You think you know special operations – teams of gunslingers who launch midnight raids against terrorist camps, blow up bridges, or call in covert airstrikes. But the traditional role of spec ops is training foreign soldiers and building stable nations, skills that will be put to the test as the US withdraws from Afghanistan. PM rides with an A-Team as it prepares to guard America’s exit from its longest war.
Dawn is breaking as six members of the A-Team gather for physical training (PT) at an empty trailhead in Yakima, Washington. The men, dressed in MultiCam desert camouflage, deploy from a white government-issued van and immediately start unloading rucksacks and doing leg stretches.
Only half of the 12-man detachment, part of the 1st Special Forces Group, is available to stalk Rattlesnake Hills on the edge of the city for this morning’s PT. One member is injured, another is in sniper training, and the team’s Fox (intelligence specialist) is in dive school. The rest are sleeping off the prior night’s guard duty at the Yakima Training Centre. The clandestine operational detachment is a long way from its home base at Okinawa. The wide, undulating landscape and relentlessly rocky terrain here more closely resemble Afghanistan, where the team is slated to spend 2013.
The men shrug on 13 kg rucksacks and wordlessly start the brisk march. Boots crunch on gravel in an increasing cadence. The detachment’s Alpha (commander) is a 29-year-old captain, a combat veteran who served in the infamously violent Korengal Valley in Afghanistan while with the conventional Army. His Zulu (senior non-enlisted) is a 37-year-old master sergeant; this team has no warrant officer, so the Zulu is second in command. Since this A-Team is readying for a deployment – they call it going downrange – their real names cannot be used. Special operations forces (SOF) value secrecy above everything except physical fitness.
The team’s leaders call out a word of warning: no running allowed. “If one starts, they’ll all try to be first,” Alpha says. “We all have Type-A personalities on this team.” The trail winds steadily upward, past a handful of isolated ranch homes. As soon as the team sees an opportunity, the members leave the semi-paved road and ascend a steep hillside matted with rocks and ankle-high tangles of scrub brush.
The team’s senior Echo (communications specialist) pauses to admire the view. He’s a sergeant first class with 15 years of experience in the military, including work as a scout and sniper in the conventional army. His shoulders are broad and so is his grin. He smiles a lot. Yakima never looks better than it does from the crest of a hill at dawn, city lights still glittering under a recently risen sun. “Kinda makes getting up at oh-five-hundred worth it,” he says.
A civilian four-wheel all-terrain vehicle is unexpectedly waiting for the team as it finishes zigzagging down the slope. The homeowner driving it quickly endorses the men’s presence in a polite hearts-and-minds moment. “It’s okay, if it’s you guys,” he says. “I have to come out and check on people, since methheads and hookers come up here to do their business sometimes.”
It’s considered a light morning of PT; a more typical start to the day consists of a 90-minute run (not including forward and backward sprints up the inclines and a slate of leg-burning squat thrusts) and the first of two daily free-weight workouts. But the next few days and nights at the army training centre will be crammed with lessons in operating vehicles they have never driven before. A brief hike will have to do.
Alpha’s men will be among the nearly 10 000 special operators in Afghanistan in 2013, preparing for the administration’s 2014 exit of major combat troops. “While the aggregate number of total personnel in Afghanistan will decrease as we approach 2014, the special operations forces’ contribution may increase,” Admiral William McRaven, head of Special Operations Command (SOCOM), told the US Congress in March. They will be there until at least 2017.
The expectation in Washington, DC, is that these teams can take the lead in keeping the Afghan central government in control of a dysfunctional country of 35 million. If they can, America’s longest war will end with a qualified win. If they fail, the nation could slip into civil strife and again become a haven for terrorists. “The rumbling around town is that special operations forces will basically own the US mission in Afghanistan,” says Travis Sharp, a fellow at the Washington, DC-based Centre for a New American Security. “SOF has been on the rise for a decade. Now we are going to see if they can hold and consolidate gains.” He adds: “If I trust anyone to get the job done, it’d be SOF.”
Although Pentagon planners are finishing this war with a geopolitical Hail Mary pass, at least they are relying on the right players. Special operations A-Teams are made of incredible individuals with an action hero’s résumé of skills: para-jumping, foreign-language fluency, a professional athlete’s physical conditioning, and familiarity with an entire catalogue of vehicles and weapons. And then there are the specialties: construction and demolitions, communications, intelligence gathering, and battlefield medicine verging on internal surgery.
These dedicated, sincere men are setting out to tame a land of suicide bombing, systematic abuse of women, and legendary duplicity. They are high-value individuals deploying to a place where human life has little value.
During the ruck march, I remark to Zulu that my backpack weighs about 9 kg less than his. I recycle a line from a Dirty Harry movie to explain my minimalist packing: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” The 37-year-old Zulu shoots me a sceptical look. “Oh, really?” he says. It’s clear I have spoken heresy. Admitting something can’t be done is not in these guys’ DNA.
THE SOFT SIDE OF SPECIAL OPS
When most people think of special operations, they think of lightning-fast raids that target terrorist leaders. The killing of Osama bin Laden was the capstone on a decade of aggressive wartime missions that
the military calls direct-action, or kinetic, missions. Although presidents have virtually no control over the planning or execution of these missions, they can be elected or booted from offi ce based on their outcomes. Just ask Jimmy Carter, who signed off on an ill-fated hostage rescue in Iran.
Direct action, with its associated stealthy recon, building breaches, helicopter abseiling and double-tap gunshots, fits a violent stereotype of spec ops that does not match the reality. SOCOM has another mandate: to prepare other nations to take care of themselves. “The selection process is very good at weeding out anyone who wants only to shoot people in the face,” Alpha says. “We need warrior-politicians.”
These “indirect-action” missions include training foreign troops and teaching locals how to establish responsible governments. The strategy also promotes economic development by building bazaars, encouraging farmers to grow extra food crops to sell, and constructing roads. No one makes video games based on indirect-action missions.
The public may not have a good grasp on SOCOM’s activities, but Washington, DC, is increasingly relying on its broad mandate to counter global instability. Since 2001, SOCOM’s ranks have doubled and are funded to grow from 66 100 to 71 100 by 2015. Its budgets tripled since 2001 to a 2012 tally of more than R80 billion. The tempo of deployments has risen too, the command’s personnel (not all A-Teams) now work in at least 75 nations, 15 more than the total at the end of the Bush administration. “I expect the operational demands placed on special operations forces to increase across the next decade and beyond,” McRaven says.
SOCOM has become the US government’s tool of choice for soft power projection, but this is partly by default. “Most of our resources, when it comes to these types of efforts, are placed in the Department of Defence,” says Rick Nelson, a senior fellow with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who served with Joint Special Operations Command. “The reality is that the State Department and USAID are not funded at appropriate levels.”
Spec ops has become a tempting option for civilian policymakers. Teams are easy to send into the fi eld because they can be deployed with little disclosure to the public or to regional allies, minimal advance warning and fewer bureaucratic approvals. “The US government is at risk of seeing SOF as a panacea for all of America’s security problems in the world,” Travis Sharp says. “There is a reasonable limit to what they can accomplish and remain sustainable.”
The nation-building aspect of SOCOM’s work is increasing as the war efforts recede and kill/capture raids become rarer. But those who assist SOCOM – Congress, which pays, and conventional forces, who contribute airlift, bases and support personnel – may not be eager to aid the kinder, gentler SOCOM missions.
“The spotlight has been on the kinetic operations against high-value targets,” says Admiral Eric Olson, former head of SOCOM. “Everybody lines up to support those, with a full capability and budgets.” His concern is that as SOF leave battlefields, the smaller, less violent operations won’t get the attention they need: “Instead of having the spotlight on special operations forces shift, I think it will just dim.”
ECHO ON WHEELS
The senior Echo is behind the wheel of a R3,8 million mine-resistant all-terrain vehicle, wearing his helmet, communications headset, and trademark grin. He’s never driven an M-ATV without an instructor before today, but there’s no hesitation as he manoeuvres the 14 500 kg behemoth across a mat of scrub brush at the Yakima Training Centre. “Real men drive big trucks,” he says over the rumble of the idling 275 kW engine, adding: “As long as they’re diesel.”
The M-ATV is fun to take off-roading, but spec ops guys don’t like them because they are loud and intimidating. Riding into a village in such a vehicle violates some of the core tenets of the team’s mission: use what the locals have; project confi dence; stay alert and manoeuvrable; relate on a human-to-human basis. “On a mission,” Alpha says, “I’d just as soon walk.”
But this is special operations, and the M-ATV has been modified to meet SOCOM’s demands. The windscreen is wider, and there is a hatch in the back to allow a crew member (dubbed a trunk monkey) to man a mounted weapon. These M-ATVs also have a common remotely operated weapon station (CROWS) affixed to the roof. With it, a gunner in the back seat can scan the surroundings with the system’s day/night optics and use a joystick to fire the machine gun at whatever’s in the onscreen crosshairs.
The team uses two M-ATVs to practise an off-road advance called a bounding overwatch. One truck remains still, scanning for threats with the CROWS, as the second rolls through the scrub brush. When the M-ATV in motion finds a place with a good view, it stops, and the first truck then moves. It’s a variation on an infantry advance, played out with heavy vehicles, remote-control cameras, and frightened field mice.
Today, the machine guns are left behind as the team practices communication and co-ordination. A-Team members must be quick learners. The Army’s M-ATV official training schedule lasts about two weeks; Alpha’s team has only five days. “You’ll never catch anyone in special operations saying something can’t be done,” Alpha says. The next day, they’ll mount guns on the CROWS, put a trunk monkey on an M249 squad automatic weapon, and drill on a range with live ammunition.
After the exercise ends, the team clusters on a hilltop to discuss how the bounding overwatch can be improved. In a spec ops A-Team, everyone is free to chime in with critiques. This collaborative atmosphere is a marked difference between conventional and special operations forces.
All ranks call each other by first names (Alpha is still “sir”). Leaders ask questions and solicit advice more than they bark orders; mission planning is done with everyone’s involvement. The operators contribute critiques but rarely gripe. “It’s a team, and so you need to get a consensus,” Alpha says. “These are not guys who want to say ‘yes,
sir, no, sir’ blindly.”
It’s easy to trust the level of dedication of SOF operators – they need direction, not micromanagement. “I was in the (conventional) army before this, and I worked with a lot of people who didn’t want to be there. Everyone here really wants to be here,” another junior Echo on the team says. “You feel much better about an operation when you’re part of the planning.”
SOCOM says the typical operator is 29 years old (officers average 34) and married with at least two kids. This team’s stats are skewed by the senior Echo, who has nine children. Team members come from all over the country and represent a dizzying polyethnic mix: Korean American, black Asian, Malay Indonesian. Any demographic differences fade before the bond of their profession. “After this training, I’ll put the guys on a four-day weekend,” Alpha says. “It won’t matter. They’re just going to hang out more. This job consumes their lives.”
The afternoon is spent towing an M-ATV. Alpha runs the drill as if the team is under attack and needs to get the crippled M-ATV out of the range of enemy weapons (the “kill zone”.) Some operators pop out from
the rescue vehicle to provide cover with M4 and SCAR-H rifl es while the rest buckle a forearm-thick rope to the “stalled” M-ATV. The engine roars, the two vehicles jolt violently, and the lead M-ATV drags the other to safety.
The drill is a success, but the team runs it again anyway. This time the rope snaps; it may have snagged on metal or simply been used once too often. The severed line whips a bloom of brown dust off the massive spare tyre mounted on the M-ATV’s rack. “It’s not a full day in special operations until we break something,” Alpha says. This time the Pentagon got off cheap.
GUERRILLA VS GUERRILLA
In Afghanistan, Alpha’s team will try to create a local force, backed by a credible government, to keep the insurgent wolves at bay. “We are trained to be guerrillas,” Alpha says. “Who’d be better at being counter-guerrillas?” The Pentagon calls them force multipliers for a reason. “Every guy is expected to lead one company-size element, up to 100 guys,” Alpha says. “I’m supposed to lead a battalion, or 600 guys.”
Every member of a 12-man special operations team has made himself into an avatar of the most idealised version of the nation he serves. The pressure is always on to appear perfect in front of conventional and foreign forces. “We always want to build the aura that we are masters of chaos and jacks-of-all-trades,” Alpha says. “Expectations are really high. We have to give them what they expect.”
The team’s Charlie (construction and demolitions specialist) points out that there’s a lot of diplomacy involved in being an elite warrior: “I could be talking to a (foreign army) colonel in the morning, and the provincial governor in the afternoon.” He has no illusions about how hard it will be to operate in Afghanistan. “I could be heading out to the market to pick up lumber to build a school. Then we’re told about an IED (improvised explosive device) and have to go handle it,” he says. “Then back to the market, buy the supplies, distribute them, and do the accounting when I get back.”
The attacks on Afghans who support the government in Kabul – and the United States – will only grow as 2014 approaches. The police units that spec ops teams train have been the targets of infiltration and murder. “We talk to guys who are over there now,” Alpha says. “We’re expecting a hard fight.”
With guns mounted on the roof and rear cargo area, the M-ATV is transformed from a truck to a war machine. The A-Team has mounted a .50-calibre machine gun on top of the M-ATV; an Echo seated inside the armoured vehicle uses a joystick and the CROWS’ video screen to slew the weapon and pick targets.
“Okay, captain, are we going hot?” the gunner asks. “Yep,” Alpha responds from the shotgun side of the front seat. “Cool.” Alpha scans outside the ballistic glass for cutout wooden targets scattered around the firing range. “Black truck silhouette at two o’clock.” The landscape behind the reticule on the CROWS screen swings as the gun mounted on top swivels. “Contact,” says the Echo, spotting the target. He presses a red button, bouncing a laser off the target to gauge its distance.
It’s taking too long. “Engage targets,” Alpha prompts. The .50-calibre thumps and those inside can hear the shattered crystalline sound of shell casings cascading across the hull. Red tracers bounce off rocks and carom 10 m into the air at crazy angles. The targets are instrumented to fall after a designated number of rounds hit; one by one they drop, ventilated by heavy bullets. “Alpha, this is Zulu,” the senior non-enlisted man radios from the other truck, an older RG-33 that has an M240 mounted in its CROWS. “We are moving into position.” The RG-33 rolls as the M-ATV provides covering fire. When both trucks are in position, they concentrate their attack on the same targets. The vehicles rattle through hundreds of .50-calibre and 7,62-mm rounds.
The exercise ends and the huddle re-convenes. Details are discussed: advantages of the CROWS’ camera stabilisation, the importance of the gunner’s use of the laser rangefinder to communicate distance to the front-seat spotters, and the best way for the leapfrogging vehicles to communicate. The sun bows to the horizon, outlining silhouettes of distant, sharp mountain peaks. The team runs the exercise again – and again. “We drill on the basics until we’re perfect,” Alpha says. “That’s what makes us special.”
By the time they return from the day’s last gun run, darkness has fallen. Rock-hard pears, a slab of pale turkey and sickly, over-sweetened yams await them for a dusty dinner at the range. They eat by the light of the M-ATV headlights. After the grim meal, the weapons are dismounted, extra ammo stowed, and worn, wooden “Danger Live Fire” warning signs are collected from the range. “This is the tempo,” Alpha says.
Then it’s back to the barracks to clean the weapons. The team won’t finish until 1 am. Alpha and Zulu will then complete reports and finalise the training schedule for the next day. By the time they lie down in their barracks, PT is only a few hours away.
SPECIAL OPS’ GLOBAL SCOPE
Direct action: Airstrikes
Objective: Hunt members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who are seizing towns and attacking government officials.
Update: Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the CIA pick targets for drone and manned aircraft attacks against al-Qaeda leadership and clusters of fighters. The Web site Long War Journal estimates that 23 strikes have been carried out since December 2009.
Indirect action: Foreign Internal Defence
Objective: SOCOM deployed to the island of Basilan to counter gains made by the Islamist insurgent group Abu Sayyaf.
Update: A 500-man spec ops task force trains local military units to take and hold ground from Abu Sayyaf. Since the mission’s inception in 2002, 17 US service members have died while advising and assisting Filipino forces.
03 LATIN AMERICA
Indirect action: Foreign internal defense
Objective: Promote military relationships with an annual competition, Fuerzas Comando.
Update: Commandos from 19 countries participated in the 2011 competition. Events included a timed 18 km forced march, sniper contests, and a combined airborne operation. US troops placed sixth; El Salvador took first place.
Indirect action: Civilmilitary
Objective: CMSE teams
advise local governments
on how to meet the needs
of at-risk populations.
Update: CMSE teams
from the 91st Civil Affairs
battalion provide veterinary
with reliable business
leaders. This work is
expanding; SOF Civil
Affairs quietly added a
fifth battalion in 2012.
SPEC OPS GEAR: WHAT THEY WANT
OFFICIALS AT SPECIAL OPERATIONS
COMMAND IDENTIFIED WEAPONS TECHNOLOGIES
THAT THEY WOULD LIKE TO
FIELD IN UPCOMING YEARS. THEIR WISH
LIST SHEDS LIGHT ON THE MISSIONS THAT
01 DIY AIRSTRIKES
There are times in an operator’s career
when close air support or heavy artillery is
not available and a target must be eliminated
from a distance. In 2011, SOCOM asked
industry for a missile system capable of striking
enemy personnel, moving vehicles and light
structures at a range of 15 km. The system’s
total weight is to be 29 kg – light enough for
a team to carry in rucksacks.
02 NEW TOOLS FOR SNIPERS
Flatter trajectory rounds for
7,62 mm, .300 Win Mag, .338-calibre
and .50-calibre sniper ri es will not
only make the weapons more accurate,
but will enable them to hit targets with
more kinetic energy at extreme ranges.
Another request is for a sniper ri e that
can be broken down into a clandestine
03 NON-LETHAL GRENADES
SOCOM requested industry
solicitations for a new kind of 40 mm
low-velocity grenade that can dispense
liquid or gas into a vehicle or vessel
without harming the individuals inside.
04 BETTER MASKING FOR
SOCOM is seeking integrated suppressors
for ri e barrels that can hide
infrared and thermal signatures when
the weapons re – rendering them
invisible to opponents’ night-vision
goggles. These devices need to work
despite the weapon’s recoil and changes
in its barrel temperature.
How it works
A SPOTTER HIDDEN ON A HILL “PAINTS”
THE TARGET WITH A LASER.
14 KM AWAY, THE TEAM FIRES THE
GPS CO-ORDINATES GUIDE THE MISSILE
AS IT STREAKS TOWARDS THE TARGET.
THE SPOTTER’S LASER GUIDES THE
MISSILE ON ITS FINAL, OR TERMINAL,
STAGE FOR A DIRECT HIT.