It was an impressive effort: a front-page New York Times story about a "new way of war" with the bylines of six reporters, and two more and a team of researchers cited at the end of the piece. "They have plotted deadly missions from secret bases in the badlands of Somalia. In Afghanistan, they have engaged in combat so intimate that they have emerged soaked in blood that was not their own. On clandestine raids in the dead of the night, their weapons of choice have ranged from customized carbines to primeval tomahawks." So began the Times investigation of SEAL Team 6, its nonstop missions, its weaponry, its culture, the stresses and strains its "warriors" have experienced in recent years, and even some of the accusations leveled against them. ("Afghan villagers and a British commander accused SEALs of indiscriminately killing men in one hamlet.")
For all the secrecy surrounding SEAL Team 6, it has been the public face of America's Special Operations forces and so has garnered massive attention, especially, of course, after some of its members killed Osama bin Laden on a raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011. It even won a starring role in the Oscar-winning Hollywood film Zero Dark Thirty, produced with CIA help, about the tracking down of bin Laden. As a unit, however, SEAL Team 6 is "roughly 300 assault troops, called operators, and 1,500 support personnel"; in other words, more or less a drop in the bucket when it comes to America's Special Operations forces. And its story, however nonstop and dramatic, is similarly a drop in the bucket when it comes to the flood of special operations actions in these years.
While SEAL Team 6 has received extensive coverage, what could be considered the military story of the twenty-first century, the massive, ongoing expansion of a secret force (functionally the president's private army) cocooned inside the U.S. military -- now at almost 70,000 personnel and growing -- has gotten next to none. Keep in mind that such a force is already larger than the active-duty militaries of Australia, Chile, Cuba, Hungary, the Netherlands, Nigeria, and South Africa, among a bevy of other countries. If those 70,000 personnel engaging in operations across the planet -- even their most mundane acts enveloped in a blanket of secrecy -- have created, as the Times suggests, a new way of war in and out of Washington's war zones, it has gone largely unreported in the American media.
Thanks to Nick Turse (and Andrew Bacevich), however, TomDispatch has been the exception to this seemingly ironclad rule. Since 2011, when he found special operations units deployed to 120 countries annually, Turse has continued to chart their expanding global role in 2012, 2014, and this year. He has also tried, as today, to assess just how successful this new way of war that melds the soldier and the spy, the counterinsurgent and the guerrilla, the drone assassin and the "man-hunter" has been. Imagine for a moment the resources that the media would apply to such an analogous Russian or Chinese force, if its units covertly trained "friendly" militaries or went into action yearly in at least two-thirds of the countries on the planet. Tom
U.S. Special Ops Forces Deployed in 135 Nations
2015 Proves to Be Record-Breaking Year for the Military's Secret Military
By Nick Turse
You can find them in dusty, sunbaked badlands, moist tropical forests, and the salty spray of third-world littorals. Standing in judgement, buffeted by the rotor wash of a helicopter or sweltering beneath the relentless desert sun, they instruct, yell, and cajole as skinnier men playact under their watchful eyes. In many places, more than their particular brand of camouflage, better boots, and designer gear sets them apart. Their days are scented by stale sweat and gunpowder; their nights are spent in rustic locales or third-world bars.
These men -- and they are mostly men -- belong to an exclusive military fraternity that traces its heritage back to the birth of the nation. Typically, they've spent the better part of a decade as more conventional soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen before making the cut. They've probably been deployed overseas four to 10 times. The officers are generally approaching their mid-thirties; the enlisted men, their late twenties. They've had more schooling than most in the military. They're likely to be married with a couple of kids. And day after day, they carry out shadowy missions over much of the planet: sometimes covert raids, more often hush-hush training exercises from Chad to Uganda, Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, Albania to Romania, Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, Belize to Uruguay. They belong to the Special Operations forces (SOF), America's most elite troops -- Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs, among others -- and odds are, if you throw a dart at a world map or stop a spinning globe with your index finger and don't hit water, they've been there sometime in 2015.
The Wide World of Special Ops
This year, U.S. Special Operations forces have already deployed to 135 nations, according to Ken McGraw, a spokesman for Special Operations Command (SOCOM). That's roughly 70% of the countries on the planet. Every day, in fact, America's most elite troops are carrying out missions in 80 to 90 nations, practicing night raids or sometimes conducting them for real, engaging in sniper training or sometimes actually gunning down enemies from afar. As part of a global engagement strategy of endless hush-hush operations conducted on every continent but Antarctica, they have now eclipsed the number and range of special ops missions undertaken at the height of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the waning days of the Bush administration, Special Operations forces (SOF) were reportedly deployed in only about 60 nations around the world. By 2010, according to the Washington Post, that number had swelled to 75. Three years later, it had jumped to 134 nations, "slipping" to 133 last year, before reaching a new record of 135 this summer. This 80% increase over the last five years is indicative of SOCOM's exponential expansion which first shifted into high gear following the 9/11 attacks.
Special Operations Command's funding, for example, has more than tripled from about $3 billion in 2001 to nearly $10 billion in 2014 "constant dollars," according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). And this doesn't include funding from the various service branches, which SOCOM estimates at around another $8 billion annually, or other undisclosed sums that the GAO was unable to track. The average number of Special Operations forces deployed overseas has nearly tripled during these same years, while SOCOM more than doubled its personnel from about 33,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 now.
Each day, according to SOCOM commander General Joseph Votel, approximately 11,000 special operators are deployed or stationed outside the United States with many more on standby, ready to respond in the event of an overseas crisis. "I think a lot of our resources are focused in Iraq and in the Middle East, in Syria for right now. That's really where our head has been," Votel told the Aspen Security Forum in July. Still, he insisted his troops were not "doing anything on the ground in Syria" -- even if they had carried out a night raid there a couple of months before and it was later revealed that they are involved in a covert campaign of drone strikes in that country.
"I think we are increasing our focus on Eastern Europe at this time," he added. "At the same time we continue to provide some level of support on South America for Colombia and the other interests that we have down there. And then of course we're engaged out in the Pacific with a lot of our partners, reassuring them and working those relationships and maintaining our presence out there."
In reality, the average percentage of Special Operations forces deployed to the Greater Middle East has decreased in recent years. Back in 2006, 85% of special operators were deployed in support of Central Command or CENTCOM, the geographic combatant command (GCC) that oversees operations in the region. By last year, that number had dropped to 69%, according to GAO figures. Over that same span, Northern Command -- devoted to homeland defense -- held steady at 1%, European Command (EUCOM) doubled its percentage, from 3% to 6%, Pacific Command (PACOM) increased from 7% to 10%, and Southern Command, which overseas Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, inched up from 3% to 4%. The largest increase, however, was in a region conspicuously absent from Votel's rundown of special ops deployments. In 2006, just 1% of the special operators deployed abroad were sent to Africa Command's area of operations. Last year, it was 10%.