The attacks of 9/11, which seem so long ago, caught the United States by surprise. There were some warning signs that were missed by our intelligence and law enforcement agencies but pointing the finger isn’t the purpose here. The last 16 years have seen our forces fighting a different kind of war, with a different set of parameters. But we shouldn’t forget the hard lessons learned through the decades of the Cold War. Because we’re going to need them.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, our intelligence agencies were gutted. Some ex-CIA operatives in the media have opined that as many as 1,000 trained operatives left the agency in the aftermath as budgets were being cut and clandestine-trained operatives were leaving in droves. Alex Finley, a former CIA operative, wrote an interesting piece where she talked about the need for the return of the Cold War espionage tactics.
The war on terror was different, and it has been much harder to gain inroads into the inner workings of terror groups that operated in failed states, in austere environments. The agency pumped new blood and money into their Counter-Terrorism Center and its employees now worked closely with military personnel. Their mission was/is to track and target the enemy.
Due to the nature of the areas that they’re operating in, intelligence operatives couldn’t walk the streets, ala James Bond and Jason Bourne as the threat was far too high and the need for security was paramount. They were forced to work through Middle Eastern partners, which was a radical change from traditional Cold War espionage operations.
That goes for the Special Operations Forces as well: With the troops fighting a war which has dragged into the latter half of its second decade, the intelligence requirements are geared around the targeting of insurgent groups and specific leaders.
And while the War on Terror isn’t going anywhere for the near future, the threats to the U.S. aren’t just in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Other parts of the globe are heating up and our SOF, already operating at an incredible tempo, will find themselves in other global hotspots.
It is important to remember that intelligence lessons learned in the Cold War can be and should be used in other areas where the risk for conflict is high. The CIA has in the last five years beefed up their African intelligence gathering capability with different surveillance aircraft, both manned and unmanned. (Human intelligence (HUMINT) and the live sources of information require more time to set up.)
In case anyone hasn’t noticed, the Russians are once again pushing their influence far past their borders and their bellicose intentions, despite how our president perceives Putin, are a concern. Russian efforts to undermine the U.S. are everywhere. On top of that, the Chinese are beefing up their navy, have opened a base in Djibouti, and are currying favor with many of the U.S.’ Latin American allies as well as Iran.
So, what does this mean for Special Operations missions? It means getting back to what SOF do and what have always traditionally done. The Direct Action (DA) and Counter-Terror (CT) missions in the Global War on Terror will continue, but SOF, as well as intelligence agencies, will step back into the “gray zone” between war and peace in other parts of the world to stop conflicts before they begin.
With the expansion of conflicts in Africa, Latin American and parts of Asia, the time is right to expand the intelligence-gathering operations and increase the reach of the Special Operations Forces once they’re committed.
SOF and our allies will build rapport prior to open conflict. The language and cultural expertise in these regions help the troops facilitate stability and counter negative influence with and through local security forces. This will buy time to prevent conflict before it happens. The work in the shadows will be a long-term effort to build assets, provide force protection and gain valuable intelligence assets that can put U.S. forces in proactive rather than a reactive mode.
The Unconventional Warfare (UW) model is what SOF and the Special Forces groups have based their training around. UW operations are usually long-term and will carry on over years rather than months. Indigenous or proxy forces are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed by SOF elements.
UW includes Guerrilla Warfare and other direct offensive, low-visibility, covert, or clandestine operations. UW also includes the indirect activities of subversion, sabotage, intelligence collection, and Escape and Evasion (E&E).
To successfully conduct operations in these environments, the SOF teams have intelligence requirements to support the overall U.S. objectives in the area. This goes above the tactical level, so the SOF teams need to know how their tactical objectives tie-in with strategic goals. Therefore, they need not only target information on hostile forces but all-source processed information on:
• Military and paramilitary organizations
• Ethnic composition
• Religious factors
The SOF teams can generate some of these intelligence requirements, in their area study guides, before deployment. And on others, the national intelligence agencies can keep the special operations units up to speed by doing what they’ve always done and by how they’d conducted operations in the past.
For the deployed SOF units, force protection is an extremely important factor in the overall security of the mission. Here, local intelligence nets must be organized and resourced. They can be tailored to fit the mission and the operational area. This expertise has been used since the times of the teams of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II. (The OSS was the forerunner of both the CIA and the U.S. Army Special Forces.)
Special Forces have exceptionally trained personnel and are very well versed in spotting, assessing, developing, and recruiting low-level sources for force protection requirements. These operations, in what the troops used to refer to as “long-hair ops” are extremely important in the force protection and early warning operational areas.
Close coordination with the CIA and other national and theater intelligence agencies may be required to identify potential in-country sources. This is important because the area doesn’t need “cross-pollination” or the duplication of effort and/or assets.
Because SOF operations will vary depending on the area and other factors, they require a wide range of support. This ties with the SOF Truths and specifically #5 “Most Special Operations require non-SOF Support.” This support includes everything from basic logistical support to very sophisticated intelligence. All-source intelligence is essential regardless of the mission.
Special Operations Forces will continue to meet the mission requirements as tasked by the National Command Authority and sub-tasked through USSOCOM (United States Special Operations Command) or JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command). And the intelligence required for these operations will increase as time goes on. Commanders need every available scrap of information that can be used for mission accomplishment. And in doing so, they will dust off those Cold War operational plans for many of these activities.