Q&A with Admiral William H. McRaven
Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command
Special Warfare: During testimony to Congress in September 2010, you noted that you have two top priorities as the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, the first of which is to win the current fight and the second is maintain the health of the force. Can you expound on those priorities?
Adm. William H. McRaven: The first priority — win the current fight — means implementing a plan that supports the President’s National Military Strategy. This clearly includes a heavy emphasis on Afghanistan, but in today’s global fight, U.S. special-operations forces will continue to degrade al-Qaeda and its affiliates around the world. As al-Qaeda attempts to franchise its ideology and violence globally, SOF will utilize both direct and indirect approaches to deny, degrade and deter violent extremist organizations for the foreseeable future. I often remind people that while the direct approach captures everyone’s attention, we must not forget that these operations only buy time and space for the indirect and broader governmental approaches to take effect. Enduring success is achieved by proper application of indirect operations, with an emphasis in building partner-nation capacity and mitigating the conditions that make populations susceptible to extremist ideologies.
In reference to the health of the force, we cannot win the current fight without preserving the force and its families. We’ve been at war for more than 10 years; and while the SOF community is resilient by nature and remains steadfast to its mission, the cumulative physical and emotional strain requires careful attention and action. To combat this problem, I have appointed a brigadier general and my command sergeant major to lead the Preservation of the Force and Families Task Force, which is an interdisciplinary team empowered to build and implement innovative solutions across SOCOM components to improve the well-being of our force and families. Many SOF-specific support programs and organizations currently exist and are addressing some of the challenges we face. Resiliency programs are facilitating early identification of underlying SOF issues relating to physical, mental and spiritual well-being. The USSOCOM Care Coalition program provides outstanding support to wounded SOF warriors and their families and is a model for patient advocacy within the Department of Defense.
However, it will take more than resiliency programs and rehabilitative services to get us where we need to be. We are striving to increase predictability through the various levels of our organizations by mandating minimum “head-on-pillow” time for our force. Predictability is a key element of long-term performance and resiliency. Secondly, we will engender a leadership culture that views PERSTEMPO as an important element of operational readiness.
Finally, preparing our force and families to meet the demands of the future means providing resourced counseling, medical, psychological and rehabilitative care to our SOF warriors and their families. It also means working with the services and with Congress to ensure the force obtains the support it needs. I am happy to report that both are supportive of this endeavor.
Our people are our most valuable asset and I am committed to doing everything I can to ensure our outstanding SOF warriors and their families are taken care of —now — and for years to come.
SW: The third priority is to expand SOF’s capabilities by working with the combatant commands and interagency and allied special-operations partners to establish a global SOF network, which is able to react more rapidly and effectively to enemy action. Can you expound on this priority and tell our readers how this will impact Army special-operations forces?
McRaven: This is a natural extension of what we have been doing for decades. Expanding the SOF network is about increasing and strengthening our partnerships throughout the global SOF enterprise. With current fiscal constraints, not only in the U.S. but worldwide, we have to find new solutions to effectively operate in the current strategic environment. In the U.S., particularly over the last 10 years, the nation has recognized the value of SOF in this ambiguous operating environment. I want to assist in building other nations’ SOF capabilities to help deal with the myriad of emerging threats. All of these initiatives will be worked through the Joint Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of State and the geographic combatant commanders. There is a clear recognition that developing enduring partnerships is a key component of our long-term military strategy.
The genesis of this idea comes from my days as the Special Operations Command Europe commander and the establishment of the NATO SOF Coordination Cell, which is today’s NATO-SOF headquarters. This construct has paid dividends by giving our NATO SOF partners a vehicle for SOF-related issues and an opportunity for increased training. In Afghanistan, the NATO SOF HQ has shown great success as it has strengthened coalition partnerships and has increased overall partnering efforts with NATO SOF units, which has expanded SOF capabilities throughout the International Security Assistance Force.
The impact to ARSOF, as well as to the rest of the SOCOM components, is that we will focus more effort on security-force assistance to build capabilities and capacities within our allied and partnered SOF elements. Additionally, it will cause all of us to relook at how we share information, which will ultimately be the key to attracting new partners into this network.
Critical to this, and all of our current initiatives, is that we improve our leader development and education. To that end, we are developing programs designed to train, educate and manage the career paths of our SOF leaders. These programs will result in a tailored SOF professional military education plan and the provision of training opportunities that will provide leaders with the tools necessary to effectively operate in today’s complex environment. We are working with the services to effectively manage career progression of SOF leaders, including assignments to key combined, joint and interagency assignments. To be clear, the future success of SOF depends on the qualities and experiences gained by our force while working in diverse circumstances, not just diverse conditions and theaters. We must resist the temptation to read our own press and rest on our laurels. We must remain adaptive and relevant. In the 25 years since SOCOM was created, we have adapted and performed beyond expectations — but times are changing and our enemies are on the move.
SW: SOF are trained for both direct and indirect roles — do you see one as more important? And if so why?
McRaven: As I mentioned earlier, the direct approach is exceedingly important. When the Commander-in-Chief calls upon us to conduct a no-notice mission of national importance, we cannot and will not fail. However, everyone in SOF understands that to build an enduring solution to violent extremism you must use a whole-of-government approach centered around many of our SOF core competencies like foreign internal defense, SFA, military information support, civil affairs as well as unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency when required.
SW: To operate in the indirect realm, does the force need some unique skills? What do you think are the most important skills for ARSOF to possess?
McRaven: Overall, I would argue that we need ARSOF to be problem solvers first and foremost. By excelling in this area, we are better armed to make the right decisions, apply the right approach or mixture of approaches with the right balance.
Clearly, we need to continue to improve our understanding and respect for other cultures, improve our language capability and cultivate our ability to build relationships — but these skills are simply the tools we use to help us define and develop solutions to the problem.
SW: How is the OPTEMPO affecting the overall skills of SOF and what can be done to ensure that important skills do not atrophy?
McRaven: I think our combat skills are at an all-time high due to 10 years of multiple rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, I am concerned about our engagement skills — especially in language and cultural awareness. These skills are more critical to those units that are designed to operate along the indirect approach like many of the capabilities found in ARSOF. With our intense focus in the Central Command area of operations over the past decade, we have seen some degradation in our language skills and cultural awareness because the units are simply not spending time in their traditional AORs. So, yes, OPTEMPO and out-of-theater deployments are atrophying some of our skills. To counter this atrophy, we are applying more resources, particularly pay incentives. However, this is only a short-term solution. The long-term solution will come when the forces are re-balanced from being CENTCOM-focused, to a more traditional regionally oriented posture. We likely won’t see that re-balancing for some time, so until then, it is incumbent upon our NCOs and officers to use the resources at hand — such as language labs and computer-based learning to fill the gap.
SW: There has been a lot of talk about declining budgets and decreasing the sizes of our armed forces — are there any sacred cows when it comes to cutting the budget?
McRaven: There are no sacred cows. That being said, I think SOF is in a particularly good position as our collective capabilities offer the nation comparative advantages against many of the today’s threats, and those that may potentially emerge. This advantage is particularly valuable when you realize that SOF constitutes only 1.7 percent of the DoD budget. We are an exceedingly cost-effective and combat-effective investment. While we have experienced cuts, they have been relatively small in nature compared to the level of cuts the services are facing. I trust the decision makers who are required to make hard, but necessary choices in this tight fiscal environment, to take that into consideration. As we go forward, we must remain closely aligned with the services as they provide a vast amount of our support, especially with enablers and service provided capabilities. We need to be cognizant of not only the effect on our budgets, but also how the services are impacted and how that affects their level of support to SOF.
SW: You also noted in another interview that the U.S. cannot “kill its way to victory” but rather that the armed forces must buy space and time for the rest of the government to work? Is that happening in Afghanistan?
McRaven: Yes. The preponderance of SOF’s efforts in Afghanistan is currently applied towards protecting the population and increasing local capacity through village-stability operations and developing the Afghan Local Police. This includes training Afghan security forces to protect the population and the improvements that have been made in the villages. VSO/ALP also serves as a bridge from villages to district and provincial governance. In short, it ties security, governance and development into one effort designed to help Afghans help themselves. However, I would also add that our direct lethal operations are valuable and complementary to our VSO/ALP efforts as they create chaos within the enemy’s network. This chaos buys the space and time you mentioned to support the expansion of VSO/ALP in Afghanistan.
SW: As Afghanistan winds down, where do you project SOF will be needed next?
McRaven: There is a consistent high demand for SOF all over the world. Much of this demand has been suppressed over the last decade because of our CENTCOM focus. Currently about 85 percent of our deployed force is in the CENTCOM AOR. As we anticipate a re-balancing of demand at some point, I am confident that the GCCs will request SOF assets and we will be positioned to fulfill that need. There will be no shortage of requirements, and that is largely due to the tremendous reputation our force has built. Regardless of where we are needed, I am confident that SOF will be ready to answer our nation’s call and I am proud to lead this magnificent command. Thank you for your continued great service to our nation!