Mattis Looks to Ease Strain on Special Forces in 2018

Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, greets the Secretary of Defense Mattis upon his arrival on MacDill AFB in Tampa, Fla., Oct. 11, 2017. (Photo/ U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Barry Loo)
Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, greets the Secretary of Defense Mattis upon his arrival on MacDill AFB in Tampa, Fla., Oct. 11, 2017. (Photo/ U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Barry Loo)

Conventional troops would take on more of the missions normally assigned to Special Forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere in 2018 under a plan being developed by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

To ease the strain on the overworked U.S. Special Operations Command (SoCom), Mattis said he is looking to take greater advantage of the "common capabilities" the conventional forces have developed since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I anticipate more general purpose forces being used for some of the missions" that have been associated only with the Special Forces, he said Friday in an informal session with Pentagon reporters.

"In the past, we used only Special Forces" for those missions requiring specific skills, but many of those skills now also reside in the conventional forces, Mattis said.

"So the general purpose forces are going to have to have some of the capabilities you and I used to associate only with Special Forces, but we already have this capability," he said.

"I mean, there was a time when the only people who ran drones were the Special Forces," Mattis said, but the use of drones is now widespread in the conventional force.

For years, special operators have complained that they are overstretched. Last May, Gen. Raymond "Tony" Thomas III, SoCom commander, bluntly told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "We are not a panacea" for every military problem that pops up around the world.

He said more than 8,000 special operations personnel were then deployed to 80 countries worldwide, and the high tempo of operations was impacting readiness.

"We are not the ultimate solution to every problem, and you will not hear that coming from us," Thomas said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the committee chairman, agreed with Thomas and warned against "a seemingly insatiable demand for the unique capabilities of our special operators" among other combatant commanders.

In his comments last Friday, Mattis said that what he called "general purpose" troops are already taking on roles normally performed by the Special Forces in the Trans-Sahel region of northern Africa and in other areas.

"By and large, for example in Trans-Sahel, many of those forces down there supporting the French-led effort are not Special Forces. So we'll continue to expand the general purpose forces, where it's appropriate. I would see -- I anticipate more use of them," he said.

At the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, conventional forces are "using capabilities that were never there before. And so they're now capable of doing it" on a par with special operators, Mattis said.

He also noted that the first of the Army's new Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB) will likely deploy in the spring to Afghanistan to take on some of the train, advise and assist duties of the Special Forces with the conventional forces of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).

The 1st SFAB, based at Fort Benning, Georgia, graduated in October from the Army's new Military Training Adviser Academy and was to be assigned to U.S. Central Command for deployment to Afghanistan.

Other SFABS are expected to graduate in 2018 under a plan to assign one to each combatant command.

The SFAB in Afghanistan will be expected to do for the Afghan conventional forces what the Special Forces have done for the Afghan special forces through training and mentoring in basic infantry and artillery tactics, Mattis said.

"We're going to be putting more American forces, advisers, in the more conventional force in the Afghan army. As you know, they have not had them, and they've not -- they were not ready to fight in the way we want them to," he said.

Mattis said he would likely not put his plan for using more conventional troops in place of Special Forces in the National Security Strategy document he expects to release later this month. He said he would rather make his plan known in a memo to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford.

"And when the chairman gets my note, he'll know he'll have to use general purpose forces. And it wouldn't go -- I don't think it would go into a strategy document," Mattis said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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