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Outside View: Whetting the Spearhead
by Whitney Grespin
Tampa, Fla. (UPI) May 15, 2013


disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only

As deployed U.S. troops continue to draw down from Afghanistan and those waiting in the wings keep a watchful eye on developments in Syria and the Sahel, thousands of interested parties convened in Tampa, Fla., this week to collaborate and dialogue about how to best support elite U.S. military assets.

The gathering is the National Defense Industrial Association's 2013 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference.

This year's conference, convened in the home city of the Special Operations Command headquarters, is centered on the theme of "Strengthening the SOF Bond."

The three-day conference brings together defense professionals, academics and uniformed service members -- both foreign and domestic -- to engage in candid dialogue about the ways in which special operations capabilities are poised to address existing and potential challenges to U.S. national security.

The conversation will undoubtedly focus on how best to maintain, equip and advance the unique capabilities that have developed over the last decade of war fighting, as well as how to most effectively backstop and support the SOF personnel who have borne such inordinately heavy burdens in recent years.

Beyond more traditional industry pillars such as technical innovation, organizational adjustments, and core competency development, this year's SOFIC agenda also calls for thoughtful dialogue regarding the "Preservation of the Force and Families."

This holistic approach to maintaining SOF assets is important for the conservation of institutional memory, as well as for the well-being of the individual operators who have made extreme commitments -- and sacrifices -- to serve their country.

While references to special ops typically call to mind highly aggressive kinetic operations, those in the know realize that these types of operations are less prevalent than longer term missions that strive to build partner capacity or advance intelligence gathering capabilities.

The changing nature of U.S. international engagement has prompted a rebalancing of SOF assets through a shift away from focus on strike proficiencies and a deliberate return to the core competencies of worldwide training and advising that SOF were originally conceived to deliver.

SOF activities of the future will build on the foundation that skills gleaned from a dozen years of raids and advisor missions have laid, while shoring up elements of the infrastructure that have suffered wear and tear.

A decade of high operational tempo has resulted in increased incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder, debilitating physical injuries and wear, the atrophy of foreign language development programs and reduced training missions outside of counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism doctrine for SOF personnel.

Special operations leadership is looking to advance their human capital resources through the cultivation of subject area experts and operators who are highly trained and capable of operating in foreign environments with minimal immediate support, which signals a return to the fundamental special operations belief that humans are more important than hardware. This reliance on human capacity and management of the human terrain or, more simply, people skills, includes the ability for U.S. forces to better collaborate with partner nations to deliver effective training with smaller footprints.

Building durable collaborative relationships is particularly important for the transfer of sensitive knowledge and skills, such as those contained within the military reform and security force capacity building programs that SOF delivers.

While the United States continues to shift from heavy presence, high-visibility interventions to more subtle and nuanced capacity-enhancement initiatives, these trainers will need to rely less on muscle and more on craft. The type of work that is required to truly affect change and build durable institutional relationships must be steady and persistent.

At its core, this approach to conflict prevention through increased institutional capacity was described at an earlier NDIA Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference as simply, "Helping friends to help themselves so they can help us."

Looking ahead to the future of Special Operations Forces, while previous Quadrennial Defense Reviews of 2006 and 2010 focused on getting the size and enablers of SOF right, it is likely that the 2014 QDR will instead focus on reconfiguring the shape and character, rather than the size, of these assets in order to assure strong capabilities in an era of austere resources.

(Whitney Grespin has overseen education and security sector capacity building programs on five continents. She works as an operations specialist with Atlantean and is a research fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy as well as a member of the 2012-13 inaugural class of the Eurasia Foundation's Young Professionals Network.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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