During 14 years of war, the Army’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) and conventional forces have been forced to work closely together.
They have overcome command and control issues, communications incompatibilities and operational differences and today, they are better integrated than at any other time, said Lt. Gen. Kenneth E. Tovo, commanding general of the Army’s Special Operations Command.
The challenge now is to maintain that interoperability as operations wind down in Afghanistan and Iraq and SOF and conventional forces go their separate ways, Tovo said during the Institute of Land Warfare Contemporary Military Forum at the 2015 Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exposition.
Today’s interoperability was hard-won.
In the early days of the Afghanistan conflict, some SOF could not communicate with other SOF units, let alone with conventional forces, said Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander, XVIIIth Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, N.C.
It wasn’t just a problem of communications gear and incompatible networks, Townsend said. Too often the attitude was: "You’re not authorized to know what I know," he said. It took years to solve the technical problems and overcome the uncooperative attitude.
Much of the change can be attributed to "personal relationships" – soldiers and leaders who came to know and trust each other, Townsend said.
Now that fewer soldiers are in combat, Army leaders are pondering how to keep those critical personal relationships from fading away.
"Much of the integration [of SOF and conventional forces] now is personality based – people who know people" and have developed a relationship of trust, said Maj. Gen. Wayne W. Grigsby Jr., commander of the 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley, Kan.
"We’re just a few retirements" and permanent changes of station away "from losing the gains of the past decade-plus," said Grigsby said.
The interoperability gains must be written into Army doctrine, Grigsby said during the panel discussion.
Interoperability should also be incorporated into training.
There is not enough interaction between SOF and conventional forces at the National Training Center in exercises, he said.
Preserving today’s "unprecedented level of interoperability" is important because the Army is more likely to be involved in "gray zone" conflicts that are the specialty of SOF than in the "high-end" wars that are the standard for conventional Army units, said Nora Bensahel, distinguished scholar in residence at American University’s School of International Service.
Conventional Army forces may have to become more like SOF to wage the sort of hybrid warfare that is expected in the future, she said.
"Special Operations Forces are what the president is going to be tempted to use" in response to security problems because of "all the liabilities, domestically and in host nations," of sending in conventional forces, she said.
The regular Army will have to do more operations that require SOF-like capabilities.
Shrinking defense budgets, a smaller Army, and security challenges erupting around the globe confront the Army with a challenge.
"The Army needs to prepare for high-end" conflict, but "what the Army is going to be doing day to day is gray-area operations," Bensahel said.
The Army must figure out how to do both well.
Two options may be creating cadre forces that focus on special operations-type missions but remain ready to be filled out quickly as full brigade combat teams when needed for high-end conflict; and greater reliance on reserve forces, she said.
Although the Army has considered such options and rejected them in the past, it is time to look at those and other possible solutions, panel members agreed.