Joe Boyles Guest Columnist
The acronym SOF stands for Special Operations Forces. These irregular military troops that each of the four services contribute toward are sometimes referred to as “snake eaters.” Their headquarters (Special Operations Command or SOCOM) is located at Tampa’s McDill Air Force Base. SOCOM planners put together last week’s raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.
There are about 60 thousand members of SOCOM. The Army contributes Special Forces (aka Green Berets), the Rangers, and the elite Delta Force. Another Army unit is the Night Stalkers of the 160th Aviation Company that flew the Seals into the compound last week. The Air Force elements are primarily located in Florida’s Eglin complex at Hurlburt and Duke Fields and include gunships, aerial refueling aircraft, and heavylift helicopters. The Marines have RECON companies while the Navy contributes six SEAL teams including Team Six that conducted last week’s raid on ObL.
Our special operations forces, the best in the world, have come a long way in thirty years. In the spring of 1980, the services threw together a complex mission to rescue the hostages from the American Embassy in Tehran. To transport the assault team, six helicopters were needed. The team asked for 12 and were given eight. When they landed at a remote site in Northern Iran named Desert 1, three helicopters were broken and unable to continue. Since they had less than the six required, the mission was scrubbed. During a night refueling in blowing sand, a Marine chopper collided with an Air Force C-130. The accident cost the lives of eight American servicemen including a good friend that I had gone to flight school with nine years before, Rick Bakke.
The failure of this mission made President Jimmy Carter look weak, one of many factors that led to his electoral defeat six months later. Each of the services investigated this mission. The Air Force team included a Texan by the name of Jey Younger who I later worked for. Jey had done special operations helicopter work in Vietnam ten years before. One of the recommendations was to build a special operations command with elements from each of the services. This would be the forerunner of today’s SOCOM.
President Reagan’s Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger accepted the notion and told the four military services to pony-up their forces for the new command. In turn, the four services drug their feet. For one matter, they didn’t want to give up control. For another, the traditional services hated the snake eaters. You see, military traditionalists despise the unconventional nature of special forces. Cap Weinberger had to get really tough and lay down the law to make SOCOM happen.
SOF has had its up and downs over the years. When Don Rumsfeld was the Secretary of Defense from 2001-06, he made sure that SOCOM had the resources they needed to build an effective fighting force and Bob Gates has continued this emphasis. Consequently, SOF is in great shape today, witness the success of the difficult May 1st mission to kill ObL.
Many other nations have SOF capability including England, France, Italy, Germany, and Israel, but none can match the size and scope of SOCOM. These nations have invested in special operations because they are uniquely qualified to match and defeat para-military organizations like al-Qaeda. If al-Qaeda is the equivalent of a nuisance fly, then special operations uses a flyswatter. You wouldn’t want to try and kill a fly with a baseball bat, would you?
I think that SOF forces are the ideal fighting force in the war against al-Qaeda going forward. Whether the mission is retaking an embassy, freeing a hostage, capturing a high-value enemy combatant, or assassinating a terrorist, the best option is to turn the mission over to SOCOM. These are finite, precise missions where special forces specialize.
You won’t see these guys seek publicity or attend a press conference. They work in the shadows. A large measure of their success is anonymity. Just be glad they’re on our side.
Joe Boyles Guest Columnist
Osama bin Laden is dead … room temperature … toes up. He’s also apparently fish food having been off-loaded into the North Arabian Sea. So ends the 10-year hunt for the al-Qaeda leader following the horrific attack of 9/11.
The raid on his compound in Abbottabad, about 40 miles north of Pakistan’s capital, was a joint CIA/Special Operations attack. It was apparently months in the planning. Friday morning, the President signed off on the operation which was delayed at least one day until weather conditions presented the best low-light level for a night attack.
The Special Ops Blackhawk helicopters appeared above the one acre compound at about 3:30 a.m. local time on Monday morning. The assault force rappelled down ropes onto the ground. One chopper lost power and the pilots crash landed the ailing bird inside the compound’s 10 foot walls, a neat piece of airmanship using night vision goggles. No one was hurt in the landing.
Most of our attackers were members of Seal Team Six, a very elite counter terrorism squadron based at Coronado Island near San Diego. These fellows are just about the toughest snake-eaters you can imagine. Just be glad they’re on our side. After their calls for surrender were met with small arms fire, our boys waded in and spilled blood.
They were on the ground for just forty minutes. In that time, they killed all males who resisted, rounded up women and turned them over to Pakistani authorities, and gathered a significant amount of intelligence loot. They were unable to fly the disabled helicopter, blew it up, and departed with no American casualties. The chopper with bin Laden’s remains flew to the USS Vinson (CVN-70) where his body was prepared for burial and, to paraphrase The Godfather, fed to the fishes when the Saudis refused to accept the remains. Bye, bye, bin Laden.
As most of you know, I’m pretty critical of our young president but in this case, I tip my hat. In 2008, he campaigned that he would go after bin Laden with a vengeance and he did. Rather than drop a laser guided bomb on the place, he sent in the Seals … boots on the ground … and they finished the job. Good for him; good for us.
Where does this leave us? Bin Laden may be gone, but his organization al-Qaeda isn’t. I think they’re pretty scattered but dangerous nonetheless. Yemen appears to be the most active cell. The intelligence coup that led to this raid indicates that we can put every aspect of al-Qaeda at risk. But this much is clear – al-Qaeda has lost its charismatic leader and the soul of the movement. His demise is big, really big.
This raid took place well inside Pakistan, supposedly our ally. Bin Laden wasn’t living in a rural cave in the mountains but rather in a city not far from the capital. How much did Pakistan military, political and intelligence officials know about his presence and chose to look the other way. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Our Special Ops are the best in the world. Headquartered at Tampa’s McDill Air Force Base, this unique command of air, sea and land elements works around the clock to put our enemies at risk. The bad guys lose sleep at night worrying over who will come knocking. That makes us safer.
Let’s give full credit to the Central Intelligence Agency who developed the leads over several years that led to this recent success. And let’s also tip our hat to former President George Bush. He put the infrastructure in place after 9/11 to dismantle, harass and destroy al-Qaeda. Candidate Obama roundly criticized Bush for all that he did, but President Obama has seen fit to keep that infrastructure in place and exploit it. To put it kindly, he was “mugged by reality.”
Ten years ago, we looked extremely vulnerable to the brand of terror practiced by al-Qaeda. Today, we don’t look nearly so vulnerable. We have been lucky in some cases, but mostly, we have been good. Our intelligence, particularly with communications and finances, is topnotch. Our military assets are second to none. If you’re in the life insurance business, you wouldn’t want to sell a policy to an al-Qaeda terrorist.