By: Stuart Bradin
“Follow the money.” That’s what Deep Throat told Bob Woodward in 1976’s All the President’s Men, the story of how two reporters followed a money trail and exposed a cover-up that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Indeed, it is often money and spending that demonstrates one’s true intentions. You are what you buy. With that in mind, let’s pay attention to Congressional testimony on the U.S. defense budget and see what it says about our country’s national security priorities.
Today’s most pressing security threats are unconventional. Conflict and violence in Europe (Ukraine), Africa (Nigeria and Libya), and the Middle East (Iraq and Syria) are not characterized by large formations squaring off in conventional battles. Instead, they are conflicts consisting of state-supported irregular forces, thugs, warlords, and terrorist organizations. These actors employ cyber attacks, kidnappings, beheadings, sophisticated social media campaigns, and other information operations to achieve their political aims. Is the U.S. prepared to amass large-scale ground forces to protect our allies in such conflicts? Will air power alone drive terrorist groups to extinction? And will these situations ever rise to a level as to justify unilateral action by the U.S.? None of these scenarios seem likely.
And yet, if you look at the U.S. defense budget, we are not spending the majority of our money on hybrid capabilities—like cyber and special operations—or increased intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, but on conventional capabilities such as stealth fighter jets and aircraft carriers. Now, this is not to say that these big-ticket, conventional warfare items are not important. They are. But they are not the tools needed to address the unconventional threats of today and tomorrow.
Special operations forces (SOF), in particular, afford the president a varied arsenal of tools at his disposal. The U.S. has the finest SOF in the world, and they have honed their kinetic skills over the last 14 years. We have seen that tactical operations executed by special operations forces can have strategic results. Operation Neptune Spear, the successful raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, is just one example. And there are many others executed by our nation’s SOF that the general public will never know about. These operations are made possible not just by the special operations forces at the tip of the spear but also by “enablers” comprised of top-notch command structures, intelligence analysts, air support, and conventional forces, to name a few. Our SOF superiority relies on cutting-edge technology and excellent training. It is a capability of which Americans should be very proud.
What is more, if we want to enjoy the long-term benefits of building capacity among our allies (as the most recent National Security Strategy posits), then SOF is an extremely efficient way to do so. This is what many in SOF parlance refer to as the “indirect approach” – building relationships and capacity in other countries with the ultimate aim of enabling those countries to deal with security issues on their own. Many nations are investing in special operations because it garners good “bang for the buck” (pun notwithstanding). We must prioritize so-called “building partner capacity” programs and invest in relationships among our network of allies if we want to make serious gains in the fight against violent extremists and global terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and its affiliates. Unfortunately, it will sometimes require that we have strange bedfellows. But to combat this irregular threat, we need to push ourselves, take risks, and make uncomfortable choices. We will underwrite this risk by employing a network of like-minded allies and interoperable forces. We will forge bonds that strengthen us individually as well as collectively. SOF is the best force to do this.
Critics will say that devoting more resources to capabilities like special operations ignores the threats posed by North Korea, China, and Iran. That is incorrect. No one is arguing for zero investment in conventional forces, area denial, missile defense, or air power. But special operations and other unconventional capabilities now need more funding relative to these other line items. Hybrid capabilities are no longer a small part of larger operations; they are often a main effort in and of themselves.
We have not had a real debate in this country on what we should spend our defense dollars on, despite the fact that the Budget Control Act presented such an opportunity. We cannot ignore the fact that warfare is changing and that information will be the game-changer in future conflict, not territory held. We must act smarter and more efficiently. We must invest more in unconventional capabilities and research and development that advances our ability to confront hybrid threats.
Bradin is the president and CEO of the Global SOF Foundation. He is a retired Army Special Forces colonel with over 30 years military service.