U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is increasing its forward presence and access to the special operations forces (SOF) of allies worldwide. There is no NATO-like arrangement in the Asia-Pacific, so U.S. SOF must maintain a steady presence through a Theater Special Operations Command. Despite existing efforts, military cooperation remains a perilous venture. A combined SOF headquarters that can organize, train, equip, and perhaps deploy special operations forces to confront armed threats and provide humanitarian assistance would give Washington a sustainable forward presence and further U.S. and regional interests. Such a headquarters and training entity might eventually bring a security community resembling NATO and could work cheek by jowl with more fully developed international SOF networks to breed novel and cost-effective approaches that will leave a small footprint and conserve resources in a time when cooperation and burden-sharing are imperative.
For better and worse, 2011 was a banner year for U.S. domestic and foreign policy in the fight against violent extremists. The United States saw the end of Osama bin Laden and North Korean’s Kim Jong-il. Spring came to flower in parts of the Middle East, leading to the collapse of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The United States observed the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 while Congress debated the scope and size of cuts to discretionary spending in the wake of the largest budget deficit in history. The last combat troops crossed the Iraqi border with Kuwait, signaling the end of an 8-year campaign. And while these changes in many respects are promising, our nation still faces, in the words of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, “a complex and growing array of security challenges across the globe.”1 Coupled with these complex and irregular threats is our rising national debt, which in itself creates a significant impact on our nation’s ability to defend itself. The current fiscal reality will necessitate tackling these challenges with a military that is smaller in size and reorganized to capitalize on regional partnerships to share the security burden.
The Security Threat
As stated in President Barack Obama’s June 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism, “the preeminent security threat to the United States continues to be from al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents.”2 The death of al Qaeda’s leader in May 2011 did not reduce the threat of this far-flung organization. With affiliate organizations in the Pan Sahel, Horn of Africa, and Southeast Asia, and a growing interest in Central and South America, al Qaeda is a global hydra that threatens U.S. interests on all fronts.
Special operations forces sniper with ISAF provides security for road maintenance team in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan
U.S. Air Force (Joseph Swafford)
Outside of the larger terrorist threat that al Qaeda inspires, countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and securing access to maritime trade routes are also areas of significant concern for the United States and its allies. With the distributed nature of these threats and the elusive hunt for terrorist leadership and support functions, Washington has acknowledged a greater-than-ever need to enable partner states to counter the threats. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) highlights the need to “build the defense capacity of allied and partner states.”3 Such activities include multilateral and bilateral training venues, sales and financing of defense articles, and exchange and educational programs targeted at promoting greater capacity and capability to counter security issues. Important to note is the QDR’s emphasis that “for reasons of political legitimacy as well as sheer economic necessity, there is no substitute for professional, motivated local security forces protecting populations threatened by insurgents and terrorists in their midst.”4
The Budget Threat
Admiral Michael Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 2010 that the “single biggest threat to our national security is our debt.”5 The financial crisis and subsequent recession that came about in 2008 caused the Nation’s deficit to spike significantly in the wake of emergency spending through stimulus programs, increased unemployment benefits and social expenditures, and the Troubled Asset Relief Program. In April 2011, as the Department of Defense (DOD) was working its fiscal year 2012 budget request, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates directed the Service Secretaries to identify more than $350–400 billion in spending cuts and efficiencies over the next 10 years.6 While the Nation’s recovery effort remained relatively flat, and with the coming end to major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, DOD became a prime target for fiscal restraint as the administration tackled a nearly $1.5 trillion deficit.
Over the summer of 2011, Congress was forced to consider legislation to increase the debt ceiling to meet government outlays in the coming fiscal year. A compromise was reached in August that raised the debt ceiling while working to slow growth of the national debt: the Budget Control Act. One of the measures to curb the deficit was a requirement to cut projected defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade.7 As he prepared to unveil his projected defense budget for 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that he would meet this spending reduction by retiring older aircraft and ships, delaying several acquisition programs, and reducing the Nation’s ground forces by 100,000 Soldiers and Marines.8 With the size and scope of cuts to the defense budget over the coming years, now more than ever the United States must look to cooperation with friends and allies to ensure that security is not compromised in these lean times.
This article briefly examines past and present defense policy to frame the current emphasis on building and sustaining partner-nation security capacity. An examination of the newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) will show that this organization is a regional partnership capable of conducting operations to counter terrorism and build partner-nation capacity in the defense of the NATO Alliance. As a case study, this article will apply the NSHQ model in the western Pacific to conduct military assistance, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance missions in a region of increasing importance to U.S. foreign and military policy. Special operations forces (SOF), through their regional focus and habitual training relationships with partner nations, are uniquely suited to these tasks. Franchising the NATO model of a coalition SOF headquarters with deployable air and ground forces can provide a hedge against declining defense budgets while ensuring that regional partners are vested in the collective security of their regions against nontraditional threats.
Defense Policy in Review
Past Quadrennial Defense Reviews have stressed the need to build and sustain forces capable of winning two major regional conflicts in overlapping timeframes against peer or near-peer adversaries. A large part of this strategy was formed as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union. This strategy was designed to dissuade military entrepreneurship counter to U.S. and aligned international partners’ interests either regionally or globally. This environment-shaping strategy involved military deployments, military-to-military contacts, and arms transfers and assistance programs to bolster partner-nation capabilities and reassure allies of U.S. participation in regional security. In these instances, the United States took more of a leading role both in terms of policy- and goal-setting and in providing substantial fiscal support. While the United States sought to address security issues through a multinational approach, the trend has been to play, in the words of defense analyst Carl Conetta, an “ever more prominent role as the convener, governor, and quartermaster of joint action.”9
However, the current QDR emphasizes that “America’s adversaries have been adopting a wide range of strategies and capabilities. . . . It is no longer appropriate to speak of ‘major regional conflicts’ as a sole or even primary template for sizing, shaping and evaluating U.S. forces.”10 In a recent Joint Force Quarterly article, Paul Davis and Peter Wilson emphasize that the distributed nature of today’s threats requires the ability to “surveil, strike, punish from afar, and insert small, networked ground forces.”11 This strategy could certainly involve the use of SOF supported by capably trained indigenous forces and enabled by air and sea mobility and fires support as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets. The challenge to planners at the Pentagon will be to find the right mix of more costly conventional deter-and-defeat resources and small, less-expensive networked forces that can engage in irregular warfare, counterinsurgency, stabilization, and humanitarian assistance mission sets, usually with other nations involved.
The European Model: Can an Answer Be Found in NATO?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization came into being as a result of a rising and belligerent Soviet Union in the wake of World War II. Largely blossoming out of the Truman Doctrine of 1947, which sought to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure,” and fueled by the Marshall Plan, which provided funds to repair a war-torn continent, a transatlantic Alliance was formed to provide for a collective defense.12 This “Transatlantic Bargain” encompassed 10 Western European states, Canada, and the United States and sought to counter Soviet expansionist ambitions while ensuring a stable security environment to bolster European democracy and foster economic growth.13 Today, the Alliance includes 28 member nations. NATO also engages in security cooperation and multilateral initiatives with 37 countries from Eastern Europe, the Euro-Atlantic area, the Gulf region, and Asia.14 The overarching premise for the Alliance revolves around a defense partnership to ensure collective security for Europe and the North Atlantic region. But outside of a few organic assets that include a command and control architecture and an airborne surveillance aircraft wing, NATO does not own its own military forces and relies on member states to provide them.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many questioned the continuing need for NATO. However, throughout the 1990s, the Alliance became involved in defense matters outside of their charter area to include operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. In the 1999 NATO Strategic Concept, Alliance political leadership stressed that future threats would be increasingly “multidirectional and often difficult to predict,”15 thus opening the door for a defense strategy that lay beyond the borders of Europe. As of January 2012, NATO is involved in five ongoing missions to include stabilization in Kosovo, antiterrorism in the Mediterranean, counterpiracy in the Gulf of Aden, support for the African Union, and training and assistance missions in Afghanistan. It recently concluded Operation Unified Protector in Libya, implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 against Muammar Qadhafi’s attempt to put down a popular uprising against his dictatorial regime.
The Transatlantic Bargain—Redux
The Transatlantic Bargain between the United States, Canada, and the European member states has been renegotiated several times since the Alliance’s inception. Throughout these incarnations, the United States shouldered much of the burden for defending Europe from possible Soviet aggression. But over the next 40 years, Washington saw a more capable military emerging from the ashes of War II and sought to have NATO shoulder more of the burden for its own defense. As the Cold War ended, the greatest threat to the Bargain was how the Allies would work together to share the security burden beyond NATO’s borders. During the 1990s, many nations sought to capitalize on the “peace dividend” that followed the loss of the greater Soviet threat, and individual defense spending plummeted.16 Though the Alliance did engage in several operations during this period, the majority of the heavy lifting was accomplished by the United States both in terms of equipment and in manpower. In fact, as highlighted in Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s last address to NATO before leaving office, the United States provides 75 percent of NATO’s budget, up from 50 percent during the Cold War.17
As NATO prepared for its 2012 summit in Chicago, the topic of collective defense—supported both with resources and with resolve—promised to be prominent in the discussions. Previous iterations of the Transatlantic Bargain involved a very active U.S. role in terms of assets and capabilities. Burden-sharing among the member nations has always been a stated objective. However, while the United States saw this as a contract that involved each nation doing its part, most European countries saw this as a compact that did not translate necessarily into a specific commitment.18 Today’s Bargain will be more about restructuring the current arrangement to emphasize new and evolving threats from transnational terrorism, cyber attack, and weak and failing states without a leading U.S. role. While the United States will never abandon the Bargain, it is clear that NATO should continue to prioritize future security objectives and develop a clear path to resourcing them. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s “Smart Defense” approach to burden sharing is a good start.
Secretary General Rasmussen, recognizing significant decreases in defense spending among member nations, stated that a fundamental challenge facing Europe and the Alliance is “how to avoid having the economic crisis denigrate into a security crisis.”19 Throughout the past decade, member nation defense spending has fallen to roughly 1.7 percent of gross domestic product as compared to the current U.S. level of 4.8 percent. These numbers could continue to decline as austerity measures force further belt-tightening across the Alliance. Rasmussen stressed that the threat of terrorism and failed states will only increase and that investing in homeland defense and retrenching will not counter these threats.20
The Secretary General’s Smart Defense approach is about “building security for less money by working together and being more flexible while encouraging multinational cooperation [and] combining resources to build capabilities that can benefit the Alliance as a whole.”21 This approach has already proven itself in the form of the longstanding airborne surveillance capability the Alliance operates through the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force and through its newly formed Heavy Airlift Wing consortium, which employs a fleet of shared C-17 transport aircraft in Papa, Hungary. In 2006, the Alliance embarked on a NATO SOF Transformation Initiative (NSTI) to standardize another critical enabler of Alliance security in this time of unconventional threats.
NATO SOF Headquarters: The Vision
As early as 1995, NATO realized that its special operations forces were inadequate for the security environment following the breakup of the Soviet Union. In Bosnia and Kosovo, SOF were either not assigned to the overall commander or were working in a stovepiped arrangement that disallowed unity of effort on the battlefield. NATO SOF were again deployed to provide counterterrorism support for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens but were not under a unified command and control structure or part of the overall intelligence architecture, instead reporting back through their own national command structures. And in 2006, as part of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, significant differences in SOF capability and interoperability, as well as a dearth of special operations capable aircraft, led the NATO Military Committee to look for a solution.
During the NATO Riga summit in 2006, ministers of defense from 23 countries agreed to form NSTI, which would create a NATO SOF Coordination Center (NSCC). This center would be responsible for increasing each member nation’s SOF ability to train and operate together as well as standardizing and improving equipment capabilities with the United States, as the Framework Nation.22 In March 2010, the NSCC was reflagged as a headquarters and placed under the command of a 3-star general or flag officer reporting directly to the Supreme Allied Commander. Though still in its early stages of development, the NSHQ will eventually provide NATO senior leadership with a mature allied and partner network of SOF able to rapidly generate a special operation ground task unit with organic command, control, communications, and intelligence assets.
NSHQ is designed to provide a coherent long-term stewardship and direction for member nation and allied SOF. The missions expected to be conducted by SOF trained and led by NSHQ include direct action, either unilaterally or as part of a larger conventional force, military assistance to partner nations and other security forces outside of Europe, and humanitarian assistance following natural disasters anywhere in the world. To accomplish these missions, the headquarters seeks to move beyond the current ad hoc construct into a partnership that transforms these multinational SOF units from acquaintances to kinship. The “failure is not an option” political demand of many SOF missions requires a high degree of cohesiveness among both maritime and ground forces and their aviation enablers. This has led the commander, NSHQ, Lieutenant General Frank Kisner, USAF, to recommend both an increased deployment capability for NATO ground SOF and a standing air operations capability.23
From Vision to Reality
From the outset, the headquarters primary lines of operations were to advise NATO leadership on matters related to the employment of capable special operations forces and coordinate and synchronize force generation and development of tasks in support of NATO operation; and to enhance interoperability and standardization through a Federation of NATO SOF Training Centers.
To execute this vision, the headquarters maintains a staff of 149 officer, enlisted, and civilian personnel drawn from the 23 participating nations under a memorandum of understanding (MOU).24 Based in Mons, Belgium, NSHQ fulfills this first line of operation by providing ongoing assessments of member and partner-nation SOF participating in the ISAF special operations training mission in Afghanistan. NSHQ also provides in-garrison and deployable assessment teams to advise member nations on improving special operations capabilities from the tactical to strategic level. Lastly, the command maintains an ever-expanding NATO secure communications network to ensure connectivity and intelligence sharing across all of NATO SOF. In the future, NSHQ will form the core of a combined joint special operations component command able to field a deployable joint special operations task force headquarters to provide command and control of SOF either independently or as part of a larger NATO mission to ensure unity of effort and execution.25
However, as important as the primary line of operation is to the evolution of deployable and capable NATO SOF, the second tasking, providing standardization and training, is the command’s current focus. The NATO SOF Training and Education Program, based at nearby Chièvres Air Base, provides a course of instruction that includes the doctrinal employment of SOF as well as programs in such areas as intelligence, forensics, air operations integration, and technical exploitation. The command is diligently working to increase this training capability by adding course offerings from among the partner nations’ civilian and military academic institutions as part of a training federation. To ensure that SOF activities are standardized, NSHQ has authored the Allied Joint Doctrine for SOF, Allied Command Operations Force Standards for SOF, and SOF Evaluation as well as manuals and handbooks covering a range of topics to include special air warfare, SOF task group architecture and employment, and medical concerns for SOF. None of these existed prior to the arrival of the NSHQ.
As the Framework Nation for NSHQ, the United States supports the lion’s share of the fiscal and personnel burden for this headquarters. Though the member nations are responsible for sharing costs, Washington maintains a vast majority of the budget responsibility through U.S. Army and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) lines of accounting. NATO common funding is not assured and must be requested on a case-by-case basis. USSOCOM remains committed to the continuing evolution of NSHQ and will assume all responsibility for funding the U.S. portion of the contribution account in the coming years. Additionally, USSOCOM is seeking to expand both the training mission and deployable SOF architecture within NATO in an effort to expand their SOF network.26
As all of the NATO partners face resourcing constraints, a comprehensive SOF resourcing model epitomizes the NATO Secretary General’s Smart Defense initiative. The current reality within NATO is that no one nation possesses the capability to conduct the full scale of SOF missions unilaterally in an environment of uncertainty and unconventional threats. The NSHQ and its mission to standardize and train SOF to work jointly follows the SOF truth that emphasizes that capable SOF cannot be created after emergencies occur. By creating joint employment doctrine; standardizing training, tactics, and procedures; and promoting a true culture of interoperability and unity of command, NSHQ is working to field capable NATO SOF for any contingency or military assistance mission. The benefits of interdependence among NATO SOF units should include enhanced worldwide mobility and operational proficiency in all NATO missions. With U.S. support, NSHQ will include capable air component enablers that will habitually train and deploy globally with ground and maritime forces.
Application: The Pacific
The administration’s shift to a more Asia-centric foreign policy was extremely evident in the November 2011 East Asia Summit. President Obama attended it for the first time since he came to office. The summit, consisting of the traditional Association of East Asian States (ASEAN) plus Russia, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand, is primarily a forum to promote security and prosperity in the region.27 Asia-Pacific is becoming more and more crucial to the United States as its own economy continues to stagnate while China, India, and several other nations in the area continue to grow. While past administrations have had episodic participation in trade and security dialogue in the region, the Obama administration has placed ASEAN-led institutions such as the East Asian Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) at the heart of its foreign policy agenda in Asia.28 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a recent article in Foreign Policy, noted that the “United States has emphasized the importance of multilateral cooperation, for we believe that addressing complex transnational challenges of the sort now faced by Asia requires a set of institutions capable of mustering collective action.”29
A Trans-Pacific Bargain?
Over the past decade, the region has increased collaborative efforts to counter transnational terrorism. Although no NATO-like entity exists, the ASEAN Regional Forum has taken on a greater security dialogue, and traditional U.S. alliances with powers such as Australia and Japan have strengthened and sought new members to form a collective security environment. Many nations have significantly increased their defense spending, with China and India being the most notable. Though trade is still at the forefront for most efforts in the region, securing trade routes, environmental and resource security, combating piracy, the risk of weapons of mass destruction proliferation, and countering extremist elements have risen to the top of most agendas.
Early in the evolution of ASEAN, many of its members were militarily aligned to Western governments stemming from precolonial arrangements or other bilateral agreements. Internal security cooperatives among several ASEAN states existed but were primarily bilateral and meant to secure shared borders. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, ASEAN, like NATO and the European Union, adjusted to a security environment that was more nebulous than that of the previous two decades. With a nuclear North Korea and the Taiwan Strait as potential flashpoints, and China’s rising military and economic power countering a waning Japan and distracted United States, ASEAN was forced to look at developing a more formal security arrangement. The ASEAN Regional Forum was established in 1994 to form a single East Asian security agreement aimed at addressing the numerous security concerns in evidence after the Cold War and ensuring that the United States remained engaged in the region.30 The forum thus formed the underpinnings of an arrangement or bargain structure similar to what the United States maintains with NATO. Though not specifically stated, this “Trans-Pacific Bargain” was the necessary first step toward a regional military cooperative that is still evolving.
The U.S. experience in NATO over the past 60 years can prove a useful point of departure when looking at a Trans-Pacific bargain. Like NATO, ASEAN shares a common sense of regional values and norms. By seeking to carry these into a security regime, the ASEAN Regional Forum should avoid the identification of a singular threat that characterized much of NATO’s existence vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. This forum represents an opportunity to extend ASEAN’s distinctive cooperative security and political culture of noninterference, equality, and sovereignty to all Asia-Pacific nations as the only multilateral forum covering the region with a clear security role.31 Within the forum, the larger powers, China, Japan, and the United States, although they are members, have ceded formal leadership to the ASEAN nations, reflecting the necessary independence and regional importance of their continued support to a more stable security environment. Though the United States still maintains many bilateral agreements with members of ASEAN, the importance of supporting a larger security construct like the ARF in the form of a SOF-centric multilateral coordination and advisory organization cannot be overstated.
The Pacific Regional Special Operations Headquarters
As demonstrated in Afghanistan, SOF are uniquely suited to partnering with conventional security forces. Special operations forces are traditionally a more mature capability that is inherently joint in nature and able to exploit multiple facets of any combat environment. These forces are utilized in wide-ranging roles and missions to include training and advising local security forces, setting conditions for successful humanitarian assistance missions, and performing direct action raids and special reconnaissance to counter WMD proliferation or irregular threats. The Defense Department is currently reviewing its military posture and options worldwide and will seek to add greater strategic depth across the Pacific region.32 While there is a permanent or rotational presence of U.S. forces in the region, SOF presence remains relatively small by comparison under the command and control of Special Operations Command–Pacific (SOCPAC).
Although SOCPAC helps orchestrate the training and operations of several national SOF units, it is a U.S.-led, manned, and resourced headquarters. The SOF assigned to the command routinely interact with regional partners. However, there is not a significant number of partner-nation personnel assigned to SOCPAC, and the assigned personnel usually function in a liaison capacity. Taking the next step toward a truly integrated partner-nation SOF construct along the lines of NSHQ would provide forward basing of U.S. SOF in nontraditional areas with a greater array of partners to share the security burden. In terms of perception and legitimacy, a regional partnership in which the United States is an equal partner vice leading entity will ensure that each member gets an equal say in security policy and execution. The regional SOF headquarters will ensure standardization and manage redundant assets. By producing common training practices, ensuring equipment commonality, and reducing the number of forces and capabilities that a nation must produce and maintain, the headquarters will allow many nations to have a greater involvement in regional security concerns without shouldering the financial burden of a standing professional special operations component.
Making It Work
As in Europe, Central and South America, and the Middle East, U.S. SOF maintain a continuous presence in the form of a Theater Special Operations Command in the Pacific. SOCPAC provides a lean but potent SOF land, maritime, and air capability to assist in meeting the component commander’s regional security requirement. However, in contrast to NATO, the ARF as a group is not as mature militarily, making any cooperative military venture a tenuous proposition at best. But the United States has a long tradition of bilateral security and assistance relationships with many ASEAN and regional partners that can aid in furthering this security construct by acting as a bridging agent between the states. Fostering a culture of military cooperation among SOF and other regional security forces can bring these forces together and eventually meld them into a cooperative working arrangement for the greater security good. USSOCOM is working diligently to increase their forward presence to gain access to a global SOF network of capable allies and the Pacific region is the next logical area in which to focus. Establishing a regional SOF coordination entity or headquarters structure along the NSHQ model would further this effort. Though this might seem counterintuitive to the “ASEAN Way” of conflict management and regional security norms,33 transnational and unpredictable threats to regional security have brought more focus on developing a security community not unlike NATO. Through the creation and sustainment of a training entity, nations that might have not normally worked together could join their efforts for the common good with the United States in a supporting vice supported role.
This indirect approach is not necessarily new. U.S. SOF have been present across the globe for decades providing advice and assistance to partner-nation forces. In any given year, USSOCOM conducts military assistance engagements in more than 70 countries. These persistent engagements strengthen our partners and aid in the creation of a hedge against unforeseen threats. Yet there is more that can be accomplished by expanding this to include multiple partners in a combined effort to increase security capital across a region. “Burden sharing” has been a part of the political and military lexicon for decades. However, with shrinking defense budgets and a threat environment more suitable for smaller, networked special operations forces, the United States should look to redefining its concept of burden sharing with an eye toward building truly capable partners that can act with or without significant U.S. support.
By leveraging a combined SOF headquarters able to organize, train, equip, and possibly deploy special operations forces to combat regional threats or provide humanitarian assistance and civic action, the United States can maintain a forward presence and assure its partners and allies that it will not allow belligerent actors or nations to impinge on the freedoms we all expect in a democratic world. Admiral William McRaven, USSOCOM commander, testified before the House Armed Services Committee recently that “the future of USSOCOM is building up the Theater Special Operations Commands and regional special operations networks.”34 SOF is representative of what the Defense Secretary calls for in his latest defense initiative to “develop innovative, low cost and small footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives.”35JFQ