Special ops forces will remain essential, official says

By Karen Parrish: American Forces Press Service

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The nation’s special operations forces are experiencing heady but somewhat perilous times, said the Pentagon official tasked with overseeing them.

“The skills and capabilities of America’s elite special operators have never been more recognized by the nation — sometimes, frankly, more than I like,” Michael D. Lumpkin, acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, told hundreds of people attending the National Defense Industrial Association’s Joint Missions Conference on Tuesday.

Operations since 9/11, culminating in the May strike that killed Osama bin Laden, mean special operations forces are more active and more integrated across the military than ever before, Lumpkin said, with Defense Department and other agencies’ senior leader ranks now peppered for the first time with generals and flag officers raised in the special operations community.

Public awareness of special operators may fade over time, Lumpkin said, but the demand for their skills likely will remain.

As the nation faces severe budget constraints, he noted, it remains critical to train and equip a special operations force that has more than doubled in size over the past decade. Across-the-board defense spending cuts could mean the military loses capabilities it would then have to rebuild at greater expense later, he said, adding that the key challenge is to identify capabilities that must be sustained and institutionalized to prepare the force for the kinds of conflicts the nation is going to face in the future.

Trends shaping the national security environment include the growth in power of nonstate actors, increasing instability in fragile states, and ever more readily available advanced technologies, Lumpkin said.

These threats mean the intensity of operations over the last 10 years likely will be sustained for the next 10, or even 20 years for special operations forces, he said.

“We need to be cognizant of the future and current fiscal climate while ensuring special operations forces retain their edge,” he said.

In Afghanistan and other regions, he noted, criminals and insurgents are nearly indistinguishable.

“Arguably one of the most important lessons we’ve taken from … Iraq and Afghanistan is that success in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and post-conflict stability, he said, depends upon the integrated efforts of both civilian and military organizations in all phases of the operation, from planning through execution.

The complexity of likely future operations, Lumpkin added, will require special operators to work “fluently” with agency representatives across the defense, development and diplomacy aspects of government.

Narcotics trafficking, transnational organized crime and terrorist networks form a nexus that increasingly requires an interagency and coalition approach to combat effectively, Lumpkin said.

“These networks are challenging the character of the battle space, and thus forcing us to adjust our approaches in combat,” he added.

Lumpkin said new, multi-use tools and technologies linking U.S. forces, allies and police organizations are needed to counter such hybrid threats. “Picture a … digital, coalition joint task force sharing information, including forensic and biometric data, properly controlled, but without current obstacles to sharing,” he said.

Interagency and international approaches to acquisition are inherently beneficial to special operations forces, Lumpkin said, noting that his office oversees the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, commonly known as CTTSO.

CTTSO staff members work closely with representatives of more than 100 other state and national government, law enforcement and first-responder agencies “to gather front-line requirements and leverage the resources of multiple users for … rapid prototyping,” Lumpkin said.

As special operations forces and even regular forces face future missions likely to require small teams operating in remote locations around the world, Lumpkin said, new technologies to enhance communications, mobility and surveillance capabilities top the list of needs.