The Navy SEALs strike that rescued two Western aid workers on Tuesday, coming as the Pentagon begins detailing how it will adapt to massive budget cuts, reflects a shifting emphasis toward elite, nimble units that can carry out targeted operations.
General Raymond Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, told Reuters that he was comfortable with plans to slash $260 billion in defense spending over the next five years, noting that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan would allow the military to rely on fewer overall troops. Officials told The Associated Press that they plan to cut the number of U.S. Army combat brigades from 45 to as few as 32 while reducing the total number of soldiers by about 80,000.
Officials also told The AP that speciality units would not be affected by the cuts, a sign of how military tactics are shifting to accomodate not only diminished resources but also an era when conventional military operations are being abandoned in favor of more precise methods. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke frequently during the waning days of his term of how the military would need to be restructured.
Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it, Gates said in a February 2011 speech to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The shift was already under way before President Barack Obama announced the budget cuts. Obama has embraced the use of targeted strikes by unarmed predator drones as a key weapon in the government's counterterrorism arsenal. The Central Intelligence Agency plays a central role in conducting those strikes, and the agency's Counterterrorism Center has expanded from about 300 employees before Sept. 11, 2001 to more than 2,000 as it has evolved into what a former official described to The Washington Post as one hell of a killing machine.
Special Operations forces, a designation that includes Navy SEALs, the Army's Green Berets and Rangers, Air Force Air Commandos, and Marine Corps Special Operations teams, have also assumed a more prominent role. The Navy SEALs who conducted the Somali pirate operation offered a glimpse of that, as did the team that swooped into bin Laden's compound in May.
Those were rare instances of Special Operations forces bursting into public consciousness, but their numbers and reach have been steadily growing. Nick Turse reported in May that their ranks have almost doubled since the early 1990's, and a Special Operations Command spokesman told Turse that Special Operations Forces could be in up to 120 countries by the end of 2011.
Special Operations forces are also increasingly intermingling with traditional military units. The New York Times reported that veteran Special Operations personnel are coming to occupy more positions of power within the military hierarchy. Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus, formerly commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, alluded to that during his Senate confirmation hearing.
One of the major developments since 9/11 has been the establishment of this network, in many cases led by the Joint Special Operations Command of the military, but with very, very good partnering with elements of the Central Intelligence Agency, other elements of the intelligence community, and in fact with conventional military forces, Petraeus told senators.