skills, the Special Operations Forces are not built to win wars.

The Impact of 9/11: It’s No Longer 1987

While the world went into shock as our television screens replayed (for weeks) chilling scenes of the iconic Twin Towers crumbling unto the streets of Manhattan, the leadership of the military was arduously at work preparing for a counterattack against al-Qaeda.

Fussell recounts that after the 9/11 attack and the military response that followed, he witnessed a “significant change there in how we conducted operations on the battlefield” and he credited this awakening to the leadership at the time:

Senior leaders were managing a completely different type of global organization than we had come up inside of…it says a lot about the senior leaders of this last generation…to be able to recognize the need to change…We had very aggressive senior leaders who said “no”, we are built for the 80s and 90s and we have to change this right now.

While the onset of the fight in Afghanistan was rather conventional, it was in early 2004 that U.S. military noticed a shift in the battlefield. Citing the military’s inability to keep up with the growth of al-Qaida, Fussell accounts:

fighters from all around the world start to show up and they want to be part of this movement that they are seeing, and we, without realizing it we had entered this information age battlefield where decentralized authorities, an information based distributed network of actors, could move with real autonomy.

Not only was al-Qaida successful at recruiting many to the carnage that ensued, but they were operating in a leaner, more effective method that attributed its success to the decentralization of authority – something the U.S. military struggled with.

The result? The leadership, at the General Level, agreed that it was time for meaningful change. While referring to the leadership’s call to action, Fussell recalls the decision to  “fundamentally shift the way we run ourselves as an organization…not that our teams are not good enough…we are collectively operating like it’s 1987, and it is not.”

Some hurdles the military faced included, but were not limited to becoming efficient at passing information in real time, creating an ease with which intelligence could be shared across the services, efficiently allocating and sharing resources, and allowing larger degrees of autonomy to make local decisions. Fussell pointed out that it was a difficult process for the military to overcome these challenges, taking “several years.”

Citing evidence of the military’s success at overcoming these operational challenges, Huggins drew on his experience, witnessing a cohesive collaboration between the conventional units and special operations even though there were high levels of competition.

One Big “Easy” Button

Evolution is not a place but a journey, and the road is a long, circuitous, and arduous one. Fussell warned that while special operations forces are essential to perform unique missions to pave the way for future successes, these units, by themselves are not built to win wars. He cautions that there is a prevailing misunderstanding on how we see and run special operations (and the military for that matter). That is, we treat it as if it is one big “Easy” button. While citing images of the current debacle and the failed state of Yemen, Fussell warned that special operations and the military should be components of a grand strategy and not as the be-all and end-all.

Carrot vs. Stick: The Role of the State Department in Winning Wars

Dubbed as “Phase Four”, Huggins cites the importance of the State Department in the grand strategy of winning wars. Cautioning that unless we “want to stay and occupy” the challenges of reconstruction must be undertaken, and this is the unique ability of the State Department because “killing is not the end to [war].”

While answering a question on the dismantling of the Iraqi Republican Guards, Huggins pointed out that this created a vacuum which opposition forces used to recruit now unemployed, penniless yet skilled soldiers to their fight on their behalf. Both Huggins and Fussell noted the very human element of conditions on the ground: people still want to be able to provide for their families. The State Department represents that human element, the arm that aids in restoring basic human normalcy.

Drones: Fad or The Future?

Central to this current evolutionary process is the role of drones. Huggins reassured that the military’s use of drones is not a cold, robotic process but instead still counts on human judgment (and by the same token, error) to “make the decision.”  Even in instances when a drone’s use is miscalculated, the effects of sending a platoon in its stead would still cause mass trauma to and at times the loss of civilians.

Fussell explained that often we ascribe undue moral-ethical burden to the use of drones and the damages that result while in similar instances we are quick to excuse the damage caused by a platoon because we see it as simply humans defending themselves while drones are seen as “too artificial intelligence like.”

A Military Evolving, Eventually

While evolution is not a place but a journey, the military has still not arrived at that place called “equality”, at least not gender equality.  Fussell shared that currently, no woman has made it through basic selection (success allows entry to the SEAL team). He went on to admit, “We want diversity to come into the force.”

Still on the topic of diversity, Fussell jokingly added that the current composition of the army would be useful in aiding with blending in with civilians only if “we go to war with Norway.”

Not Your Good Ol’ Jeffersonian Democracy

While the military is employing its efforts to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing challenges on the battlefield and advancements in technology, the grand strategy for restoring a stable and secure homeland after a military operation is to recognize that the answer is not always Jeffersonian Democracy.

Afghanistan and Iraq contain very tribal cultures, village-centric. This does not necessarily translate to the division of the country. Indeed, there are many areas for collaboration – the suppression of al-Qaeda, impeding them from regaining a foothold is one area of commonality. These governments might not be the style of government we recognize, but it will be the style that works for the individual homeland.

The Way Forward

The U.S. military is still the standard in modern warfare, retaining a competitive edge in multiple domains. While it remains as the helms of these “aggressive senior leaders” who are willing to push for the arduous task of changing, the military will evolve and adapt and continue to lead the free world.

Jim Huggins: Recently retired Lt. General Jim Huggins served in the U.S. military for 35 years in multiple capacities: Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division, Commander of NATO Forces in Afghanistan’s Regional Command South, Director of Operations for the Army and as the principal advisor to the Secretary of the Army and Chief of Staff of the Army on joint matters, National Security Council matters and the politico-military aspects of international affairs.

Christopher Fussell: Christopher Fussell Spent 15 years as an officer in the Navy SEALs with SEAL Teams 2, 8 and Naval Special Warfare Development Group (unofficially known as SEAL Team 6). He deployed multiple times to Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other nations in the Central Command region. From 2007-2008, he served as Aide-de-Camp to General Stanley McChrystal, then Commanding General of the Joint Special Operations Command. During his service, Fussell was heavily involved with counterterrorism operations, and worked extensively in the interagency arena.

Clint Sosa is a freelance writer, philanthropists, and former ambassador deeply enamored with the City of Houston and the smorgasbord of cultural and culinary adventures and the wonderful people who make it a paradise to call home.

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