The nation’s elite counterterrorist forces, some facing budget cuts of up to 20 percent, are quietly telling Congress their special capabilities can’t be utilized amid the Middle East and North Africa tumult because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are already stretching their resources.
Even before the uprising in Tunisia, clandestine special mission units of the Joint Special Operations Command were finishing plans to expand human intelligence collection in North Africa, and deny terrorists what one JSOC official called an "electronic sanctuary" in the region.
“We’re at the point where we have multiple revolutions, [Muammar el-] Qaddafi may fall, and we can’t put the premier military intelligence unit on the ground there because they’re all on the ground in Afghanistan chasing farmers,” a military official said.
JSOC resources are heavily taxed by the operational tempo in Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said. The current commander, Vice Adm. William McRaven, and Maj. Gen. Joseph Votel, McRaven’s nominated replacement, have been pushing to add people and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technology to areas outside the war theater where al-Qaida and its affiliates continue to thrive.
But the elite units are facing reductions in their $1 billion-plus budget, which could significantly impact the U.S.'s ability to monitor and react to the events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa. The problem was revealed by officials involved in negotiations between budget officials, military planners, and senior commanders for a planned expansion of the secret JSOC units.
Even JSOC’s most closely-guarded unit, based on the East Coast, could see personnel reductions of up to 20 percent, people briefed on the plans say, depending on how the defense budget process plays out. The unit is scrambling to demonstrate to senior commanders that it can be efficient.
Military officials requested that National Journal not disclose any further details about the particular unit because it would jeopardize the mission and personnel. The officials agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because the matter is sensitive and classified.
Since 9/11, the JSOC units and their task forces have become the U.S. government’s most effective and lethal weapon against terrorists and their networks, drawing plenty of unwanted, and occasionally unflattering, attention to themselves in the process.
JSOC’s intelligence directorate, which has transformed the way the military collects and exploits intelligence, may see even its brand new Targeting and Analysis Center – TAAC – cut back. Where the National Counterterrorism Center tends to focus on threats to the homeland, TAAC, recently revealed by the Associated Press, focuses outward, on active “kinetic” – or lethal – counterterrorism missions abroad.
Also since 9/11, JSOC’s size has tripled; the command now includes more than 4,000 soldiers and civilians. Once the province of the Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (the Delta Force) and the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (SEAL Team Six), over the past eight years JSOC devoured a number of free-floating Defense Department entities that allowed it to rapidly acquire, test, and field new technologies.
Under a variety of standing orders, JSOC is involved in more than 50 current operations spanning a dozen countries, and its units, supported by so-called "white," or acknowledged special operations entities like Rangers, Special Forces battalions, SEAL Teams, and Air Force special ops units from the larger Special Operations Command, are responsible for most of the “kinetic” action in Afghanistan.
An official said some of the cuts may be eased with the Special Operations Command, to which JSOC reports, identifying ways of keeping staffing levels current with “$2.3 billion in efficiencies" over five years from its own budget.
"The command also looked at where and how it could use service-common equipment and systems instead of developing [special forces]-unique capabilities," the official said.
Pentagon officials are conscious of the enormous stress that 10 years of war have placed on the command. Votel wants to add several squadrons to the “Tier One” units – Delta and the SEALs. Those plans are on hold for the moment. Another official predicted that SOCOM would find a way to add about 50 positions to JSOC, in part by reducing contracting staff and borrowing qualified technicians and analysts from other parts of the command.
When Gen. Stanley McChrystal became JSOC’s commanding general in 2004, he and his intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, set about to transform the way the subordinate units analyze and act on intelligence. Insurgents in Iraq were exploiting the slow decision loop that coalition commanders used, and enhanced interrogation techniques were frowned upon after the Abu Ghraib scandal. But the hunger for actionable tactical intelligence on insurgents was palpable.
The way JSOC solved this problem remains a carefully guarded secret, but people familiar with the unit suggest that McChrystal and Flynn introduced hardened commandos to basic criminal forensic techniques and then used highly advanced and still-classified technology to transform bits of information into actionable intelligence. One way they did this was to create forward-deployed fusion cells, where JSOC units were paired with intelligence analysts from the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.
These technicians could “exploit and analyze” data obtained from the battlefield instantly, using their access to the government’s various biometric, facial-recognition, and voice-print databases. These cells also used highly advanced surveillance technology and computer-based pattern analysis to layer predictive models of insurgent behavior onto real-time observations.
The military has begun to incorporate these techniques across the services. And Flynn will soon be promoted to a job within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where he’ll be tasked with transforming the way intelligence is gathered, analyzed, and utilized.