The Frogman Speaks

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The Senate Armed Services Committee held a confirmation hearing yesterday on the appointment of Vice Adm. Eric Olson to become the head of Special Operations Command. Olson would be the first SEAL to reach that component commander rank and would be the first SEAL to take over a community long dominated by the Army.

Ive had occasion to interview Adm. Olson in the past and far from the image of a spec ops knuckle dragger, I found him open, honest, confident and comfortable with the media. We at DT wish him luck.

Olson sat beside another very qualified colleague at the hearing whos been nominated to become the ASD for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict.

Michael Vickers probably needs no introduction for DT readers, but if youve never heard of him, hes most famous for managing the on-the-ground equipping of the Afghan Mujahaddin and helping defeat the Red Army on that battlefield in the 1980s. I know him well also, and hes one of the most experienced, thoughtful, forward-looking military strategists in America and he knows all too well the need to reform the connection between special operations forces and other US government agencies in their global campaign against terrorism.

Aside from the story posted this morning on Military.com, it might be helpful to bring to our readers attention the written testimony submitted by both Olson and Vickers. You can read their entire submissions by following the links, but I wanted to pull out a few items for closer examination.

Olson on top SOF challenges:

1.) Prioritizing the employment of SOF in order to gain maximum value from this limited asset.

2.) Sustaining the materiel readiness of our high-end mobility platforms in a resource constrained environment.

3.) Transforming our fixed-wing aviation fleet.

4.) Shifting to a more expeditionary deployment posture.

5.) Establishing the mechanisms and agreements with other agencies of government that will facilitate the best utilization of SOF globally.

6.) Maintaining appropriately streamlined acquisition processes and systems.

7.) Growing the force at the programmed rate while ensuring the quality and maturity that the Nation expects of SOF.

On GWOT lessons-learned:

There remains a need to enhance the Joint Force Commanders ability to integrate capabilities and capacities of both SOF and the general purpose forces (GPF) during execution of the GWOT in order to create a joint force that is equally competent in irregular warfare as well as conventional warfare.

Three focus areas to achieving this goal are as follows:

There is an overlap of SOF and GPF capabilities. SOF forces are routinely performing tasks that could be performed by existing GPF capabilities or GPF with additional training. Rebalancing GPF structure to mitigate shortfalls in low density/high demand SOF assets is essential to the GWOT/Irregular Warfare (IW)effort.

Our forces will continue to face an irregular enemy. There exists a necessity to move the IW concept to a full scale capability.

Both SOF and GPF forces require enhanced language and cultural training.

Addressing these focus areas would lead to a joint force with enhanced capabilities for IW and a balanced approach to warfighting that allows it to be as compelling in IW as it is in conventional warfare.

Olson also raised an interesting question with regard to the Marine Corps spec ops force. In response to the question of whether Marine commandos should be SOF for life Olson said

Yes, the career path of Marine SOF should be modeled after the other SOF components.

That seems at odds with what the Corps would prefer to do with the operators career progression. With such a small force, Marines need the continued recycling of experience back into their line forces. One of the selling points in the opening days of MarSoc was the notion that, while a Marine operator may serve longer in the SOF world than a normal tour in, say, an infantry or Recon unit, hell be put back into the regular force eventually to help seed the grunts with the spec ops TTPs and ethos.

Itll be interesting to see how forceful Olson is in this approach to shaping the MarSoc command.

On SOF foreign language training:

We need to make it easier for personnel to train by providing greater access to proven, high quality training that can be delivered more flexibly than the traditional classroom but that has proven, measurable, results that are at least comparable to traditional training. Options that have worked well for us include tailored, low student to teacher ratio classes and delivering live training over the web.

Immersion and iso-immersion are training formats that produce significant results in short periods for students who have already attained basic proficiency (level 1). Since CENTCOM rotations make training time even more scarce, immersion and is-immersion training are effective, if costly, means of maximizing the capability gained in the short periods available.

Our current language proficiency (i.e. testing) measurement process has a direct, negative impact on our training programs and, ultimately, capability. Conversing is the key foreign language skill for special operators; however, current test policy, infrastructure, and capacity focus on the read/listen portion of Defense Language Proficiency Tests that are increasingly constructed to serve users whose military tasks center on listening at proficiency Level 2 and higher.

The result is that our instructors focus on read/listen skills to demonstrate their effectiveness and our students focus on read/listen skills to obtain foreign language incentive pay while our key requirement is for speaking. Special Operations Forces language tasks are most often performed in face-to-face conversations. The listening component of these newer read/listen tests is less relevant to our requirements.

Those willing to dedicate the time should be provided a funded incentive. Funding foreign language incentive pay for personnel whose language proficiency is Level 1 or 1+ is important to increasing our capability. Special Operations personnel generally attend courses that target Level 1 proficiency and will train with a regional focus so that subsequent training and assignments will enhance the individuals capability over a career in SOF. Incentive pay at 1 and 1+ helps bridge the gap from initial SOF capability to higher levels.

Increased provision of role players, in language, across a wider range of exercises will also help to identify deficiencies while cementing the importance of the cultural and language expertise. In the long-term we need to increase the level of our capability and, as previously alluded to, eventually reaching a "closed-loop" for all SOF operators. Regional orientation for specific units will capitalize on training and experience investments while yielding more expert capability.

And, finally, on the Advanced SEAL Delivery Vehicle effort:

The original requirement for a small fleet of manned dry submersibles is unchanged, but it is clear that more than one of the current ASDS platform is unaffordable unless costs can be reduced. The Department cancelled the original ASDS program. As a result only one ASDS hull exists, and only the correction of reliability problems on that hull (designated ASDS-1) remain to be completed. The Fiscal Year 2008 funding is being used to correct these deficiencies through the installation of a series of design and reliability improvements. The Navy will be conducting an Alternate Material Solutions Analysis to determine how to best meet current and future SOF undersea warfare requirements. The analysis will examine a broad range of potential material solutions and will recommend a solution or combination of solutions to satisfy the capability gaps identified in a recent capability gap analysis performed by the Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command. The Alternate Material Solutions Analysis will also include the respective cost estimates for the various solutions. This will be completed by February 2008 and will inform any future program decisions.

Since this post is already getting a bit long, Id point DT readers to pages 10 15 in Vickers testimony. The answers deal with questions of major challenges to SOF and transformation initiatives. Its a fascinating look at DoD-level priorities from one of the principle authors of the latest QDR.

-- Christian

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