Special Operations Forces in Africa could be slashed heavily under sweeping Pentagon proposals to retask and reorganize SOF towards more pressing needs facing the rising threats of Russia and China.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had ordered a review of all Special Operations Forces missions as Mattis, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford are worried about SOF capabilities being spread too thin. That has been an ongoing issue for several years.
The review was also part of the ongoing assessment of Special Operations Forces after the ambush and death of four American servicemen in Niger last year.
Mattis and Dunford have given the Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and the Africa Command (AFRICOM) until mid-June on how they plan to meet the existing challenges as well as the new directives concerning China, Russia as well as Iran and North Korea, despite the planned summit meeting.
Mattis has ordered the new priorities and told the commands to focus on the transition period of growing threats from both China and the Russians, as part of the Pentagon’s new strategic defense plan.
“We face growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia, nations that seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models,” Mattis said earlier this year.
“Our military is still strong, yet our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare — air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace — and is continually eroding,” he added.
The Pentagon’s report on the Niger operation was sharply critical of “risk-taking culture” of Special Operations which is exactly what the nature of the operations are. Were mistakes made in Niger? Of course, but to place the blame only on the soldiers involved in the operation was short-sighted and self-serving.
Lately, in an effort to ease the burden on SOF troops operating in Syria, and Afghanistan, the U.S. has been increasingly utilizing conventional force soldiers and/or Marines to bolster the capability and security of the Special Operations troops. They’ve called this the “Uplift” program.
The US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) currently has close to 7300 troops deployed in about 92 countries. That is significantly down from a decade ago when there were almost 13,000 troops deployed. Despite this the command is still dealing with an operational slate (OpTempo) that is unsustainable in the long run and the cracks are already showing themselves in the force. By adding additional requirements on them for the new strategy against China and Russia where some troops will see an added emphasis in countries such as the Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to counter the Russian threat will place a heavier burden on an already stretched razor thin force.
The Army tried to ease the burden on Special Forces troops by creating Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB) to take over the conventional training requirements of host nation forces. The first 1000 troops which comprise the brigade are right now in Afghanistan. The Army plans to field six of these SFABs in the coming years.
They are taking NCOs and Officers from conventional units that will quickly be short enough leaders to fill their own ranks. It won’t be long until the “Big Army” raises questions about these SFABs bleeding their conventional units dry.
The SFAB is running into the same issues in Afghanistan the conventional military has always had when trying to train foreign soldiers. They’re re-inventing the wheel that Special Forces has mastered since the days of the OSS in World War II. They don’t have the experience of training foreign troops and their cross-cultural communications and rapport building skills are in the neophyte stage.
AFRICOM was asked how they would conduct their operations with a 25 percent reduction in SOF troops in 18 months and by a whopping 50 percent in the next three years. Advertising this fact wasn’t perhaps the best move on the Pentagon’s part.
Of the troops currently deployed, about 1200-1300 are currently doing operations in Africa. That number, already not enough to handle the workload there, will be slashed down to the 600 range by 2021.
There are other hot spots in the globe with shadow wars being fought in Yemen, Libya, Somalia as well as others that will require attention as well. Of course, unless there is an uptick in conventional deployments to Africa, one can probably expect the insurgents in the continent, the al-Qaeda offshoots, and the Islamic State to increase their efforts to gain traction with the population and carve out a bigger foothold.
Since the ambush in Niger, missions considered “risky” with host-nation troops have been curtailed. Those that are approved must first be approved by senior officers up the chain of command who are required to take a tougher, more cautious approach when weighing the risks involved. Yes, the dreaded “risk assessment” has made its way into SOF planning requirements.
American SOF in Africa are now sent only on missions with local forces that are determined to have a significant strategic effect, much like the operation that the Special Forces troops were on in Niger. However, now, armed drones or other armed aircraft must accompany such missions, which should have been made available to the troops back then, which would have possibly prevented the loss of life then.
The Green Berets who are responsible for conducting the missions told former SOFREP journalist Derek Gannon in the Fusion Cell blog that, “We are put there [in Africa] to ensure the success of our Host Nation counterparts. When we are not able to operate with the local forces we cannot teach and coach them for future contact with the enemy. Can a football coach effectively coach his players without watching them perform under pressure in a real game? Plus how are we supposed to accurately assess how the threat forces operate without seeing them in action? That’s like preparing for a game without ever seeing game film.”
And that is not the “culture of risk-taking”, but the beat goes on.