Special Forces can rescue the US pivot


U.S. Marine Corps General James Mattis is thanked for his years of service by Navy Admiral William McRaven at the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, March 5, 2013. Both men were appearing before the committee with regard to the Defense Authorization Request for fiscal year 2014.

Article Highlights

  • The disconnect between U.S. defense cuts and President Obama's strategic pivot toward Asia has raised doubts.

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  • The persistent threat from pan-Asian Islamic terrorist groups underscores the need for cooperative anti-terror training.

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  • The Commander of U.S. Pacific Command supports the concept of building a special operations forces network in Asia.

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The disconnect between U.S. defense cuts and President Obama's strategic pivot toward Asia has raised doubts about whether the policy can live up to its billing. Amid this uncertainty, however, one part of the military is eager to expand its footprint in Asia and make the pivot real, at a relatively low cost – if only Congress would loosen its purse strings.

Admiral William McRaven is the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in Tampa, Florida. For the past several years, some of his top officers have been creating a plan to use America's special operations forces to radically transform Asia's security environment. The goal is to help America's elite warriors better train Asian militaries and special forces to counter threats such as narcotrafficking and terrorism. In the process, Adm. McRaven says, such training could bring Asian nations together to reduce the risk of future conflict.

When most people think of U.S. special operations forces, they think of Navy SEALs taking out Osama Bin Laden or the Army Delta Force kicking down doors and rescuing hostages. This is what SOCOM calls "direct action." Yet the bread-and-butter of special operations work is the long-term "indirect action" of training foreign military forces and sharing information. While there will always be a need for special forces' ability to execute high-risk missions, their partnering with foreign militaries often pays a higher dividend over time.

These special forces partnerships are usually planned on a country-by-country basis, with little coordination across missions. The exception—and the model for Adm. McRaven's plans for Asia—is NATO's special operations forces headquarters in Belgium, which began as a coordination center in 2006 and now trains forces from 26 NATO nations. Centralized cooperation there has led to a dramatic increase in the number of European special operations force missions conducted with and without help from U.S. soldiers.

Now Adm. McRaven wants to establish a "Global Special Operations Forces Network" of similar training centers for allies in Asia and elsewhere. By standardizing and expanding U.S. allies' special operations training, Adm. McRaven says that this network could reduce the number of doors American SEALs have to kick down themselves. Instead, better-prepared Philippine or South Korean forces could pick up the slack.

America's allies and their special forces face a wide range of security threats, from indigenous terrorist groups to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. They could benefit from America's cutting-edge expertise in these areas.

The U.S., in return, gets greater peace of mind at a time of increased competition with China. A regional special operation forces network has the potential to create a new community of interests to buttress America's six-decade-old alliance system.

Many of the security challenges that Asian nations face are uniquely suited for greater special operations solutions. Piracy remains a major worry in the region given its thousands of miles of coastline and equal numbers of islands. For Indonesia and the Philippines, which are made up entirely of such scattered islands, improving quick-reaction forces can also help to promote political stability.

The persistent threat from pan-Asian Islamic terrorist groups such as Abu Sayyaf further underscores the need for cooperative anti-terror training. What's more, help from Asian special forces on counter-proliferation efforts would reduce the burden on U.S. forces to keep North Korea from destabilizing its neighbors.

The Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, supports the concept of building a special operations forces network in Asia. But despite SOCOM's phenomenal success over a decade of war, there has been opposition to Admiral McRaven's plans. Some fear losing budget battles to SOCOM, though it accounts for only 1.7% of defense spending. Others believe special operations forces have become too high profile relative to what they can actually do. In fact, Adm. McRaven stresses, the concept is designed to give America's regional combatant commanders even more flexible special operations forces at their disposal.

Congress is an equally daunting impediment to Adm. McRaven's dreams of a global special forces network. The core of his plan is to establish partner-led coordination centers in Latin America and Asia that are similar to NATO's in Europe. Congress, however, has rejected SOCOM's request for $14.7 million to begin building a regional center pilot program, despite interest in Asia and Latin America.

Putting a training center in a neutral place like Singapore would allow U.S. allies and would-be allies to build closer security relations with America. Yet Congress has gone so far as to prevent any money from being used even for planning purposes.

A global special forces network will not by itself solve the world's security problems, of course. But Adm. McRaven and his strategists believe, with reason, that such a network can materially improve the quality of allied special operations forces around the globe. That, in turn, will serve to protect the U.S. homeland threatened by interlinked, international webs of terrorist financing and drug running.

Given these benefits, the amount of money America's elite warriors are requesting for their pilot program seems like a modest sum well worth spending.

Mr. Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for wsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.

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