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The Startling Size of US Special Forces

A TomDispatch investigation reveals America's secret military operates in over half the nations on the planet.

| Wed Jan. 8, 2014 7:00 AM EST

US Special Operations Forces around the world, 2012-2013 (key below). Click here to see a larger image.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

"Dude, I don't need to play these stupid games. I know what you're trying to do."  With that, Major Matthew Robert Bockholt hung up on me.

More than a month before, I had called US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) with a series of basic questions: In how many countries were US Special Operations Forces deployed in 2013? Are manpower levels set to expand to 72,000 in 2014? Is SOCOM still aiming for growth rates of 3%-5% per year? How many training exercises did the command carry out in 2013? Basic stuff.

And for more than a month, I waited for answers. I called. I left messages. I emailed. I waited some more. I started to get the feeling that Special Operations Command didn't want me to know what its Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos–the men who operate in the hottest of hotspots and most remote locales around the world–were doing. 

Then, at the last moment, just before my filing deadline, Special Operations Command got back to me with an answer so incongruous, confusing, and contradictory that I was glad I had given up on SOCOM and tried to figure things out for myself.

I started with a blank map that quickly turned into a global pincushion. It didn't take long before every continent but Antarctica was bristling with markers indicating special operations forces' missions, deployments, and interactions with foreign military forces in 2012-2013. With that, the true size and scope of the US military's secret military began to come into focus.  It was, to say the least, vast.

A review of open source information reveals that in 2012 and 2013, US Special Operations forces (SOF) were likely deployed to–or training, advising, or operating with the personnel of–more than 100 foreign countries.  And that's probably an undercount. In 2011, then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that Special Operations personnel were annually sent to 120 countries around the world. They were in, that is, about 60% of the nations on the planet. "We're deployed in a number of locations," was as specific as Bockholt would ever get when I talked to him in the waning days of 2013. And when SOCOM did finally get back to me with an eleventh hour answer, the number offered made almost no sense. 

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Despite the lack of official cooperation, an analysis by TomDispatch reveals SOCOM to be a command on the make with an already sprawling reach. As Special Operations Command chief Admiral William McRaven put it in SOCOM 2020, his blueprint for the future, it has ambitious aspirations to create "a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners."  In other words, in that future now only six years off, it wants to be everywhere.   

The Rise of the Military's Secret Military

Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran (in which eight US service members died), US Special Operations Command was established in 1987. Made up of units from all the service branches, SOCOM is tasked with carrying out Washington's most specialized and secret missions, including assassinations, counterterrorist raids, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, psychological operations, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations.

In the post-9/11 era, the command has grown steadily. With about 33,000 personnel in 2001, it is reportedly on track to reach 72,000 in 2014. (About half this number are called, in the jargon of the trade, "badged operators"–SEALs, Rangers, Special Operations Aviators, Green Berets–while the rest are support personnel.)  Funding for the command has also jumped exponentially as SOCOM's baseline budget tripled from $2.3 billion to $6.9 billion between 2001 and 2013. If you add in supplemental funding, it had actually more than quadrupled to $10.4 billion. 

Not surprisingly, personnel deployments abroad skyrocketed from 4,900 "man-years"–as the command puts it–in 2001 to 11,500 in 2013. About 11,000 special operators are now working abroad at any one time and on any given day they are in 70 to 80 countries, though the New York Times reported that, according to statistics provided to them by SOCOM, during one week in March 2013 that number reached 92

The Global SOF Network

Last year, Admiral McRaven, who previously headed the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC–a clandestine sub-command that specializes in tracking and killing suspected terrorists–touted his vision for special ops globalization. In a statement to the House Armed Services Committee, he said:

"USSOCOM is enhancing its global network of SOF to support our interagency and international partners in order to gain expanded situational awareness of emerging threats and opportunities. The network enables small, persistent presence in critical locations, and facilitates engagement where necessary or appropriate..."

In translation this means that SOCOM is weaving a complex web of alliances with government agencies at home and militaries abroad to ensure that it's at the center of every conceivable global hotspot and power center. In fact, Special Operations Command has turned the planet into a giant battlefield, divided into many discrete fronts: the self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; the sub-unified command of US Central Command in the Middle East SOCCENT; the European contingent SOCEUR; SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; and SOCSOUTH, which conducts special ops missions in Central and South America and the Caribbean, as well as the globe-trotting JSOC.

Since 2002, SOCOM has also been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces, a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM. These include Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, 500-600 personnel dedicated to supporting counterterrorist operations by Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Abu Sayyaf.

A similar mouthful of an entity is the NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan/Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, which conducts operations, according to SOCOM, "to enable the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) to provide the Afghan people a secure and stable environment and to prevent insurgent activities from threatening the authority and sovereignty of GIRoA."  Last year, US-allied Afghan President Ha­mid Karzai had a different assessment of the "US special force stationed in Wardak province," which he accused of "harassing, annoying, torturing, and even murdering innocent people."

According to the latest statistics made available by ISAF, from October 2012 through March 2013, US and allied forces were involved in 1,464 special operations in Afghanistan, including 167 with US or coalition forces in the lead and 85 that were unilateral ISAF operations. US Special Operations forces are also involved in everything from mentoring lightly armed local security forces under the Village Stability Operations initiative to the training of heavily armed and well-equipped elite Afghan forces–one of whose US-trained officers defected to the insurgency in the fall.

In addition to task forces, there are also Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD) elements which, according to the military, "shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives."  These light footprint teams–including SOC FWD Pakistan, SOC FWD Yemen, and SOC FWD Lebanon–offer training and support to local elite troops in foreign hotspots. In Lebanon, for instance, this has meant counterterrorism training for Lebanese Special Ops forces, as well as assistance to the Lebanese Special Forces School to develop indigenous trainers to mentor other Lebanese military personnel.

special ops slide
Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) briefing slide by Col. Joe Osborne, showing SOC FWD elements

SOCOM's reach and global ambitions go further still. TomDispatch's analysis of McRaven's first two full years in command reveals a tremendous number of overseas operations. In places like Somalia and Libya, elite troops have carried out clandestine commando raids. In others, they have used airpower to hunt, target, and kill suspected militants. Elsewhere, they have waged an information war using online propaganda. And almost everywhere they have been at work building up and forging ever-tighter ties with foreign militaries through training missions and exercises. 

"A lot of what we will do as we go forward in this force is build partner capacity," McRaven said at the Ronald Reagan Library in November, noting that NATO partners as well as allies in the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America  "are absolutely essential to how we're doing business." 

In March 2013, for example, Navy SEALs conducted joint training exercises with Indonesian frogmen. In April and May, US Special Operations personnel joined members of the Malawi Defense Forces for Exercise Epic Guardian. Over three weeks, 1,000 troops engaged in marksmanship, small unit tactics, close quarters combat training, and other activities across three countries–Djibouti, Malawi, and the Seychelles.

In May, American special operators took part in Spring Storm, the Estonian military's largest annual training exercise. That same month, members of the Peruvian and US special operations forces engaged in joint training missions aimed at trading tactics and improving their ability to conduct joint operations. In July, Green Berets from the Army's 20th Special Forces Group spent several weeks in Trinidad and Tobago working with members of that tiny nation's Special Naval Unit and Special Forces Operation Detachment. That Joint Combined Exchange Training exercise, conducted as part of SOCSOUTH's Theater Security Cooperation program, saw the Americans and their local counterparts take part in pistol and rifle instruction and small unit tactical exercises.

In September, according to media reports, US Special Operations forces joined elite troops from the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations member countries–Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia–as well as their counterparts from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, China, India, and Russia for a US-Indonesian joint-funded coun­terterrorism exercise held at a training center in Sentul, West Java.

Tactical training was, however, just part of the story. In March 2013, for example, experts from the Army's John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School hosted a week-long working group with top planners from the Centro de Adiestramiento de las Fuerzas Especiales–Mexico's Special Warfare Center–to aid them in developing their own special forces doctrine.

In October, members of the Norwegian Special Operations Forces traveled to SOCOM's state-of-the-art Wargame Center at its headquarters on MacDill Air Force Base in Florida to refine crisis response procedures for hostage rescue operations. "NORSOF and Norwegian civilian leadership regularly participate in national field training exercises focused on a scenario like this," said Norwegian Lieutenant Colonel Petter Hellesen. "What was unique about this exercise was that we were able to gather so many of the Norwegian senior leadership and action officers, civilian and military, in one room with their U.S counterparts."

MacDill is, in fact, fast becoming a worldwide special ops hub, according to a report by the Tampa Tribune. This past fall, SOCOM quietly started up an International Special Operations Forces Coordination Center that provides long-term residencies for senior-level black ops liaisons from around the world. Already, representatives from 10 nations had joined the command with around 24 more slated to come on board in the next 12-18 months, per McRaven's global vision.

In the coming years, more and more interactions between US elite forces and their foreign counterparts will undoubtedly take place in Florida, but most will likely still occur–as they do today–overseas. TomDispatch's analysis of official government documents and news releases as well as press reports indicates that US Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed to or involved with the militaries of 106 nations around the world during 2012-2013.

For years, the command has claimed that divulging the names of these countries would upset foreign allies and endanger US personnel. SOCOM's Bockholt insisted to me that merely offering the total number would do the same. "You understand that there is information about our military… that is contradictory to reporting," he told me. "There's certain things we can't release to the public for the safety of our service members both at home and abroad.  I'm not sure why you'd be interested in reporting that."

In response, I asked how a mere number could jeopardize the lives of Special Ops personnel, and he responded, "When you work with the partners we work with in the different countries, each country is very particular."  He refused to elaborate further on what this meant or how it pertained to a simple count of countries. Why SOCOM eventually offered me a number, given these supposed dangers, was never explained.

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