Spe­cial ops forces bat­tle away from spot­light

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY DAVID AXE AND BRYAN WILLIAM JONES

FORT IR­WIN, Calif. | You rarely see them or read about them, but they’re out there, fight­ing and some­times dy­ing.

Sol­diers, sailors and air­men from U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand (SOCOM) wage war un­der a cloak of se­crecy. Their de­ploy­ments are not an­nounced. Few re­porters ever visit the units. When they fight, the re­sults of­ten make the news, but the com­man­dos’ in­volve­ment is rarely fully ex­plained.

It’s pos­si­ble to glimpse spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces (SOF) only at the fringes. Re­cently, SOCOM in­vited The Wash­ing­ton Times to ob­serve a spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces train­ing event at Fort Ir­win, in the Mo­jave Desert just east of Los An­ge­les. Be­fore ship­ping off to East Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philip­pines or other con­flict zones, com­mando units run a gamut of ex­er­cises meant to pre­pare them for the rig­ors of com­bat. Fort Ir­win, home of the U.S. Army’s sprawl­ing Na­tional Train­ing Cen­ter, is one of the last stops.

The role of spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces has ex­panded sig­nif­i­cantly since the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks as the U.S. mil­i­tary has got­ten in­volved in an ever wider range of coun­tert­er­ror­ism and na­tion­build­ing op­er­a­tions. Since 2001, SOCOM’s bud­get has tripled to nearly $10 bil­lion an­nu­ally. Last year, the Pen­tagon be­gan an am­bi­tious plan to add 13,000 new com­man­dos to the ex­ist­ing 50,000-strong force.

More than 100 com­man­dos have died in com­bat since 2001, not nec­es­sar­ily in Iraq or Afghanistan. In Septem­ber, two SOF sergeants were killed when a road­side bomb hit their ve­hi­cle on Jolo Is­land in the Philip­pines. SOCOM has been train­ing the Filipino mil­i­tary to sup­press an Is­lamic in­sur­gency.

Also in Septem­ber, SOF am­bushed and killed a Kenyan man sus­pected of ties to al Qaeda. Saleh Ali Nab­han was pur­ported to have played a role in the 2002 bomb­ing of a Kenyan ho­tel, among other ter­ror acts. The Sept. 14 raid in Baraawe, in south­ern So­ma­lia, re­port­edly in­volved as many as four SOF he­li­copters fly­ing from a U.S. Navy ship. Of­fi­cial con­fir­ma­tion of the raid occurred only af­ter in­ter­na­tional me­dia had re­ported the pres­ence of U.S. he­li­copters and sol­diers in So­ma­lia.

“The role of the SOF sol­dier is to train, en­gage and carry out op- er­a­tions that do not fall un­der the nor­mal guise of mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions,” one SOF ma­jor told The Times.

Like many of his col­leagues, the ma­jor asked that his name not be printed. Com­man­dos’ mis­sions might in­clude “re­con­nais­sance, di­rect action, coun­tert­er­ror­ism and other un­con­ven­tional war­fare,” the ma­jor con­tin­ued. The mis­sions typ­i­cally are “clan­des­tine [and] high-risk,” he said.

At the Na­tional Train­ing Cen­ter, ex­er­cise plan­ners pre­pare sim­u­la­tions that at­tempt to mir­ror the com­plex con­di­tions of a unit’s ac­tual des­ti­na­tion. In Oc­to­ber, el­e­ments of the 3rd Spe­cial Forces group, per­ma­nently based at Fort Bragg, N.C., spent sev­eral weeks at Fort Ir­win “war-gam­ing” their up­com­ing de­ploy­ment to an undis­closed lo­ca­tion. Por­tions of the 1,000-square-mile Na­tional Train­ing Cen­ter have been dressed to re­sem­ble Iraq; oth­ers are mod­eled on Afghanistan. With its wide ex­panses of desert ringed by low moun­tains, the cen­ter also re­sem­bles arid East Africa. Dur­ing one day­time train­ing event, sev­eral 12-man groups of SOF troop­ers, called “A Teams,” rolled into a sim­u­lated desert town in spe­cially mod­i­fied Humvees.

“A mo­bile can of whoop-ass,” is how 3rd group Staff Sgt. Den­nis Corey de­scribed the Humvee model. Com­pared to the stan­dard ver­sion, the Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand Humvee car­ries more fuel and wa­ter for long-range mis­sions and has ex­tra at­tach­ment points for heavy weapons.

The sim­u­lated town of Me­d­ina Wasl, mod­eled on a semi­ur­ban Iraqi com­mu­nity, fea­tures au­then­tic-looking build­ings and ve­hi­cles. Scores of ac­tors, some of them Ara­bic speak­ers, pop­u­late the town. Each fol­lows a detailed script out­lin­ing the ac­tor’s back­ground, job, mo­tives and po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions. Some por­tray in­no­cent civil­ians, lo­cal gov­ern­ment, me­dia and even aid work­ers. Oth­ers are in­sur­gents in dis­guise, re­quired by their script to at­tack the civil­ians or U.S. forces.

Part of 3rd group’s chal­lenge in Me­d­ina Wasl was to “es­tab­lish and in­flu­ence re­la­tions be­tween mil­i­tary and civil gov­ern­men­tal and non­govern­men­tal groups across the spec­trum from friendly to hos­tile ar­eas of op­er­a­tions,” ac­cord­ing to 3rd group Capt. David Du­rante. In this sce­nario, Me­d­ina Wasl turned out to be very hos­tile. A small ex­plo­sive charge sim­u­lat­ing an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice det­o­nated along­side a Humvee, kick­ing up a tall dust cloud. “In­sur­gents” opened fire from win­dows, fir­ing blanks from their AK-47s. The com­man­dos fired back with their ri­fles and ma­chine guns.

To lend a sense of mor­tal dan­ger to the mock bat­tle, all the weapons in­cluded a tiny laser gun fit­ted to the bar­rel. Ev­ery fired blank was ac­com­pa­nied by a burst of laser. Each par­tic­i­pant wore a vest stud­ded with laserde­tect­ing sen­sors that beep when the wearer is “shot.” For an ex­tra dose of chaos, ref­er­ees roamed Me­d­ina Wasl, fir­ing a blue plas­tic laser pis­tol they call a “god gun,” ran­domly killing or wound­ing com­man­dos. Dead sol­diers were re­quired to sit out the rest of the bat­tle. Com­mando medics evac­u­ated and treated the “wounded” just as they would a real-life ca­su­alty.

In truth, 3rd group might see very lit­tle di­rect com­bat. While spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces oc­ca­sion­ally or­ches­trate spec­tac­u­lar raids, such as that in So­ma­lia in Septem­ber, com­man­dos spend most of their time on less dra­matic but no less vi­tal tasks. In Afghanistan, as in the Philip­pines, spe­cial op­er­a­tions teams rep­re­sent the back­bone of U.S. ef­forts to train lo­cal mil­i­taries. Capt. Du­rante called it the “blood-free” ap­proach to winning wars, al­though even train­ing teams some­times get am­bushed.

The com­man­dos em­brace even the seem­ingly bor­ing as­pects of wag­ing Amer­ica’s wars. The Me­d­ina Wasl ex­er­cise in­cluded staged in­ter­ac­tions be­tween 3rd group teams and lo­cal leaders.

“Hu­mans are more im­por­tant than hard­ware,” Sgt. Corey said.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY BRYAN WILLIAM JONES

Spe­cial Forces from the 3rd group re­act to a sim­u­lated im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice at the U.S. Army’s Na­tional Train­ing Cen­ter in Fort Ir win, Calif. Mem­bers of the unit spent sev­eral weeks at the cen­ter pre­par­ing for de­ploy­ment.

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