The Best Defense

SF officer: Russell is on the right track, but here are 3 things that will hurt SOF

By "SF Guy"
Best Defense guest columnist

Interesting post by Mr. Russell yesterday and glad to see that people are looking critically at SOF and its role in the future. However, Mr. Russell's post is not really contributing to the dialogue that much.

Saying that SOF is a unique, niche military capability sounds great -- but really means nothing. What particular service, unit, or capability is not a unique, niche military capability? Need overwhelming armored force? Call 3rd ID. Vertical envelopment to capture key terrain? 82nd. Massive rotary wing lift capability? 101st. Submarines a problem? The silent service is here! Each of these forces has a unique role to play in warfare, and SOF simply is no different. It's a tool in the toolbox for policymakers to wield, nothing more and nothing less. SOF has gotten attention and funding over the past decade because of the unique nature of the wars we've been fighting. And policymakers have learned that fighting terrorists and insurgents may require a scalpel rather than a tank division. Of course one wouldn't attempt to defend Taiwan with SOF only; anyone who says otherwise is a ninny.

Full disclosure: I am an SF guy, with experience in both active and reserve SF units, as well as a background in the conventional infantry. I believe strongly in the ability of SOF, both white and black sides, to affect global conflict. But both the public and the policymakers must understand that we are a tool with specific uses and limitations, and even when we are used correctly things will not always go as envisioned. I think the SOF effort in Africa is going to be largely successful, and is an excellent COA by our national security establishment. Mali, however, shows that things will not always go as planned, and even the best SOF effort may not solve issues in place like Libya. A little humility, or recognition of the limits of power, by our military leaders and elected officials may be in order

At the same time, I believe that what's going to hurt SOF in the future are these:

  • Putting the community in the limelight as part of a funding battle. How about we don't make that terrible SEAL movie, or allow 60 Minutes to follow an ODA around Afghanistan? It's not about the public's right to know, it's about senior leaders jockeying for funding dollars and glory. Let's keep it low key; those who live by the news segment die by the news segment, and we can't afford to lose SOF.
  • Growing the force at the expense of quality. This has happened to every SOF component in the last 10 years. Need more people, lower standards and get 'em tabbed (or badged, or whatever). Mr. Russell, to his credit, recognizes this. We are where we are in terms of perceived effectiveness because of the quality of those who came before us. SOF people need to be held to high standards. Selection needs to be, obviously, selective. Didn't Charlie Beckwith say he'd rather go up the river with seven studs than a hundred shitheads?
  • Senior SOF leaders getting greedy. I get it, you need missions and goals to keep the funding, but overreach for mission sets is going to hurt us. We need to be good at everything but masters of our assigned craft. For us in SF it's UW and its subcomponents. For other services, they need to know their strengths and weaknesses. Let's grow slowly, be very good at a few things, and leave non-SOF missions to non-SOF. Yes, I think this is what Mr. Russell was trying to say, but he used a lot of words to say a simple thing -- and, looking back at this, so have I.


The Best Defense

Mr. Skelton, come back!: They're chipping away at your PME legacy

By John T. Kuehn
Best Defense guest columnist

The recent passing of former Congressman Ike Skelton brings light upon a man who had a profound impact on those around him, including and perhaps especially those in the halls of the Congress and the Pentagon.

Ike Skelton represented a type of politician more suited to former times, a statesman, a moderate Democrat, and someone willing to compromise in order to achieve the greater good. In politics he had two overriding passions, the national security of the United States and the reform of the systems in place to provide for that security. It is the second passion I wish to address because Ike did not intend for his desires and passions vis-à-vis national security reform to diminish with his passing. But I and many others out there -- those who knew how fierce Ike was about implementing and protecting the reforms he helped legislate into law -- are concerned that with Ike gone, there is no similar politician in Washington ready to step up and continue the "good fight." I hope I am wrong.

Let me explain. Ike believed in the idea that the uniformed services served best when they acted as a team, what we today call "jointness," the joint action of the services to support national policies and objectives. Skelton believed that the best path to this end was through something known as joint professional military education (JPME), specifically professional military education for the various uniformed officer corps -- Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force, and Coast Guard. To this end, Ike was personally involved in drafting those parts of the famous Goldwater-Nichols defense reform legislation that implemented the JPME system that is in place today. Among its provisions, Ike stressed the importance of officers' study of military history as reflected in the following:

Another area that our panel report stressed was the study of military history, especially in helping to develop strategists. In our visit to Fort Leavenworth in 1988, the study of military history was confined to 51 hours and limited to the American experience of war in the 20th century. Army officers, especially those who will rise to command at the corps or theater level, need a thorough understanding of military history that reaches back over the ages.

Ike believed, as have many before him, that military history was the foundation for a well-rounded education for officers. After his visit to Fort Leavenworth mentioned above, the Command and General Staff College upped its history instruction to two hours of history a week for the entire academic year at the Army Command and General Staff Officer Course. This equated to 72 hours of total history instruction. Since 9/11 this program has been under constant pressure to decrease the number of history hours, resulting in a decrease to 60 hours from 2004-2007 as part of an overall decrease in student contact hours. At one point, while serving as the military history department curriculum developer, this author was pressured (unsuccessfully) to decrease the military history hours to pre-Skelton levels. Another blow to Skelton's legacy has been the removal of sister service joint-coded faculty billets at the nations' joint staff and war colleges in 2007 to support other "more important" new billets created since 9/11. Ike knew about these threats to his vision for JPME and was actively working, even though no longer in Congress, to correct them.

I met Ike Skelton in 2010, at the Harry Truman Library where he was the keynote speaker for the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Korean War. He was a kind, gracious, and thoughtful man. At the time, he was one of the most powerful congressmen on "the Hill," serving as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and holding another round of hearings to examine and improve professional military education. However, he also seemed fragile, to have grown physically weaker in his long years in the service to his nation. Tragically, he was swept from office that fall, a casualty as politics moved more to the right in places like his home district in Missouri. Evidently, there was no room for a moderate reformer from Missouri in Congress.

Ike Skelton believed in moving forward, not backward. He will be missed and the best thing we can do to honor his memory is to continue to support and improve upon his reforms that served, and should continue to serve, this country so well. Farewell to a great American and patriot.

John T. Kuehn is the Major General William A. Stofft chair of historical research at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College. He retired from the Navy as a commander in 2004 and earned his Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University in 2007. He graduated with distinction from Naval Postgraduate School in 1988. He won the Society of Military History Moncado Prize in 2010 and is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008), Eyewitness Pacific Theater (with D.M. Giangreco, 2008), and numerous articles and editorials.