This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Give them credit. As TomDispatch's Nick Turse has so vividly reported over the last decade, America's previously "elite" Special Operations forces -- once small, specially trained units in a large military -- have now essentially become a military in their own right, all 70,000 of them (larger, in fact, than many national armed forces). And they are more or less everywhere, more or less all the time. They aren't just "elite" forces anymore; they're America's secret military, which, as Turse has shown, is increasingly deployed to something startlingly close to all the countries on the planet (aside from a few obvious ones like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea). They are raiding and fighting from Syria to Afghanistan, Somalia to Niger. They are training allied special ops types and other forces across the globe. It's increasingly hard to think of places where they don't show up, even, for instance, in a rain-soaked cave that recently trapped 12 Thai soccer players and their coach. And here's the good news: if a bill sponsored by Congressman Richard Hudson, whose North Carolina district includes Fort Bragg (home of U.S. Army Special Operations Command), passes in Congress, the more America's special operators deploy in combat-like ways to places that the IRS doesn't consider war zones (but indeed are), the more likely that they and their families will... yep, get a special tax break for their efforts! (War, what is it good for?)
And they aren't just "operators" anymore. They're path-breakers in the "science" of war. As they fight terrorists around the globe, for instance, they're developing "loitering munitions" in their Maritime Precision Engagement program that will act as "suicide drones" (operated from speedboats). Hey, if ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the rest of that crew have their version of suicide drones -- humans with explosives strapped to them, not to speak of off-the-shelf drones -- why shouldn't the U.S. military have the technological equivalent? Or what about the "talking paper" for which the special ops group that focuses on "psychological operations" already has a prototype? That paper, somewhat thicker than the usual kind and embedded with micro-circuitry, dropped into the jungles or backlands of the planet, should prove a perfect way to deliver a 30-second recorded message to illiterate enemy troops in some embattled country about how to defect or surrender.
But let Turse take over the story now and, in his latest update on the spread of Washington's special operators and the wars that seem to accompany them, fill you in on their latest doings on a planet increasingly made for (and by) them. Tom
Commandos Sans Frontières
The Global Growth of U.S. Special Operations Forces
By Nick Turse
Early last month, at a tiny military post near the tumbledown town of Jamaame in Somalia, small arms fire began to ring out as mortar shells crashed down. When the attack was over, one Somali soldier had been wounded -- and had that been the extent of the casualties, you undoubtedly would never have heard about it.
As it happened, however, American commandos were also operating from that outpost and four of them were wounded, three badly enough to be evacuated for further medical care. Another special operator, Staff Sergeant Alexander Conrad, a member of the U.S. Army's Special Forces (also known as the Green Berets), was killed.- Advertisement -
If the story sounds vaguely familiar -- combat by U.S. commandos in African wars that America is technically not fighting -- it should. Last December, Green Berets operating alongside local forces in Niger killed 11 Islamic State militants in a firefight. Two months earlier, in October, an ambush by an Islamic State terror group in that same country, where few Americans (including members of Congress) even knew U.S. special operators were stationed, left four U.S. soldiers dead -- Green Berets among them. (The military first described that mission as providing "advice and assistance" to local forces, then as a "reconnaissance patrol" as part of a broader "train, advise, and assist" mission, before it was finally exposed as a kill or capture operation.) Last May, a Navy SEAL was killed and two other U.S. personnel were wounded in a raid in Somalia that the Pentagon described as an "advise, assist, and accompany" mission. And a month earlier, a U.S. commando reportedly killed a member of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal militia that has terrorized parts of Central Africa for decades.
And there had been, as the New York Times noted in March, at least 10 other previously unreported attacks on American troops in West Africa between 2015 and 2017. Little wonder since, for at least five years, as Politico recently reported, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and other commandos, operating under a little-understood legal authority known as Section 127e, have been involved in reconnaissance and "direct action" combat raids with African special operators in Somalia, Cameroon, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia.
None of this should be surprising, since in Africa and across the rest of the planet America's Special Operations forces (SOF) are regularly engaged in a wide-ranging set of missions including special reconnaissance and small-scale offensive actions, unconventional warfare, counterterrorism, hostage rescue, and security force assistance (that is, organizing, training, equipping, and advising foreign troops). And every day, almost everywhere, U.S. commandos are involved in various kinds of training.
Unless they end in disaster, most missions remain in the shadows, unknown to all but a few Americans. And yet last year alone, U.S. commandos deployed to 149 countries -- about 75% of the nations on the planet. At the halfway mark of this year, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM), America's most elite troops have already carried out missions in 133 countries. That's nearly as many deployments as occurred during the last year of the Obama administration and more than double those of the final days of George W. Bush's White House.
"USSOCOM plays an integral role in opposing today's threats to our nation, to protecting the American people, to securing our homeland, and in maintaining favorable regional balances of power," General Raymond Thomas, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, told members of the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year. "However, as we focus on today's operations we must be equally focused on required future transformation. SOF must adapt, develop, procure, and field new capabilities in the interest of continuing to be a unique, lethal, and agile part of the Joint Force of tomorrow."- Advertisement -
Special Operations forces have actually been in a state of transformation ever since September 11, 2001. In the years since, they have grown in every possible way -- from their budget to their size, to their pace of operations, to the geographic sweep of their missions. In 2001, for example, an average of 2,900 commandos were deployed overseas in any given week. That number has now soared to 8,300, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw. At the same time, the number of "authorized military positions" -- the active-duty troops, reservists, and National Guardsmen that are part of SOCOM -- has jumped from 42,800 in 2001 to 63,500 today. While each of the military service branches -- the so-called parent services -- provides funding, including pay, benefits, and some equipment to their elite forces, "Special Operations-specific funding," at $3.1 billion in 2001, is now at $12.3 billion. (The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps also provide their special operations units with about $8 billion annually.)
All this means that, on any given day, more than 8,000 exceptionally well-equipped and well-funded special operators from a command numbering roughly 70,000 active-duty personnel, reservists, and National Guardsmen as well as civilians are deployed in approximately 90 countries. Most of those troops are Green Berets, Rangers, or other Army Special Operations personnel. According to Lieutenant General Kenneth Tovo, head of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command until his retirement last month, that branch provides more than 51% of all Special Operations forces and accounts for more than 60% of their overseas deployments. On any given day, just the Army's elite soldiers are operating in around 70 countries.
In February, for instance, Army Rangers carried out several weeks of winter warfare training in Germany, while Green Berets practiced missions involving snowmobiles in Sweden. In April, Green Berets took part in the annual Flintlock multinational Special Operations forces training exercise conducted in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Senegal that involved Nigerien, Burkinabe, Malian, Polish, Spanish, and Portuguese troops, among others.