SOF Bias for Action and SOCSOUTH’s Pragmatism

Contributor:  IDGA Editorial Staff
Posted:  03/22/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Recently U.S. Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, SOUTHCOM Commander spoke about focusing on improving collaboration and coordination among regional security forces. He said "I think the most important thing we can do is focus on what capabilities we have today.  And with those capabilities, what can we do to improve how we are addressing our collective security concerns, By focusing there, it breaks through a lot of the barriers and concerns and allows us to directly talk about what we can do and builds a very, very firm foundation that we can build on as we work in the future."

Rear Admiral Brown - Can you examine this statement and how it fits into the various strategic and operational objectives for SOUTHCOM/SOCSOUTH?

I think the thrust of the commander’s statement is that US Government security institutions, collectively, can tend to focus on a hypothetical future scenario as the time for action and results.  We may tell ourselves, “When our partner nation acquires capability X, and we fund programs A to D, then we’ll finally be in a position to achieve results against, let’s say, transnational organized crime in Central America.”

Yet we rarely reach this “ideal” future, where the US and partner nation have just the right capabilities and we have the ideal set of circumstances for success.  Also, in the past, we’ve invested in complex and/or expensive systems not appropriate to the partner nation and have therefore failed to achieve our “hoped for” return on investment.

Given the commander’s intent to seek results with what we’ve got, I’d characterize the SOCSOUTH enterprise’s approach as a pragmatic process where theory is extracted from practice, then applied back to practice. This is called “intelligent practice,” in which we tailor our training and assistance to our partner’s circumstance to make the most of capacities already in hand.  We’re also pursuing agreements with the country teams to ensure that the capabilities and skills we build are nested inside an agreed-upon concept of employment or operations.  Let me illustrate.

My Panama “Country Officer,” LT Dambach, in his recent work in Panama with a Naval Special Warfare Combatant Craft Crewmen (SWCC) training team, went beyond the traditional small unit tactics and boat-handling skills exchanges.  The SBT-22 team’s outcome-driven training with Panamanian maritime security forces employed US airborne ISR (aircraft), Panamanian, and USCG craft -- all players in the illicit trafficking  “interdiction chain” -- exercising them with our partner force.  The SWCC Team, led by SBC Obst, set up an over-the-horizon transit for the Panamanian interceptor boat drivers and enforcement officials, communicating on Harris Radios with the ships, planes, and others involved in maritime interdiction.  This outcome-oriented training is founded in SOF’s understanding, gained from our persistent presence, of our partner’s concept of operations, the tools they have in their kit, and their most important training and equipment challenges. That insight -- the SOF bias for action and SOCSOUTH’s pragmatism -- has led to the advanced training cited here, which is directly connected to the results we seek. This is “intelligent practice” or pragmatism in action.

What has been the role/mission set of SOF in SOCSOUTH in the past year – have priorities changed in the region? Do you expect them to?

General Fraser’s priorities for the region are clear.  The top priority is to counter the corrosive impact on security of transnational organized crime on the Central American Isthmus, particularly Northern Central America.  That problem is connected to his other priorities in the Andean Ridge, where our friends struggle with narcotics trafficking-fueled insurgencies that have nefarious business and other linkages with transnational organized crime.

An interesting way to further illuminate “our role” in SOUTHCOM is to contrast it with that of General Purpose Forces (GPF), in this case Gen Fraser’s service Component Commands, focusing on SOF’s comparative advantage in combating dangerous non-state actors.  SOCSOUTH has developed strong partnerships with Lt Gen Rand, AFSOUTH-CDR; MajGen Trombitas, ARSOUTH-CDR; MajGen Croley, MARFORSOUTH-CDR; and RADM Tidd, NAVSOUTH-CDR to better combat asymmetric threats in the region.  We work off of a “sliding scale” of contribution by SOF vs. GPF, depending on how that threat or challenge manifests itself. Again, the role of SOF vs. GPF is governed somewhat by whether that threat manifests itself as a visible armed formation, as is the case with the Taliban in Afghanistan, or instead principally manifests itself in a form that lends itself to resolution by law enforcement and intelligence tools – i.e., a threat group flying under the radar that does not present a typical “military” challenge.  Depending on the context, the SOUTHCOM service components and SOCSOUTH play differing roles.

In the case of a major counterinsurgency effort such as the decades-long struggle with the FARC in Colombia, the service or general purpose force components play a relatively larger role in their relationships with the Colombian Army, Marines, Air Force, and Fleet, from logistics to intelligence, as well as infantry and pilot training exchanges on tactics and technical skills.

When the threat has a much lower profile and does not manifest itself as openly armed uniformed “formations” confronting the state politically and militarily, then general purpose force capabilities may not be broadly applicable.  Yet, even in this circumstance, a SOCSOUTH staff educated on SOUTHCOM service component technical skills and capabilities can bring GPF capacities to bear under our “umbrella” in low-profile but high-impact ways.  SOF directs a good bit of our effort against these threats that tend to “fly under the radar,” and our intelligence director, LTC Dan Tobias, and the special activities section of the J3 are often in the lead, providing analytical, technical, and other assistance to our partners.

SOF, and by extension the Theater Special Operations Commands, straddle that spectrum of conflict between “War” and Law Enforcement, able to contribute to USG efforts against asymmetric threats, (dangerous non-state actors) in situations where general purpose forces don’t have the access, relationships, etc. to contribute directly.  Again, a great trend in the SOUTHCOM enterprise is the regular collaboration of SOCSO staff with MARFORSOUTH, NAVSOUTH, etc.  We are increasingly “teamed up” to bring GPF skills and resources to bear, even in these more complex and sensitive circumstances, under the rubric of the TSOC’s unique national security niche.

With respect to the question of “change,” again, General Fraser has been clear that his top priority is helping our partners address the deteriorating security situation in Central America.  At the same time, I think SOCSOUTH has played a helpful role in moving the enterprise to better bring to bear DoD expertise and capacities in the “source zone” countries.  We have been helpful in the Andean Ridge in partnership with SOUTHCOM service components, particularly in the case of those threats that manifest themselves, at least partially, as armed military formations like the FARC, ELN, or Sendero Luminoso.

With respect to change, we routinely evaluate our existing investments in response to evolving circumstance and opportunities.  As our partners in the source zone have stepped up their efforts against narco-terrorist-insurgencies, we have moved forces from elsewhere in the region where we’ve judged the risk of such reapportionment to be relatively low, or found additional resources. We will then move these additional resources to assist those partners in civil affairs, information operations, and improving the capacity of their ground, air, and maritime combat and/or illicit trafficking interdiction units.

My comptroller, Ms. Belinda Hilton, and her team have to be both creative and agile in matching funding sources to our evolving effort.  Belinda works closely with LTCs Berg and Hoguet in my “future ops” section to strike the right balance between our use of “1004” Counter Drug (CD) versus “2011” Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) monies, for example, in our capacity building. 

Monies from 1004 bring authorities for intelligence and operational planning assistance; so CD can often be more useful that JCET.  But a lot of other users compete for that counterdrug money, and so we’re forced to be creative both in the operations department – which determines where the “Forces” may come from -- and also in my resourcing department, which monitors multiple funding streams for risks and opportunities.  The performance of our very small comptroller -- or resourcing department/J8 -- is critical to maintaining our unique position in SOUTHCOM – that of fielding a persistent DoD presence for capacity building. This task requires a great deal of expertise, team work with outside agencies, and creativity.

In conclusion, I’ll simply say that our mission focus continues to be combating dangerous non-state actors, which leads us to occupy the spectrum of conflict that straddles law enforcement and traditional armed conflict.  Our investment in Northern Central America has grown over the last year, as has our investment in Colombia and Peru.  We have allocated resources in line with the Commander’s priorities in Central America and the Andean Ridge so as not to attenuate our effects with a “spread the peanut butter” approach to our engagement across the region.  In other words, we prioritized our investment into those areas facing the greatest threat from transnational organized crime and terrorism.  At the same time we’ve invested modestly but to good effect in military-to-military relations with important countries like Chile and Brazil.  The SOCSOUTH enterprise is managing this challenge the best I’ve seen in my career. Their work is art and science, requiring critical thinking, discussion, entrepreneurship, and disciplined adherence to our vision.

What is being done at the moment in order to provide an immediately deployable crisis response force – what does this mean specifically?  How is it being achieved?

As it has for decades, US Special Operations Command continues to provide a capability for the Geographic Combatant Commander to respond rapidly in the event of crisis, particularly in those circumstances to which SOF is uniquely suited.  More broadly we provide the capability to quickly deploy “problem solvers,” adept at working with US embassies and any number of governmental or non-governmental entities in “chaotic” situations.  This capacity is well explained in Linda Robinson’s Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of Special Forces.

The core of this capacity is the Special Operations Command SOUTH staff, and the engine for our response is our operations department, led by Special Forces Colonel Shannon Boehm.  Shannon’s team has great connections with country teams and partner nations, and unique knowledge and insight into Latin America and the Caribbean.  At the first signs of a problem our team begins working the phones with an ambassador’s staff and any deployed forces we may have in the area to examine how we can be helpful to a partner nation in response to, let’s say, a natural disaster.  This is best displayed in the critical “first responder” role of SOF in the wake of the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japanese coastal areas, and in SOCSOUTH’s response under BG Pagan’s leadership to the 2010 earthquake in Port au Prince.

Our crisis response capability also has a “harder edge.”  SOUTHCOM assigned combat forces include Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group; and Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion of the 160th Aviation Regiment.  I also have a Naval Special Warfare Unit – “Unit 4,” led by Lieutenant Commander Todd Massow. Unit 4 is not a tactical action unit like the Commandos and Special Ops aviators in my Army SOF components, but rather a planning-and-battle staff, able to quickly bring to bear maritime SOF tactical forces that we already have in theater or, more likely, that we may move from elsewhere in the world.  In addition to those units already deployed under our operational control, additional forces may be provided through a CDRUSSOUTHCOM request, with the SECDEF’s approval.

Rounding out my crisis response team is the 112th Signal Detachment led by CPT Jason Zumek and Senior NCO, 1SGT Strickland.  The 112th SOF communicators are talented soldiers, mentally and physically tough, with information-age technical skills.  I can put a small number of these Soldiers on a plane to anywhere in the region, confident that when they hit the ground they’ll quickly connect our crisis response team to the global information grid.  USSOCOM has wisely invested in this rapidly deployable-expeditionary capability.  Thus, CDRUSSOUTHCOM has the ability to field soldiers with sophisticated equipment to enable command & control, communications, computer, and intelligence (C4I) functions anywhere in the world – a capacity that sets us apart from most other countries and organizations.

When interacting with our partner nations’ SOF leaders, I try to explain the value of C4I to their future force structure and investments, because C4I is the cornerstone of information-age versus industrial-age special operations forces.  Frankly, we’d be hard pressed to make the case that our “commandos” are any tougher or more committed to winning a fight than those of our partners – although USSOF often has superior equipment, training, etc.  But we can make the case that what puts USSOF in a different category is our investment in human capital like the 112th Signal Detachment – (SOCSOUTH Det) – the way we resource, field, and lead these combat support functions as a distinct military organization and profession of arms.

As you can see, the Theater Special Operations Commands – or “TSOC” – bring the Geographic Combatant Commanders a unique capability to respond to a crisis or a fleeting opportunity.  At the end of the day, the core of this capability is the SOCSOUTH staff when it task organizes as a “battle staff” to deploy rapidly to a crisis site and bring to bear a force package that is (1) tailored to the political and military circumstances; (2) able to sustain itself in austere environments; and (3) able to work in concert with the SOUTHCOM staff, its service component commands, US country teams, and the partner forces with whom we have long-standing relationships.

Rear Admiral Thomas Brown, USN Commander, SOCSOUTH, US SOUTHCOM - is keynote speaker at IDGA's Special Operations Summit West -

IDGA Editorial Staff Contributor:   IDGA Editorial Staff

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