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SOCOM's new mission is countering WMD threats

U.S. Special Operations Command may now lead the effort to stop terrorists from obtaining mass-casualty weapons, such as dirty bombs, but experts in the SOF community warn that operators can't do it alone.


U.S. Strategic Command recently passed the leadership role in counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction mission to SOCOM, a move that has SOF leaders scrambling to figure out where it fits into this complex mission.

Michal Lumpkin, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict, said he worries that SOCOM will try to take on too much of the mission.

Special Operations personnel are known for being "solution people," he said. "They solve problems. They fill gaps, seams, and voids."

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"But every gap, seam, and void is not theirs to fill, so the interagency has to do their part," Lumpkin told an audience Feb. 28, 2018, at National Defense Industrial Association's 29th Annual Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict Symposium. "So, one of the things that I always fear is we would maybe get out in front of the headlights farther and faster than we should and accept too much of the mission."

Lumpkin took part in a counter-proliferation panel discussion, where all the panelists agreed that chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons are quickly becoming one of the top threats to the United States and its allies.

Soldiers of 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) and the Republic of Korea 11th Special Forces Brigade, secure a person of interest during training near Gwangyang, South Korea. (Photo by SFC Andrew Kosterman)

U.S. Army Col. Lonnie Carlson, director of Strategy, Plans, and Policy in the Department of Homeland Security's Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, said keeping WMD out of the hands of ISIS extremists is one of his top priorities.

"Those real-world things are there, and the bottom line is, they are definitely terrorism-related, they are coming out of the Middle East, and they are not things we were worried about two months ago," Carlson said.

Components of these mass-casualty weapons are also coming out of North Korea and turning up in places like Syria, said Michael Waltz, a former Special Forces officer and policy advisor to the Bush administration.

There have been "40 to 50 previously unknown, unreported shipments of essentially chemical weapons components or dual-use components from North Korea to Syria," he said.

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Syria's legitimate chemical industry "isn't exactly thriving, so I think it is safe to assume what those parts are for," he added.

Waltz said he agreed with President Trump's policy of "stopping the North Korean program in its tracks," but said he thought the administration's failure to fill key positions in the State Department would make it difficult to counter the proliferation of these types of weapons.

"I think we are really suffering in many respects ... with the lack of appointments and with what is going on in the State Department," Waltz said. "How do we work the non-proliferation piece, which State should and will lead, when they don't have the manpower? The answer I think is, it's going to fall on DoD, and it's going to fall on SOCOM."

Carlson pointed out that that SOCOM has been given the "synchronization" role in the effort, "but that doesn't mean they own all the operations."

"It's still the global and geographic chain of command with their theater units and SOF operating commands that actually do the executions," he said.

Members of the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command. (USAF photo by Christopher Lange)

SOCOM has been given a "significant plus-up" in the proposed fiscal 2019 budget, mainly in the overseas contingency operations account, but that will not be enough to fund this new mission, Lumpkin said.

"There are still shortages for SOCOM and across the inter-agency [in] resourcing this issue," he said. "The reality is, you can't put a new mission on anybody without either taking something off the table, something else that they are doing, or you are going to have to give them more resources."

SOCOM has no shortage of missions these days, Mark Mitchell, principal deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, said during his speech on Feb. 28, 2018.

In addition to leading the new WMD mission, "they also maintain their coordinating authority for countering violent extremists," Mitchell said. "These are no-fail missions for the nation. ... We are going to look at where we can shut some missions."

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Mitchell welcomed the conventional Army's recent decision to stand up its new Security Force Assistance Brigades, units of highly trained officers and soldiers designed to take over the "advise-and-assist" mission of training foreign troops in conventional infantry operations.

The Army plans to have all six SFABs in place by 2022. Perhaps these new units can take some of the burden off of Special Forces units, who have traditionally assumed these foreign training missions, Mitchell said.

Waltz suggested turning to the National Guard and Reserves since many of its personnel have civilian expertise in some the areas needed in the counterproliferation mission.

"SOCOM isn't going to solve this by themselves," Lumpkin said. "The only way we are going to get our arms around the counter-WMD, counter-proliferation challenges is to do it in a unified, whole-of-nation approach."