A Malian commando leader discusses his plan of attack with a member of the U.S. 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) prior to leading his platoon on a raid of an “enemy” outpost, the culmination of weeks of specialized training as part of a recent military training engagement conducted north of Bamako, Mali. Dedicated to establishing long-term relationships and developing military capacities, U.S. Special Forces conduct military training engagements throughout the Trans-Saharan region at the invitation of the Partner Nation. These training opportunities are part of Operation Enduring Freedom (Trans-Sahara), the U.S. Department of Defense initiative to promote military interoperability, and build and strengthen inter-regional cooperation in the Trans-Saharan region. The “Warrior-Ambassadors” of the 3rd SFG (A), highly proficient in host nation language and culture, continue their Africa-focused security forces assistance mission to enhance African Partner Nation capabilities to help achieve regional cooperation and security. The 3rd SFG (A) is based out of Fort Bragg, N.C. (Photo by Max R. Blumenfeld, JSOTF-TS PAO)By: COL Jeff Goble, US Army, Special Forces (Retired)

We have a problem with the word “partner” in SOF. We all know that there are more than “five eyes” who are near-peers in terms of tactical SOF capability, but we can’t get over our own moniker of being special to get to the true nature of the problem. What distinguishes or separates most of us on the battlefield is how we are enabled by our parent military organizations, governments, or even the task forces that we serve in side-by-side. The problem is that we can no longer enjoy the luxury of serving together everywhere, in order to take advantage of the pool of operational and strategic enablers primarily provided by the US. The demand is too great for our tactical capability, and the burden too sizeable for one country to bear in order to have the effect we know we can achieve. Being SOF partners means that we must share the ever increasing demand for SOF by our governments challenged with hybrid threats. Most SOF are as tactically capable as any, but many if not most, lack strategic and operational enablers to act on their own. From a US standpoint, few if any of the funded Building Partner Capacity (BPC) programs are targeted at this problem, and that must change if we are to succeed.

U.S. SOF have not been able to meet operational demand for more than 10 years. Generous increases in U.S. SOF structure in the past, while leveling out in the past several years, still will not be sufficient to meet the ever increasing hybrid threats around the world that require SOF capability to counter. While U.S. SOF operates in many named or unnamed operations alongside peer or near-peer partners and allies like those from “five eyes” countries or South Korea, or others represented in NATO SOF Headquarters, and bi-lateral partners such as Jordan, Columbia, or Thailand; the demand signal requires SOF around the globe to be capable of operating on their own.

Current U.S. BPC programs are primarily used as operational tools or even as strategies to indirectly and inadequately combat challenges like ISIS, the Taliban, or Boko Haram. There are ten programs of record administered under U.S. Code Title 22 by the Department of State and seven administered by Derpartment of Defense. There are dozens of Train and Equip programs administered by the Derpartment of Defense under U.S. Code Title 10 including eleven counter-terrorism programs in the “1200” series funding lines and four counter-narcotics programs in the “1000” series lines. Many of these are managed or administered by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), yet DSCA does not track, nor can it currently account for what portion of these myriad programs are directed at building SOF partner capacity, which would have a direct impact on relieving the deployment pressure on U.S. SOF.

Near-peer partner SOF operational capability requirements include all of the same enablers required of U.S. SOF. They are: rotary wing air, strategic medical support, personnel recovery, ISR, and strategic lift capability, to name the most significant. While intelligence sharing with partners continues to be a contentious issue within the intelligence community, if SOF partners had their own collection capability, the issue would be moot. With the U.S. military often the only provider of these enablers, it makes the assets that much more high-demand/low-density.

To be able to get a handle on this problem the U.S. must first require DSCA to compile and report on the number of programs and the dollar amount in each that is spent on partner SOF capability/capacity building. Second, once accomplished, this report would enable the consolidation of the dozens of over-lapping, inefficient programs into two programs of record – one under Title 22 and another under Title 10. Once consolidated, these “SOF unique” BPC programs should then be managed by U.S. Special Operations Command, as the program manager of record for SOF partner capacity building.

Lastly, we all know that even these efforts will not completely solve the quagmire of SOF partner intelligence sharing that we have found ourselves in perpetually. That problem must continue to be tackled on its own through both technical and policy means. The US  Derpartment of Defense Chief Information Officer must continue to work and track progress made in implementing the Mission Partner Environment information sharing solution, to include the status of the Trusted Network Environment which was approved and funded by the U.S. Congress in 2012. From a policy standpoint, the reports must be in collaboration with and concurrence of the U.S. Under Secretary of Defense – Intelligence.

Only with these types of efforts do we have a chance of solving our problem with the word “partner” in SOF.