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Hearing of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee - U.S. Special Operations Command in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for FY 2010 and the Future Years Defense Program


Location: Washington, DC

Chaired By: Senator Jack Reed

Witness: Admiral Eric T. Olson, Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, United States Navy

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SEN. REED: Let me call the hearing to order and welcome Admiral Olson and Senator Wicker.

And today we are welcoming Admiral Eric T. Olson, commander of the United States Special Operations Command, to testify regarding the president's fiscal year 2010 budget request for SOCOM.

The threats that our Special Forces are facing around the world and the challenges facing the command as it seeks to meet today's requirements, while also ensuring future needs, are the focal point of our discussions today.

Admiral Olson represents more than 50,000 military and civilian SOCOM personnel who are fulfilling a variety of missions all over the globe in the fight against terrorists and to further other United States security interests. In the last year, Special Operations Forces conducted operations and training in more than 100 different countries. However, more than 85 percent of Special Operations Forces are currently concentrated in the Central Command theater. I look forward to hearing Admiral Olson's thoughts on how the drawdown of conventional forces in Iraq is likely to impact the Special Operations Forces deployed there.

While our conventional force continues to reduce its footprint, there is no indication that the requirements for Special Operations Forces and the unique skill set they bring to the fight will be similarly reduced for the foreseeable future. Special operators will continue to acquire enabling support, including airlift and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, as they remain in Iraq to carry out kinetic and non-kinetic missions against the enemy. These missions come with significant risk, and the Special Operations Forces must continue to receive adequate support from their general purpose counterparts if they are to remain successful.

I also look forward to hearing Admiral Olson's thoughts on Special Operations activities in Afghanistan and, specifically, whether or not requirements for mobility and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets are being adequately addressed. While the heavy commitment of Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is understandable, SOCOM's focus must remain global. I am concerned about the opportunity cost of tying down so many forces in a single region for an extended period of time and how it is affecting the command's ability to maintain critical language and cultural skills and relationships in other parts of the world. Given the extraordinarily high operational tempo faced by Special Operations Forces, the long-term sustainability of such deployment remains a concern. I know that addressing this challenge is one of SOCOM's highest priorities and look forward to hearing from Admiral Olson on recruiting, retention and family support issues facing the command.

I was pleased to see the fiscal year 2010 budget request increased procurement funding after that portion of SOCOM's budget experienced a significant decrease from fiscal years 2008 to 2009. Recent congressional testimony indicated that equipment procurement, including radios and some weapons, has lagged behind SOCOM's personnel growth in the last few years. I look forward to Admiral Olson's thoughts on any equipment shortages the command has experienced and what steps are being taken to address these shortages.

Lastly, I'm interested in hearing Admiral Olson's thoughts on the balance of focus and resources on direct versus indirect action within the command. Direct-action kill-or-capture missions are critical to dismantling terror networks but are only truly effective when coupled with indirect activities aimed at winning the hearts, the minds, the support, the confidence of the population. Some of argued that SOCOM has disproportionately focused on direct action in recent years, at the expense of its indirect acts in community.

Admiral Olson, it's a pleasure having you with us today. We look forward to your testimony.

I am going to recognize Senator Wicker. He has informed me that there is a vote scheduled for 2:45.

SENATOR ROGER F. WICKER (R-MS): It's 2:50, now.

SEN. REED: Two-fifty now? I had it marked down from 2:45 to 2:50.

So, Senator Wicker.

SEN. WICKER: Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I very much appreciate the cooperation that you've already exhibited toward me as a ranking member.

I want to thank Admiral Olson for being here today. And in light of the fact that there will be a vote within 20 minutes or so, I think I will submit my full opening statement to the record and simply state that I look forward to the admiral testifying and answering questions concerning a wide range of issues such as long-term sustainability, his efforts to increase Special Operations Forces by 4 percent, and growing the force at that level without compromising quality; what efforts he's taking to deal with the strain placed on our troops because of extended and repeated deployments, and I also hope to have a discussion about efforts to enhance cultural and language proficiency.

So with that, I will yield back to the chair and ask that my statement be placed in the record in full.

SEN. REED: Without objection, all statements will be placed in the record.

Senator Martinez.

SEN. MEL MARTINEZ (R-FL): I don't have a statement.

SEN. REED: Thank you very much.

Admiral Olson, please.

ADM. OLSON: Good afternoon, Chairman Reed, Senator Wicker, Senator Martinez. Thank you very much for the invitation to appear before the committee to highlight the current posture of the United States Special Operations Command. I'll say unprompted that thanks to the foresight, advocacy and strong support of this body, we remain well positioned to meet the nation's expectations of its Special Operations Forces.

The United States Special Operations Command and Special Operations Forces are a team of teams.

The Joint Force itself, those assigned by the military services for most of their careers, comprises Special Forces, Rangers, SEALs, Combatant-craft Crewmen, mini submarine operators, Marine Corps Special Operators, fixed and rotary wing aviators, combat controllers, pararescue jumpers, practitioners of civil military affairs and military information support, and more, all augmented, supported and enabled by a wide variety of assigned specialists -- great men and women, active duty and reservists, military and civilian, who generally work within the Special Operations community for an assignment or two over the course of their military careers and bring us much value.

Special Operations Force is a force that is well suited to the operating environments in which we are now engaged. Its proven abilities have created an unprecedented demand for its effects. In remote, uncertain and challenging operating areas, whether the assigned mission is to train, advise, fight or provide humanitarian assistance, the broad capabilities of Special Operations Forces make them the force of choice.

Primarily, United States Special Operations Command headquarters is responsible for organizing, training, equipping and providing fully capable Special Operations Forces to serve under the operational control of geographic combatant commanders. In this role, USSOCOM headquarters shares many of the responsibilities, authorities and characteristics of a military department, including a separate major force program budget established by Congress for the purpose of funding equipment, materiel, supplies, services, training and operational activities that are peculiar to Special Operations Forces in nature.

Special Operations Command is also responsible for synchronizing Department of Defense planning against terrorists and terrorist networks globally. In this role, we receive, analyze, prioritize the geographic combatant commanders' regional plans and make recommendations to the joint staff on force and resource allocations. Additionally, we are the Department of Defense proponent for security force assistance globally. In this role, we expect to help foster the long-term partnerships that will shape a more secure global environment in the face of global challenges such as transnational crime and extremism.

While the high demand for Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is -- as you noted, Chairman Reed, has caused a large majority of Special Operations Forces to be deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, Special Operations Forces do maintain a global presence. So far in fiscal year 2009, Special Operations Forces have conducted operations and training in 106 countries -- as you noted, 75 to 80 on most days.

In most of these operations, Special Operations Forces have taken a long-term approach to engagement, designed to forge enduring partnerships that contribute to regional stability. And this balance of effective direct and indirect skills inherent to the force, and an understanding of the operational context of their application, is the core of Special Operations. From support to major combat operations to the conduct of irregular warfare, Special Operations Forces are often first in and last out, accomplishing their missions with highly capable, agile and relatively small units.

So Special Operations Forces must be properly manned, trained and equipped to operate globally to the standard the nation has come to expect. The SOCOM fiscal year 2010 budget request includes the resources necessary to continue providing full-spectrum, multimission, global Special Operations Forces. While the USSOCOM budget request has historically been robust enough to meet basic Special Operations mission requirements, the success of Special Operations Forces depends not only on Special Operations Command's dedicated budget and acquisition authorities but also on U.S. Special Operations Command's service partners.

Special Operations Forces rely on the services for a broad range of support and required enabling capabilities. With the combination of the SOCOM budget and the support of the services, SOCOM seeks a balance, first to have sufficient, organic, Special Operations- peculiar enablers for speed of response to operational crisis and, second, to have enabling capabilities assigned in support of Special Operations Forces by the services for sustainment and expansion of operations.

USSOCOM headquarters will continue to lead, develop and sustain the world's most precise and lethal counterterrorism force. We will provide the world's most effective Special Operations trainers, advisers and combat partners with the skills, leadership and mind-set necessary to meet today's and tomorrow's unconventional challenges. This nation's Joint Special Operations Forces will continue to find, kill or capture our irreconcilable enemies; to train, mentor and partner with our global friends and allies, and to pursue the tactics, techniques, procedures and technologies that will keep us ahead of emerging and dynamic threats.

Thank you again for the opportunity to appear before you today. I'll conclude my opening remarks with a simple statement of pride in the Special Operations Force that I am honored to command and provide to other commanders. Special Operations Forces are contributing globally well beyond what their percentage of the total force numbers would indicate. Every day, they are fighting our enemies, training and mentoring our partners, and bringing value to tens of thousands of villagers who are still deciding their allegiances.

I stand ready for your questions, sir.

SEN. REED: Well, thank you very much, Admiral. And I wish that you will convey to your Special Forces operators our great respect and appreciation for what they're doing. Thank you very much.

ADM. OLSON: Thank you, sir. I will.

SEN. REED: As I suggested in my opening statement that there's an issue of the -- as we draw down in Iraq conventional forces, there's the expectation that Special Forces, Special Operations elements, will, you know, help us make that transition and continue our presence there. Do you see any complications in terms of this withdrawal, in terms of support for your operators or the continued presence of the operators?

ADM. OLSON: Sir, thank you. The short answer is yes, we see complications but none that can't be overcome. As you know, the reality is that whether the force presence is an area is small or large, it requires a -- some degree of support: coordinates search forces, quick reaction forces, medical support, air control support, air field operations, intelligence analysts, all of that, whether the force is large or small. We are working closely with the Army and the Marine Corps, who are the main force providers, to ensure that as the major forces draw down, and we've seen no indication that Special Operations drawdown will be commensurate with that, that there is a dedicated, reliable, available measure of support responsive enough to meet Special Operations needs.

SEN. REED: Thank you, Admiral. We are moving significantly to the Afghanistan theater of operations with your Special Operations as well as conventional brigade combat teams and Marine regiments. And as you point out in your testimony, you rely upon the support of other forces and other services, one of which is airlift. And there is some indication that many of the requests from Special Operators for airlift support can't be fulfilled because of the limitations. Is that an accurate assessment, and what can we do about that?

ADM. OLSON: That's a true statement, Chairman. The reality is that there is simply insufficient rotary wing lift, helicopter lift, available in Afghanistan. There is some moving there. The Marines have moved some airlift with their force into southern Afghanistan; there is Army aviation moving in. So I can't predict precisely what the situation will be after those forces are settled and made available, but I believe that there will be still insufficient lift available.

We are doing what we can to satisfy that by continuing to appeal to the services for support and to appeal to the operational commanders in the theater to prioritize, where they can, in favor of Special Operations support.

SEN. REED: By the way, we'll do about eight-minute rounds, so everyone will have a chance, I think, to ask questions before we have to run over and take a vote.

Something that Senator Wicker pointed out, which I think is an excellent point, and that's just language and cultural skills -- you know, I'm old enough to remember when everyone studied Russian, and everyone was a Soviet expert. And I never thought in my lifetime that that would all be history. At least the Soviet Union would be history. Now we find ourselves in areas with Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Chinese, et cetera.

How well are you doing, given the fact that -- and we're flowing so many people into Central Command, which has some of these languages, but then we have the traditional areas of concern across the globe that have other languages. Any comments?

ADM. OLSON: Yes, sir. If the question is how well are we doing, the answer is we're not doing well enough. My opinion is that we still have a long ways to go to truly understand operational context in the places where we are because we don't understand the people there well enough yet, and language is certainly a key way to gain insight into the people and how they interrelate.

We do have a number of initiatives. I euphemistically call it "Project Lawrence," inspired by Lawrence of Arabia but certainly not limited to Arabia: Lawrence of Pakistan, Lawrence of Afghanistan, Lawrence of Colombia, Lawrence of wherever it is that we are operating around the world, or assisting or working with our partners. There are a number of initiatives contained within this that are beginning to show some benefit, but you know that language skill is a perishable skill, and it must be sustained, maintained, incentivized, so that individuals will dedicate some of their free time to do it. All of the services are moving forward in this regard. Our responsibility in Special Operations, I think, is to seek ways to really steep people in languages and cultures over the course of their careers. We do have some advantages in being able to regionally orient our force in order to do that.

SEN. REED: Thank you.

This is a good point, I think, to recognize Senator Wicker.

SEN. WICKER: Well, thank you very much.

I think we're all agreed it's more than language proficiency; it's understanding that in some cultures, in some countries "I'll think about it" really means "no way." I remember you mentioned Lawrence of Arabia. There's the concept of "it is written," in that particular culture, where there was nothing you could do about it because it was going to happen anyway. It was written.

In the Army at least, there's been the concept of areas of responsibility, Admiral, where over a career, the forces were, as you say, steeped in the people and steeped in the language. Is it true that we've had to get away from that because over 80 percent of our Special Forces are now deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and how do you see answering that? Do you think we'll ever get back to the concept of AORs -- areas of responsibility, where a military member can stay for a long time or keep coming back to the same place and really understand that society?

ADM. OLSON: Yeah, that's certainly the goal, Senator. The reality is that historically Special Operations Forces and Army Special Forces in particular have been regionally oriented. Of the five active-duty Special Forces groups, there was one allocated to each geographic combatant command region of the world, so we only had 20 percent of our force focused on CENTCOM. As Chairman Reed noted in his remarks, we've had about 85 percent of our force deployed to CENTCOM for the last several years. So we have taken people regionally oriented to someplace else and assigned them to duty in CENTCOM. Over time, they've adjusted to that. They've trained to that. But we have been in fewer places, with fewer people, less often, for shorter periods of time around the rest of the world because of our commitment in CENTCOM.

SEN. WICKER: And, well, do you see that -- are we doing what we need to address that problem, and do you ever see us getting back to a situation where the skills are more widely spread?

ADM. OLSON: Sir, our current program grows, actually, one battalion in each of our Special Forces groups, giving us a fourth battalion. And the intent is to enable us to get back into the region with that battalion in a dedicated way. Whether or not we're able to do that as planned, time will tell. But that is the rate at which we can grow the force. So we are doing what we can do for now.

SEN. WICKER: Tell us a little about Project Lawrence. How many service personnel would be involved in this training project at this given time?

ADM. OLSON: Sir, in one way or another we pump more than 15,000 people a year through some sort of language training. Every Green Beret, for example, has to prove proficiency at the 1/1 level. That's basic survival level, but it at least indicates some ability to operate in another culture. He has to speak -- he has to qualify at the 1/1 level in order to pin on  to put on his beret for the very first time.

There is a program --

SEN. WICKER: What does a 1/1 level get you?

ADM. OLSON: What will 1/1 get you?


ADM. OLSON: Not much, sir. It will get you the pleasantries, respect from the people you're conducting business with for the fact that you have taken some effort to learn a few words of their language. It won't enable you to have a have a conversation or catch the evening news, typically. It's an introduction.

So in terms of steeping people in a culture, that doesn't do it. And so we do run advanced training courses. We've given directives across our force to qualify specific numbers of people at the 2/2 and 3/3 levels for specific languages at a pace that is doable.

The Army has leaned forward in initiating a program called MAVNI -- Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest  and has recruited now, I don't know the number this week, but I think it's somewhere around 300 people who are native linguists who are in the United States as non-immigrant residents. This is a new program initiated just in February, so it's already demonstrated great success and there's a vibrant blog occurring.

SEN. WICKER: Is that MAVNI program just the Army?

ADM. OLSON: At this point it is executed only by the Army. The Navy has an intent to execute the program at a much smaller scale. The Air Force has not indicated an intent to do it yet.

SEN. WICKER: So these -- we would be recruiting essentially foreign nationals who wish to become American citizens?

ADM. OLSON: Yes, sir.

SEN. WICKER: And giving them a fast track because of their service.

ADM. OLSON: These are visa holders.

SEN. WICKER: Visa holders?

ADM. OLSON: Visa holders in the United States for a purpose -- student, fiance, work, athlete -- who meet a set of criteria to become eligible to enlist in the United States Army.

SEN. WICKER: But certainly they already know the language and the culture and that's a great advantage there.

ADM. OLSON: Yes, sir. And in fact, the evidence is that we are so far pulling in a very highly qualified applicant. Most of them are college students or degree holders. In fact, well over 75 percent have an associate's degree or higher at this point.

SEN. WICKER: Where are these advanced training courses that you mentioned being conducted? Are they being done by the services?

ADM. OLSON: Mostly we run our own training courses under our U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

We do take advantage of service and defense schools where we can.

SEN. WICKER: Have you looked into using our universities and our ROTC programs in this regard, partnering between detachments and language in international studies programs at the various universities?

ADM. OLSON: Yes, sir, we've looked at that. And we're taking advantage of a few of those programs -- for example, the Olmsted Scholarship Program, which permits a student to go to a university in a foreign country, has some Special Operations students in it. But we found that keeping the student near where he lives, dedicated to language training full-time, is the best way to obtain language skills quickly.

SEN. WICKER: As an active-duty member?

ADM. OLSON: As an active-duty member, yes, sir.

SEN. WICKER: Well, tell us what you need in this regard, Admiral, and Senator Reed and Senator Martinez and I will try to bring that information to the full committee.

ADM. OLSON: Yes, sir. It's really a matter of capacity.

First of all, we need the capacity to make the students available to go through language training full time and then we need the schoolhouse capacity to absorb them into its programs.

We have a plan in place -- not yet fully funded, but we're seeking the funds within our own resources to do that -- to expand our program incrementally. And most training, most language training, frankly, takes place in a laboratory environment utilizing native speakers as instructors, so a lot of the native speakers are contract hires for that purpose and that's the way that we can best get about the program.

SEN. WICKER: Thank you.

SEN. REED: Senator Martinez?

SEN. MARTINEZ: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Admiral, also great to see you.

ADM. OLSON: Yes, sir.

SEN. MARTINEZ: Always good to remember your home is in Tampa and we appreciate having your command there; we're proud of that and proud of the role that MacDill and the Tampa community play in hosting so many important missions of our military.

I wanted to ask you a few questions about the Joint Cargo Aircraft or the "gunship lite," I guess it's referred to sometimes, the C-27J. There's been a decision made by the Air Force to reduce the number of airplanes that's going to be purchased to 38, which concerns me greatly, and I know you have expressed your opinion about the importance of this aircraft to some of what you do. And I just wondered if you could tell the committee how you view this aircraft, the importance of this aircraft to your mission, why -- you know, we have an aircraft here that's a little smaller, a little lighter, a little cheaper to operate, a little easier to get in and out of places perhaps, a smaller footprint. So could you comment on the importance of this aircraft to you and the operations that you and your forces conduct?

ADM. OLSON: Thank you, Senator Martinez. The requirement for an airborne platform to monitor an operational situation with the capability of providing precise fires is a -- that is a very important requirement. And I expect that as the pace scale of operations in Afghanistan increases with the increase in force level, it will become a capability that's even more in demand.

We are working to develop -- in fact, we have made great progress in developing  a platform-neutral precision strike package. The platforms that we are currently looking to install that on is the most immediately available are within our own MC-130 fleet, but our own requirements study showed that for global application and regional application within CENTCOM to a great degree, an airplane that gives us the capability to operate more remotely with a smaller footprint at a lower operating cost off less-improved runways is very important. And an analysis of alternatives conducted by the Special Operations Command identified the C-27J as the preferred alternative to meet that requirement.

SEN. MARTINEZ: We are -- this was going to be an aircraft that was going to be purchased by the Army as well as the Air Force; now it's only going to be Air Force. And I'm not sure it matters exactly which services purchases it, I guess, as long as it's available to you and in sufficient numbers to be able to carry out your mission. My concern is with 38 that we're not going to be in that position to do that and I wonder if you share my concern.

ADM. OLSON: Sir, the -- (inaudible) -- analysis of alternatives was done. The C27 had been selected through a competitive process as the Army Joint Cargo Aircraft.

We really do depend on service commonality to the extent that we can get it in the platforms that we have. It becomes then the responsibility of the service to procure the aircraft and provide it to us. So to that extent a service common aircraft, whether it's in the Air Force or the Army, is very helpful to us.

SEN. MARTINEZ: I know we've had great success in the Special Operations Forces in the retention and recruitment efforts. Are those still being maintained at levels that give you comfort, and what do you attribute the success to as well?

ADM. OLSON: Yes, sir. We're on pace to achieve our program's growth in almost every element of our force, lagging behind a few percent in a couple of specialties. The largest portion of our growth, frankly, is in the Army Special Forces community and they've proven that they're able to grow essentially a battalion a year increase to the force. So we're actually ahead of pace on that.

So recruiting is good; retention is satisfactory. The training pipelines are sufficient to produce the force that we're programmed to grow. And I'm on record, Senator, as saying that within our own pipelines, our own processes, our own institutions, we really can't absorb more than about 5 percent per year growth and we're on pace to do that.

SEN. MARTINEZ: Let me ask you about the -- I understand you were looking to replace the SEAL Delivery Vehicle with a new shallow-water combat submersible. Tell us where we are on that and what is the status of that new vessel?

ADM. OLSON: Sir, the SEAL Delivery Vehicle is simply reaching the end of its service life and so we're looking for the next- generation capability. We have about $3.5 million in the FY '10 budget for RDT&E in order to determine what the best craft will be to meet that need.

SEN. MARTINEZ: Finally, let me ask you briefly about the challenge that you've undertaken to train Pakistani forces to assist in defeating the insurgents in western Afghanistan and the tribal border regions.

How is that role going and how are you doing in training the Pakistani forces and how are they doing in terms of beginning to achieve the kind of success that will be necessary for them to have in order to achieve our goals?

ADM. OLSON: Sir, I'm a force provider for that mission; I don't have operational control over those forces. But, of course, once we deploy them we monitor them very carefully.

We are working very closely with the Pakistanis to provide partners to them at the pace and scale that they want and can accept them. And that effort is going along in a way that is satisfactory for both countries.

And if I go deeper than that, sir, I think we'll have to go into closed session.

SEN. MARTINEZ: Understood.

I wanted to just in closing say thank you to you and the people who work under your command for the great successes that you've had not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, now in the challenges that Pakistan faces, but I think also something that doesn't get nearly talked about enough is the incredible success you've had in Colombia, where we have really made a tremendous difference in one of our most important partners and neighbors in the region, where we've really turned around a situation that was -- I don't think we could have dreamed that things would be going as well as they are in that country and a lot of it is due to the work of the special forces that we've had there, the success we've had in training the Colombians, and the joint work that we've done there is remarkable. And I think it's also perhaps a blueprint to be followed elsewhere and perhaps that's what you're doing in Pakistan as well.

Thank you for your services.

ADM. OLSON: Thank you for noting that, sir.

SEN. REED: Thank you, Senator Martinez.

We have a vote right now. In fact, we've reached the midway point in the timing. In addition, at the end of the vote, Senator Levin is going to ask us to remain so we can vote on nominations, including General Rodriguez, to assume his position in Afghanistan.

What I would suggest -- and I've talked to the ranking member -- if there are additional questions, we would submit them to the admiral for the record and then we could adjourn at this moment.

And I think, Admiral, that there's probably not a need now to go into closed session because I don't think there's an issue that we would raise here that would require that closed session.

So I thank you for your service, for your attendance here today and for being understanding; we are running around, as you are.

So at this point, with our deep appreciation and thanks to you and the members of SOCOM, I will adjourn the hearing. (Sounds gavel.)

ADM. OLSON: Thank you, sir.


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