Special Forces commander looking to expand their role as military evolves

The Takeaway

US Navy SEALs clear cave complexes in Zwahar Kili region of eastern Afghanistan in December 2009. (Photo by the U.S. Navy.)

The drawdown in convention U.S. military forces will place an even greater emphasis on the Special Forces — the Navy SEALs, the Army Rangers, Delta Force and other elite units commanded by Admiral William McRaven.

And McRaven, who oversaw the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, is quietly pushing for a shift in Pentagon philosophy so that he can more nimbly deploy his units to hot spots or place where they might be needed by his own authority, rather than waiting for a request from a local commander to come up through the chain of command.

Marc Ambinder, contributing editor at GQ and The Atlantic, said one of the command's biggest challenges will be how it manages to increase its profile, as would be expected with increased autonomy, while also maintaining the secrecy that shrouds so many of its mission.

McRaven pointed off this exact trade-off in a book he wrote in the 1990s. As special forces becomes a larger group, with more independence, it's loses some of the advantages its relied on: stealth and size, Ambinder said.

"I think the one misnomer is people associate Special Operations Command with JSOC, which is a small part of what Special Operations Command does," Ambinder said.

JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, is a hand-picked group of special forces operators put together with very specific skills and equipment, reporting directly to the president.

"We call it the President's secret army. Although that sounds rather grand — a title a publisher might give a book to sell a book, it truly reflect's JSOC's legal position in the chain of command," Ambinder said. "The president can directly order the commander of JSOC to mount an operation."

JSOC, under the command of McRaven, was responsible for killing Bin Laden. JSOC units are already forward deployed to combat areas and able to be called on at a moment's notice to "tamp down" a developing crisis, Ambinder said. Now, McRaven is seeking to broaden that stance so more units are forward-deployed and able to be called on with short notice.

"JSOC would be a global strike force of sorts," Ambinder said. "In the same way the U.S. can launch a missile anywhere in the world for a pinprick strike, JSOC can be launched from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world in a very short time to take care of a very acute situation."

JSOC has quadrupled in sized over the past 10 years.

Ambinder said the trend line is for JSOC, the broader Special Operations Command and the intelligence agencies to work even more closely together in the coming years.

But there are possible pitfalls in that relationship, Ambinder said.

"On the one hand, you want to have a very agile force that can respond at a moment's notice without Congress putting its nose into every operational detail," he said. "But, at this point, there don't exist the accountability mechanisms that would allow that to take place."