Malian soldiers conduct fast rope operations out of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter from the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) in Bamako, Mali, May 18, 2010. The military training engagement was part of an AFRICOM-sponsored exercise called Flintlock 10, a special operations forces exercise focused on military interoperability and capacity-building with partner nations in northern and western Africa. The exercise, which included participation of key European nations, was conducted by Special Operations Command Africa and designed to build relationships and develop capacity among security forces throughout the Trans-Sahara region of Africa. Approximately 1,200 European, African partner nations, and U.S. personnel from 14 nations participated.
“On an average day, in excess of 12,000 special operations forces [SOF] and SOF support personnel are deployed in more than 75 countries across the globe.” – Adm. Eric T. Olson, Commander, United States Special Operations Command
If ever there is a byword in 21st century military operations, that byword is “joint” – the integration of units from different branches, and often also from different nations, for the purpose of executing an operation. It takes constant training to ensure that joint operations regardless of size and complexity run smoothly. Some of this joint training took place from Feb. 17 to March 4, 2010, when elements from U.S. Special Operations Command-Europe (SOCEUR), NSW Unit-2, SEAL Team 18, and Special Boat Team 20 were among the more than 14,000 military personnel from 14 nations participating in Exercise Cold Response. Cold Response was conducted in northern Norway and above the Arctic Circle in an extreme cold weather environment (temperatures ranged between 5 and minus 35 degrees Celsius/41 to minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit) with severe wind chill conditions present. Sgt. Maj. Gregory Hayes, the SOCEUR operations sergeant major, said, “Certainly special operations is designed to operate in all environments and therefore must train on core cold weather tasks to remain proficient. The environment in Norway, particularly around the Arctic Circle is … unique. The cold is unlike most places in the world and operations require an in-depth look at equipment and procedures to be effective.”
Another important partnership training effort occurred in May 2010 in Africa, and in an environment completely opposite that of frozen Norway. This was a training program called Exercise Flintlock 10, and it included the participation of 103 Special Forces soldiers (Green Berets) and, for the first time, members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR – “The Nightstalkers”). Exercise Flintlock, which was held in the context of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, is a U.S. Africa Command-sponsored annual program now in its 10th year. Flintlock is designed to build relationships, develop capabilities, and synchronize efforts among the militaries of the Trans- Sahara region.
This year’s edition of Flintlock enjoyed the participation of approximately 1,200 personnel from 14 nations from Europe, Africa, and the United States. The Special Forces soldiers trained with their African nation counterparts, focusing on close-quarter battle drills, battlefield medical treatment, and mission planning and movement with a primary emphasis on direct-action missions and a secondary emphasis on team mobility through desert terrain. The Nightstalkers’ participation was unique within the exercise in that, unlike their ground unit counterparts, they did not spend time with just one or two groups. The Nightstalker crews, flying MH-47 Chinook helicopters, provided SOAR support in a variety of training events with different units and in multiple cities, staying only a few days in any one location. Training included fast rope and ground assault operations out of helicopters as well as vertical extraction techniques.
Approximately $28 billion was budgeted for USSOCOM in FY 2010 to meet its needs, which include, but are not limited to, upgrading and expanding aging and overtaxed air fleets; increasing force mobility capability on land, sea, and in the air; developing new weapons systems and adding to the inventory of existing systems; expanding the global training programs that include everything from language and culture programs to security force partnership exercises with other countries; retaining skilled SOF personnel; and training new recruits. The plan validated by the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review to grow key USSOCOM capabilities in areas like Special Forces, Special Operations Aviation, and Civil Affairs/Psychological Warfare is well under way, with completion scheduled for FY 2013. Additional growth areas, such as expansion of the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command’s (AFSOC’s) 6th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) FID training, are being examined closely. And there are new and emerging potentials rapidly coming on the scene.
Without question, unmanned combat systems have become a core competency within USSOCOM, which is widely regarded as having done more to embrace this technology than any other entity within DoD. During FY 2009 alone, the 3rd SOS flew more hours with its MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) than all the manned flight hours by the rest of AFSOC. 2010 continued this trend, with U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) standing up its own organic UAV capability with the new MQ-1C Grey Eagle. Initially assigned as a part of the 160th SOAR, the Grey Eagle has greatly improved capabilities over the MQ-1 Predator, including a greater ordnance load and operating altitude. Other USSOCOM UAV plans include fielding the new MQ-9 Reaper heavy UAV in the near future.
Finally, there is the matter of future leadership, which has always been a SOF priority. Since its inception following the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen legislation in the 1980s, USSOCOM has been blessed with some of the finest leadership of any of the armed services within DoD. Thus, the recent appointments of new military and civilian leadership for USSOCOM are both welcome and worth noting. Following the promotion of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASDSOLIC) Michael Vickers to head DoD’s intelligence agencies, President Barack Obama has nominated Michael Sheehan, a former Green Beret, to the top SOF civilian post in the Pentagon. And with the news that Olson is planning to retire in 2011, Lt. Gen. David P. Fridovich, USA, will be nominated to take over command at USSOCOM. Along with a strong bench of leaders honed over a decade of war since 9/11, USSOCOM looks ready to continue its fight into the next decade and beyond.