Like the rest of the Defense Department, the special operations community is in transition, and officials are working on how best to shape the force for the future, a senior Pentagon official said here yesterday.
Michael D. Lumpkin spoke at the National Defense Industrial Association’s 25th annual Special Operations/Low-intensity Conflict Symposium. He is the assistant secretary of defense for special operation and low-intensity conflict, performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for policy.
The end of the war in Iraq and the scaling down of the conflict in Afghanistan has opened a new chapter for the Defense Department, Lumpkin said. “We must adapt to a changing world in which global security threats are taking new forms and arising more swiftly and unpredictably than ever before,” he added.
Defense officials and industry partners must rethink the roles, missions and purpose of the entire military. “But this time of transition is especially important for the special operations community,” the retired Navy SEAL said.
Lumpkin said special operators will have an appreciably different and more active role for the future, noting that while the wars concentrated efforts in the U.S. Central Command area, the mission going forward will be more global. “The business of [special operations forces] will not be business as usual,” he said.
The period of post-9/11 combat operations is coming to an end, Lumpkin said. “Nearly every al-Qaida member involved in [the 9/11] attacks is either dead or in jail,” he told the conference audience. “The core al-Qaida leadership in Afghanistan or Pakistan has been decimated.”
But the terror group has metastasized to areas with security vacuums, he acknowledged. “The threat of terrorism and attacks is one we take very seriously,” he said. “Al-Qaida’s most capable affiliate – al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – poses a major threat to the U.S. and its allies. We work closely with our Yemeni partners to disrupt and defeat their plots.”
Other affiliates – such as the al-Nusra Front in Syria, al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb and Al-Shabaab in Somalia – are currently regional or local threats, but their violent attacks have great potential to harm or kill Americans, Lumpkin said. He pointed to the attack on an oil refinery in Algeria last year as an example of this threat.
“With regard to these and other terror attacks across the Middle East and North Africa, let me say this: We will never make the mistake of letting up in pursuit of terrorist groups that threaten our nation, wherever they may be,” the assistant secretary said.
The winding down of two long wars gives the United States the chance to act in its interests as a truly global power. “It is time to widen our scope and to deploy our forces and our energy in a manner more consistent with the deeper economic and geopolitical realities of our age,” he said
This is the logic underlying the military’s rebalance toward the Pacific. The Asia-Pacific-Indian Ocean area is a rising region. The United States does about $1.4 trillion worth of two-way trade with Asia every year, and half of the world’s shipping by tonnage passes through the South China Sea. The region is home to more than half the world’s population. Seven of the 10 largest standing militaries in the world are in the region as is five of the world’s declared nuclear nations.
“It is in our clear economic and strategic interest to move our focus to the Pacific,” Lumpkin said. “This geographic shift hints at something even more fundamental: a fundamental shift in how we use and think of special operations forces in a post-9/11 era.”
The United States has been the bulwark of security in the region and is working to perpetuate the relative peace and stability, Lumpkin said. The United States accomplished this by building and maintaining a series of bilateral relationships and addressing potential sources of conflict before they create larger problems, he added.
This work centers on security cooperation, building partner capacity and building awareness of local conditions, he explained, and leans heavily on special operations capabilities. “The ability of [special operations forces] to operate in a low-visibility way will only become more important in the future of a globally dispersed and irregular threats,” he said.
He cited the Philippines as a good example. “With a task force of about 500 operators and general-purpose force enablers, we helped that nation degrade what was once considered a grave internal threat,” he said. “Just think what the cost would have been in dollars, and perhaps lives as well, if violent extremists had succeeded in establishing a sanctuary in a place like the Philippines, so centrally located along the shipping routes of the South China Sea.”
The timely and effective deployment of special operations forces and their supporting personnel made this possible, he said.
The Philippine example can be used as a model for the rest of the world, Lumpkin said, a model that would rely less on direct action and more on indirect efforts.
Colombia is another nation where this has been successful, the assistant secretary said. “We provided significant military aid, counterinsurgency training and humanitarian assistance in a broad-based initiative to prevent narcotics traffickers from establishing sanctuaries in that country,” he said. “‘Plan Colombia’ was a sustained commitment to building the capacity of a vitally important nation.
“This was no third-grade soccer team where everybody ran to the ball,” he continued. “It was patient, it was painstaking, and it worked on several problems at once.”
Special operators were just one part of the overall plan, Lumpkin said. They helped Colombia build a professional and capable military giving the nation the ability to solve its own security challenges, and to take ownership of the long process of eliminating terrorist and insurgent sanctuaries within its borders.
“But Plan Colombia also involved an interagency effort to assist the Colombians in eradicating narcotics and building stronger financial institutions,” he added. “The work paid off. Colombia is not only a far more secure and prosperous nation now, it has emerged as an exporter of regional security.”
The United States is moving from perpetual war to perpetual engagement, Lumpkin said, and the special operations forces community is going to be busy because of unpredictable threats and uncertain budgets.
“We in the SOF world have long known that when it comes to national security and global stability, an ounce of prevention is not worth a pound of cure, but a ton of cure,” he said.
The response to rising threats will grow shorter, Lumpkin said. “In the past, the traditional Iron Triangle of Congress, the Defense Department and industry were always able to assemble the resources in time to meet various challenges to our national security,” he said. This was because the threats of the past usually arose from nation states with their own political and industrial bureaucracies, he explained.
A major factor in this change is the rise of the Internet in general and social media in particular, “which has transformed the local into the global and the tactical into the strategic,” he said. “As a result, the traditional players don’t have the same power to shape events that they have had in the past.”
The increasing connectivity of people around the world can challenge traditional hierarchal struggles, Lumpkin noted. “When an idiosyncratic pastor in Florida issues statements that set off riots in Pakistan, you know something has changed,” he said.
“On a more significant scale, we saw in the Arab Spring how populations can rally in only minutes because of social media, with little warning from traditional analysis,” Lumpkin said.
Over the long run, Lumpkin said, flattening of communications works to benefit the United States and favors the spread of democratic values worldwide. “But the process will not be linear, and it will not be smooth, as we have seen increased connectivity present security threats as well as opportunities,” he added.
Network threats present new challenges and require new ways of planning, the assistant secretary told the audience, and cyber operations come to mind first. “As we continue to work our doctrine for response in the cyber realm,” he said, “it is entirely possible that SOF units, or even individuals, would be called upon to act online or offline to address these threats.”
Beyond cyber, Lumpkin said, the special operations community is concentrating on understanding the human domain – the totality of physical, cultural, political and social environments within a conflicted region.