US Military’s Secret Military

Special US commandos are deployed in about 75 countries around the world – and that number is expected to grow.

by: Nick Turse is a historian, essayist, and investigative journalist.
The associate editor of and a new senior editor at, his latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from
Afghanistan (Verso Books).

Somewhere on this planet a US commando is carrying out a mission. Now,
say that 70 times and you’re done … for the day. Without the knowledge
of much of the general American public, a secret force within the US
military is undertaking operations in a majority of the world’s
countries. This Pentagon power elite is waging a global war whose size
and scope has generally been ignored by the mainstream media, and
deserves further attention.

After a US Navy SEAL put a bullet in Osama bin Laden’s chest and another
in his head, one of the most secretive black-ops units in the US
military suddenly found its mission in the public spotlight. It was
atypical. While it’s well known that US Special Operations forces are
deployed in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it’s increasingly
apparent that such units operate in murkier conflict zones like Yemen
and Somalia, the full extent of their worldwide war has often remained
out of the public scrutiny.

Last year, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reported
that US Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries, up from
60 at the end of the Bush presidency. By the end of this year, US
Special Operations Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me, that
number will likely reach 120. “We do a lot of travelling – a lot more
than Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said recently. This global presence – in
about 60 per cent of the world’s nations and far larger than previously
acknowledged – is evidence of a rising clandestine Pentagon power elite
waging a secret war in all corners of the world.

The rise of the military’s secret military

Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran, in which
eight US service members died, US Special Operations Command (SOCOM)
was established in 1987. Having spent the post-Vietnam years distrusted
and starved for money by the regular military, special operations forces
suddenly had a single home, a stable budget, and a four-star commander
as their advocate.

Since then, SOCOM has grown into a combined force of startling
proportions. Made up of units from all the service branches, including
the Army’s “Green Berets” and Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force Air
Commandos, and Marine Corps Special Operations teams, in addition to
specialised helicopter crews, boat teams, civil affairs personnel,
para-rescuemen, and even battlefield air-traffic controllers and special
operations weathermen, SOCOM carries out the United States’ most
specialised and secret missions. These include assassinations,
counterterrorist raids, long-range reconnaissance, intelligence
analysis, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction
counter-proliferation operations.

One of its key components is the Joint Special Operations Command, or
JSOC, a clandestine sub-command whose primary mission is tracking and
killing suspected terrorists. Reporting to the president and acting
under his authority, JSOC maintains a global hit list that includes US
citizens. It has been operating an extra-legal “kill/capture” campaign
that John Nagl, a past counterinsurgency adviser to four-star general
and soon-to-be CIA Director David Petraeus, calls “an almost
industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine”.

This assassination programme has been carried out by commando units like
the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force as well as via drone strikes
as part of covert wars in which the CIA is also involved in countries
like Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. In addition, the command operates a
network of secret prisons, perhaps as many as 20 black sites in
Afghanistan alone, used for interrogating high-value targets.

Growth industry

From a force of about 37,000 in the early 1990s, Special Operations
Command personnel have grown to almost 60,000, about a third of whom are
career members of SOCOM; the rest have other military occupational
specialties, but periodically cycle through the command. Growth has been
exponential since September 11, 2001, as SOCOM’s baseline budget almost
tripled from $2.3bn to $6.3bn. If you add in funding for the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan, it has actually more than quadrupled to $9.8bn in
these years. Not surprisingly, the number of its personnel deployed
abroad has also jumped four-fold. Further increases, and expanded
operations, are on the horizon.

Lieutenant General Dennis Hejlik, the former head of the Marine Corps
Forces Special Operations Command – the last of the service branches to
be incorporated into SOCOM in 2006 – indicated, for instance, that he
foresees a doubling of his former unit of 2,600. “I see them as a force
someday of about 5,000, like equivalent to the number of SEALs that we
have on the battlefield. Between [5,000] and 6,000,” he said at a June
breakfast with defence reporters in Washington. Long-term plans already
call for the force to increase by 1,000.

During his recent Senate confirmation hearings, Navy Vice Admiral
William McRaven, the incoming SOCOM chief and outgoing head of JSOC
(which he commanded during the bin Laden raid) endorsed a steady
manpower growth rate of 3 per cent to 5 per cent a year, while also
making a pitch for even more resources, including additional drones and
the construction of new special operations facilities.

A former SEAL who still sometimes accompanies troops into the field,
McRaven expressed a belief that, as conventional forces are drawn down
in Afghanistan, special ops troops will take on an ever greater role.
Iraq, he added, would benefit if elite US forces continued to conduct
missions there past the December 2011 deadline for a total American
troop withdrawal. He also assured the Senate Armed Services Committee
that “as a former JSOC commander, I can tell you we were looking very
hard at Yemen and at Somalia”.

During a speech at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual
Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict Symposium earlier this
year, Navy Admiral Eric Olson, the outgoing chief of Special Operations
Command, pointed to a composite satellite image of the world at night.
Before September 11, 2001, the lit portions of the planet – mostly the
industrialised nations of the global north – were considered the key
areas. “But the world changed over the last decade,” he said. “Our
strategic focus has shifted largely to the south … certainly within
the special operations community, as we deal with the emerging threats
from the places where the lights aren’t.”

To that end, Olson launched “Project Lawrence”, an effort to increase
cultural proficiencies – like advanced language training and better
knowledge of local history and customs – for overseas operations. The
programme is, of course, named after the British officer, Thomas Edward
Lawrence (better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”), who teamed up with Arab
fighters to wage a guerrilla war in the Middle East during World War I.
Mentioning Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, and Indonesia, Olson added that
SOCOM now needed “Lawrences of Wherever”.

While Olson made reference to only 51 countries of top concern to SOCOM,
Col. Nye told me that on any given day, Special Operations forces are
deployed in approximately 70 nations around the world. All of them, he
hastened to add, at the request of the host government. According to
testimony by Olson before the House Armed Services Committee earlier
this year, approximately 85 per cent of special operations troops
deployed overseas are in 20 countries in the CENTCOM area of operations
in the Greater Middle East: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq,
Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar,
Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates,
Uzbekistan, and Yemen. The others are scattered across the globe from
South America to Southeast Asia, some in small numbers, others as larger

Special Operations Command won’t disclose exactly which countries its
forces operate in. “We’re obviously going to have some places where it’s
not advantageous for us to list where we’re at,” says Nye. “Not all
host nations want it known, for whatever reasons they have – it may be
internal, it may be regional.”

But it’s no secret (or at least a poorly kept one) that so-called black
special operations troops, like the SEALs and Delta Force, are
conducting kill/capture missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and
Yemen, while “white” forces like the Green Berets and Rangers are
training indigenous partners as part of a worldwide secret war against
al-Qaeda and other militant groups. In the Philippines, for instance,
the US spends $50m a year on a 600-person contingent of Army Special
Operations forces, Navy Seals, Air Force special operators, and others
that carries out counterterrorist operations with Filipino allies
against insurgent groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf.

Last year, as an analysis of SOCOM documents, open-source Pentagon
information, and a database of Special Operations missions compiled by
investigative journalist Tara McKelvey (for the Medill School of
Journalism’s National Security Journalism Initiative) reveals, the US’
most elite troops carried out joint-training exercises in Belize,
Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Germany, Indonesia, Mali, Norway,
Panama, and Poland.

So far in 2011, similar training missions have been conducted in the
Dominican Republic, Jordan, Romania, Senegal, South Korea, and Thailand,
among other nations. In reality, Nye told me, training actually went on
in almost every nation where Special Operations forces are deployed.
“Of the 120 countries we visit by the end of the year, I would say the
vast majority are training exercises in one fashion or another. They
would be classified as training exercises.”

The Pentagon’s power elite

Once the neglected stepchildren of the military establishment, Special
Operations forces have been growing exponentially not just in size and
budget, but also in power and influence. Since 2002, SOCOM has been
authorised to create its own Joint Task Forces – like Joint Special
Operations Task Force-Philippines – a prerogative normally limited to
larger combatant commands like CENTCOM. This year, without much fanfare,
SOCOM also established its own Joint Acquisition Task Force, a cadre of
equipment designers and acquisition specialists.

With control over budgeting, training, and equipping its force, powers
usually reserved for departments (like the Department of the Army or the
Department of the Navy), dedicated dollars in every Defense Department
budget, and influential advocates in Congress, SOCOM is by now an
exceptionally powerful player at the Pentagon. With real clout, it can
win bureaucratic battles, purchase cutting-edge technology, and pursue
fringe research like electronically beaming messages into people’s heads
or developing stealth-like cloaking technologies for ground troops.
Since 2001, SOCOM’s prime contracts awarded to small businesses – those
that generally produce specialty equipment and weapons – have jumped

Headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, but operating out of
theatre commands spread out around the globe, including Hawaii,
Germany, and South Korea, and active in the majority of countries on the
planet, Special Operations Command is now a force unto itself. As
outgoing SOCOM chief Olson put it earlier this year, SOCOM “is a
microcosm of the Department of Defense, with ground, air, and maritime
components, a global presence, and authorities and responsibilities that
mirror the Military Departments, Military Services, and Defense

Tasked to coordinate all Pentagon planning against global terrorism
networks and, as a result, closely connected to other government
agencies, foreign militaries, and intelligence services, and armed with a
vast inventory of stealthy helicopters, manned fixed-wing aircraft,
heavily-armed drones, high-tech guns-a-go-go speedboats, specialised
Humvees and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, as well
as other state-of-the-art gear (with more on the way), SOCOM represents
something new in the military.

Whereas the late scholar of militarism Chalmers Johnson used to refer to
the CIA as “the president’s private army”, today JSOC performs that
role, acting as the chief executive’s private assassination squad, and
its parent, SOCOM, functions as a new Pentagon power-elite, a secret
military within the military possessing domestic power and global reach.

In 120 countries across the globe, troops from Special Operations
Command carry out their secret war of high-profile assassinations,
low-level targeted killings, capture/kidnap operations,
kick-down-the-door night raids, joint operations with foreign forces,
and training missions with indigenous partners as part of a shadowy
conflict unknown to most Americans. Once “special” for being small,
lean, outsider outfits, today they are special for their power, access,
influence, and aura.

That aura now benefits from a well-honed public relations campaign which
helps them project a superhuman image at home and abroad, even while
many of their actual activities remain in the ever-widening shadows.
Typical of the vision they are pushing was this statement from Admiral
Olson: “I am convinced that the forces … are the most culturally attuned
partners, the most lethal hunter-killers, and most responsive, agile,
innovative, and efficiently effective advisors, trainers,
problem-solvers, and warriors that any nation has to offer.”

Recently at the Aspen Institute’s Security Forum, Olson offered up
similarly gilded comments and some misleading information, too, claiming
that US Special Operations forces were operating in just 65 countries
and engaged in combat in only two of them. When asked about drone
strikes in Pakistan, he reportedly replied, “Are you talking about
unattributed explosions?”

What he did let slip, however, was telling. He noted, for instance, that
black operations like the bin Laden mission, with commandos conducting
heliborne night raids, were now exceptionally common. A dozen or so are
conducted every night, he said. Perhaps most illuminating, however, was
an offhand remark about the size of SOCOM. Right now, he emphasised, US
Special Operations forces were approximately as large as Canada’s entire
active duty military. In fact, the force is larger than the active duty
militaries of many of the nations where the US’ elite troops now
operate each year, and it’s only set to grow larger.

Americans have yet to grapple with what it means to have a “special”
force this large, this active, and this secret – and they are unlikely
to begin to do so until more information is available. It just won’t be
coming from Olson or his troops. “Our access [to foreign countries]
depends on our ability to not talk about it,” he said in response to
questions about SOCOM’s secrecy. When missions are subject to scrutiny
like the bin Laden raid, he said, the elite troops object. The
military’s secret military, said Olson, wants “to get back into the
shadows and do what they came in to do”.