As senior defence officials in Washington contemplate how to better align US forces to fight the global 'war on terrorism', they are increasingly looking to special operations forces (SOF) as an answer.
With SOF expanded missions expected to range from greater involvement in major conflicts such as a possible US-led campaign against Iraq to tracking down individual terrorist cells in the far corners of the globe, additional force structure and new equipment are being planned.
Department of Defense (DoD) leaders are now forming a plan to give US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) leaders the flexibility to support the Bush administration's new pre-emptive strategy. This includes countering production and storage sites of weapons of mass destruction; increased interdiction of contraband and illegal finances; penetrating terrorist cells and conducting covert raids aimed at both terrorists and their supporters.
These new missions are expected to occur around the world, from training local counter-terrorism forces in Yemen, the Philippines, and Georgia, to covert raids on suspected terrorist hideouts.
And, as Marshall Billingslea, acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict, said, "engaging in this across multiple theatres is going to stretch the limits of the current force structure".
To fulfil those new responsibilities, the DoD is looking to increase the size of USSOCOM and grant it substantial budget increases. The command, which oversees more than 45,000 active and reserve component personnel, could see its budget double in size over the next five years as thousands more commandos are added to its ranks, senior military officials said.
The army, for example, has already tried to shift some troops into SOF positions and will pay more than $1 billion for additional SOF needs from Fiscal Year 2004-09 (FY04-09), said Maj Gen David Melcher, director of Army Program Analysis and Evaluation. The US Marine Corps, which contributes no personnel to USSOCOM, has signed an agreement to increase co-operation with it.
In the Defense Science Board (DSB) study on Special Operations and Joint Forces in Support of Countering Terrorism conducted in mid-year, additional recommendations were made to increase SOF personnel numbers. The study suggested that "a robust cadre of retirees, reservists and others who are trained and qualified to serve on short notice" be retained for possible call-up when needed.
However, it remains unclear whether or how SOF units can be quickly and effectively expanded. As Billingslea noted: "They cannot be mass-produced, nor can their equipment".
Moreover, those additional troops will not be enough, the officials said, so the USSOCOM will be given greater flexibility by taking responsibility for SOF units away from regional combatant commanders.
They "will in the future not be able to own the SOF units assigned to their area of responsibility", Billingslea said. Instead, the commander of USSOCOM will direct more of those operations.
At the same time, the DoD is looking to remove some missions from the command's purview that can be handled by regular forces. "Conventional forces are going to have to step in and pick up certain missions", Billingslea said, including combat search-and-rescue, portions of the 'war on drugs', non-combatant evacuations and the provision of some training.
The DSB study recommended additional changes, including establishing a new office with a $100 million annual budget to oversee future covert SOF operationss. The office would include specialists in information warfare/ information operations, covert action, diplomacy, cover and deception, intelligence operations, psychological operations, human intelligence (HUMINT) and signals intelligence.
According to briefing slides of the study obtained by Jane's Defence Weekly, the office would be called the Aggressive Proactive, Pre-emptive Operations Group and a Special Operations Executive in the National Security Council would oversee it.
Pentagon planners are also calling for the development and fielding of revolutionary new equipment that will give future SOF forces greater operational reach, knowledge, and punch. That list includes better "special reconnaissance" capabilities, and "improved capacity and speed of response" to pre-emptively deploy overseas.
The development of foliage-penetrating radar, better measurement and signatures intelligence integration into the force, and improved HUMINT are considered additional key reconnaissance areas of interest.
The DSB noted, for example, that "a major covert HUMINT programme needs to be made joint" and navy and air force HUMINT capabilities need to be further developed. Over the longer term, both the air force and navy are exploring systems that could revolutionise how SOF operations are conducted.
The US Air Force Special Operations Command is looking to replace its AC-130U gunships starting at the end of the decade with an AC-X platform (JDW 10 April).
Possible solutions run from upgraded aircraft with better conventional cannons to unmanned platforms capable of hovering over an area for extended periods of time and delivering precision weapons. The air force is reviewing several options including an ugraded AC-130U; an existing large aircraft like the C-17; a future Joint Strike Fighter variant, the CAF 2015; a stealthy manned aircraft; an advanced vertical take-off aircraft; a large unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV); and groups of UCAVs.
The navy is also exploring a number of future SOF platforms, from near-term solutions such as high-speed vessels to a dedicated Afloat Forward Staging Base that would act as an at-sea base when needed.
Over the longer-term, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the navy are exploring a "future underwater fighter", under the Loki programme, that could be launched from submarines and carry a variety of weapons and sensors.
That programme would seek to develop and use a specially designed energy-dense air-independent underwater propulsion system using a "vortex combustor", which one defence official described as being "at least 10-15 years away".
In the nearer-term, USSOCOM has taken delivery of a prototype Surface Planning Wet Submersible (SPWS) for maritime interdiction operations from Stidd Systems.
While USSOCOM says it has no "requirement" from the craft and is only using the prototype as a "technical demonstrator", the command continues to fund its development.
The SPWS is capable of carrying a six-man Sea, Air, Land commando team at relatively high speeds on the surface and can also submerge when stealth is required.
While precise details are classified, it is capable of travelling 165nm on the surface at cruising speed of 30kt and 18nm at 6kt while submerged.