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CHIPS Articles: The Communications Special Forces Need

The Communications Special Forces Need
By Adm. William H. McRaven - October-December 2011
Robust, reliable, trusted communications are in high demand by Special Operations Forces, and Adm. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, talked about their specialized communications needs at the Army's LandWarNet conference Aug. 24, 2011, in Tampa, Fla. The admiral's remarks were edited into an article to focus on the communications and information technology needs of Special Forces.

The mission of U.S. Special Operations Command is to provide fully capable Special Operations Forces to defend the United States and its interests, and to synchronize planning of global operations against terrorist networks.

Adm. William H. McRaven assumed command of USSOCOM Aug. 8, 2011. McRaven, has been called "one of the most experienced terrorist hunters in the U.S. government." A SEAL himself, McRaven, as the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), selected the special unit of Navy SEALs (Sea, Air and Land teams) that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, May 1, and in which, communications played a pivotal role.

I want to talk about special operations. I want you to know who we are, and I think who we are might surprise you a little bit. I want to talk about how we communicate, why we communicate, and then I am going to reach out and ask you to help me solve some problems within the Joint Special Operations communications arena.

As special operations folks, we like to think of ourselves as at the tip of the spear. We are generally the first ones in and the last ones out. In this case, the spear that is part of our insignia has three bands — that's for air, sea and land — and our heritage traces us back to the days of Maj. Gen. "Wild Bill" Donovan, who was the head of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). And we like to think that those same qualities that the OSS had — that imagination, that creativity — is part of what makes SOCOM who we are today.

Yin and Yang of Operations

We have what my predecessor, Adm. Eric Olson, called the yin and yang of operations. When you think of special operations, most of the time folks think about kinetic operations, the direct action, the raids. That's generally what makes it in to the newspaper. But frankly, the harder part of our job is engagement. When you look at the young Special Forces NCOs (non-commissioned officers) and officers downrange, in terms of engaging with the tribal leaders in Afghanistan, building the Afghan police — this is the much harder part of the job.

But the thing about the yin and the yang is that if you are going to conduct a direct action mission, you better know how to do engagement because at the end of that operation you are going to have to talk to the village elders and explain to them why you came into that compound. Conversely, if you are doing engagement, you darn well better know how to fight because invariably the fight comes to you.

SOF as an Organization

First, we are global. Right now we are in 76 countries around the world. Normally, on any day, 365 days a year, you will find special operations forces in somewhere in the neighborhood of about 70 countries. Sometimes there are just one or two guys, sometimes there is a hundred, sometimes there are a couple thousand, but we cover the globe.

We are joint. We are raised joint. Joint Special Operations Command has component commands, United States Army Special Operations Command, which is at Fort Bragg. Lt. Gen. John Mulholland has the job to man, train and equip the Special Forces, the Rangers, the 160th Aviation (160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne)), 4th Military Information Support Group, and he's got the JFK Special Warfare Center and School.

On the Air Force side, out in Hurlburt Field, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) maintains all the fixed wing and tilt-rotor wing aircraft. They have a special tactics squadron, and they also have an Air Force Special Operations school. In California, at Coronado, the Naval Special Warfare Command has the SEAL teams, the special warfare combatant-craft crewman, or our special boat guys. They have our SEAL Delivery Vehicle teams — these are little wet submersibles, and then they have the Naval Special Warfare Center.

Then our newest component is the Marine Corps Special Operations Command out of Camp Lejeune. They have the special operations regiment, battalions and support groups. They have a school as well, and then the command I just came from, the Joint Special Operations Command [is another].

We are raised in a joint environment. If you are a young Ranger, you have jumped out of an Air Force aircraft, and you have spent time with Navy SEALs. If you are a Navy SEAL, I guarantee you have spent time with an Army ODA [Operational Detachment Alpha, a standard 12-man team composed of U.S. Army Special Forces operators]. It is about the "jointness," and this is one of both the advantages of our organization, and frankly, when it comes to communications, one of the tactical challenges we have.

We are interagency, and this really began for the most part since 9/11. I don't conduct a single operation any day of the year that does not have some interagency component — CIA, NSA (National Security Agency), DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency), FBI and others. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple of thousand interagency personnel that are working with our units downrange every day.

We (USSOCOM) are both a COCOM and a service. As a combatant commander, I have a responsibility globally to synchronize the war on terrorism; that is my COCOM responsibility. In my service-like responsibility, I have the requirement to man, train, equip, deploy and, when called upon, employ forces. I, unlike any other COCOM, have a budget. I have acquisition authority. I have the responsibility to make sure that promotions and advancements for our officers and enlisted are taken care of. SOCOM is a very unique organization.

We are distributed. So I talk about our global footprint, our joint footprint, our interagency footprint. We have a very distributed communications architecture — 560 nodes. These are generally the folks downrange that have the SDN lights, the SDN mediums [broadband satellite communications connectivity; core Ku band (SHF) 0.95 to 12.75 gigahertz link].

Of course, from there we branch out even further. About 54 garrison nodes, that's Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, Hurlburt, five soft strategic entry points around the globe, 59,000 global users. We use both government and commercial satellites and any other infrastructure we can find that can pass information, that's part of our distributed network.

Cost Effective

I like to think that we are the most cost effective capability that the U.S. government has. I have about $10 billion a year as my annual budget. That is only in fiscal year 2011, only 1.4 percent of the Department of Defense budget. This next year (FY12) we will be 1.6 percent of the Department of Defense budget. We are only 3 percent of DoD personnel, but right now we are 7 percent of the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If you take a look at what Special Operations, Special Forces, SEALs, Rangers, etc., have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, I think the return on the government's investment, on the American citizens' investment, has been well worth it.

About 11.2 percent of my budget is spent on C4IAS (command, control, communications, computers and information automation). So a large amount of what I do is about command and control.

Special Forces Profile

As you would expect, overall strength and a large portion of Special Forces are military, but we have a pretty good slice of both contractors (8 percent) and government (9 percent) service. The interesting thing about the 83 percent of military is they are not what we would call "badged" special operations. They're not SEALs, not Rangers, not SOF guys. They are general purpose forces that come to SOCOM. But very quickly when they come on board, we make them special operations folks. We make them think like SOF operators. We make them act like SOF operators. We make them move at the speed of war, and this is what makes this organization as agile and as good as it is.

The average SOF operator is about 34 years old. That's not to say we don't have younger SOF operators in the Rangers and the SEALs, but the average guy is about 34 years old. He is college educated, married and has at least two kids. So this idea that the SOF operator is out there and he's some lone wolf "Rambo" guy who lives alone in an apartment by himself just isn't borne out by this.

Most of these guys are thinking athletes, somewhere in their childhood they played football. They ran track. They wrestled. But a very interesting statistic — we pulsed 1,000 guys entering some of the various schools at the SF center at basic underwater demolition SEAL training, and as we looked across their resumes, the one thing that popped out more than anything else was that they played chess. Not something you would think of as a guy coming into a special operations career, but again these guys are not only athletes — they are thinking athletes.

Eight years of time with the general purpose force so they come in with an understanding, particularly on the Army side, of what the conventional forces can do for special operations, and they bring the great part of that conventional thought process into SOF — and we need that. Multiple advanced tactical schools and most of them speak at least one foreign language. I would be the exception.

SOF Scope of Operations

We've recently redefined how we look at SOF operations and activities. We do core operations so the two that most people think about are counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. But there are supporting missions. So, for example, in a counterinsurgency, you will have preparation for the environment, special reconnaissance, direct action, combat service support, SOF combat support, military support information operations, civil affairs, conventional weapons management and disposal (CWMD).

You may do a hostage and recovery mission in the middle of counterinsurgency. So these activities support the core missions, and this has really helped us think about how we do our business, and it's been a very helpful construct for us. (See Figure 1.)

Daily Communications

We communicate through 321,000 emails per day across this global distributed network. Video teleconferences: 210 per day. When I was a JSOC commander, I did six video teleconferences a day; each one lasted about an hour. And those video teleconferences were my opportunity to pass information to my force and to receive information. So the criticality, the clarity of that information, of that communication network, was absolutely critical to how I got my job done. And I only did six of those 210 per day. Today, communications are Web-based: 72,000 portal hits per day, and then 424,435 phone calls per day.

And, of course, now guys are on chat and any sort of instant messaging that you can think of. You see people using those in lieu of email today. So we have a fairly robust SOF enterprise network.

Why We Communicate

Command and Control. There are times in our communications process where we need to be able to communicate more clearly than others. First, we obviously communicate to command. So as a commander, and for any of my 06 or 05 commanders, we put out commander's guidance.

Now frankly, in the world of communications, I would contend this is probably the easiest part of how we communicate. For those of you who are commanders, you know you want to work very hard to make that command statement very succinct, very clear, that can be put out in a single sentence, in a single paragraph, and it generally communicates across a variety of mediums pretty well.

Now you have to be able to control. Control is now a different level of communication; it requires a different level of fidelity. So as we control, that young colonel, or that young lieutenant colonel, who now has unmanned aircraft, manned aircraft, he's got troops on the ground, and he's maneuvering those troops in combat to control them.

Send and Receive Intelligence. With each step we require more and more clarity, so if we are sending and receiving intelligence, I guarantee you what I need is high definition video from a UAV. I need still pictures that are crystal clear. I need to make sure the information that's coming across the radios, or mIRC chat, is as clear as it can be so we don't misinterpret what the guy in the field is seeing or how we are relaying intelligence.

Target the Enemy. Now of all these, targeting the enemy becomes the one where we need the most precise information. So as you are looking at a high definition video of a guy on the ground, is that a Taliban fighter with a RPG (rocketpropelled grenade) or is that an old man, a wood cutter, that's just carrying a load of wood on his shoulders? Are those 15 military-age males or are those women and children? Because if you make that mistake, you are going to inadvertently kill civilians, and that's the last thing you want to do in a counterinsurgency.

Counterinsurgency operations are about making sure that you are supporting the population. So our targeting and how targeting information flows is absolutely critical.

Pass Information to Higher Headquarters. So after we target the enemy, then we have to be able to pass information to higher headquarters. This kind of cycle, this ebb and flow, really goes from command where we have got to have some degree of clarity to returning that information back to higher headquarters, and then that bell curve in the middle is where we need our peak communications clarity.

So as soon as an operation is over, we are moving information back to higher headquarters, and they've got to have essentially the same level of fidelity we had as they continue to pass it up. A lot of times in Afghanistan and Iraq when we conduct an operation, it will become an international media hit within about 30 minutes. So if we have conducted an operation, whether it has gone well or poorly, it will be on CNN within 30 minutes and, therefore, the information that we have to get back to our boss has got to be as accurate as we can make it. And sometimes, that is a pure function of the communications architecture we have to support our troops.

Build Trust and Establish Relationships. Everybody that's been to the battlefield in Afghanistan knows that you have to build trust and relationships with the local population. Frankly, we build a lot of trust and relationships with people through video teleconferences. So the real question is, as I'm doing a video teleconference with one of my allies, coalition partners, or with one of my Afghan allies, am I getting everything he's trying to tell me? Am I seeing his body language?

Do I understand exactly what he's saying because that communications medium becomes critical to my understanding of the situation and my ability to build a relationship, establish trust and, in fact, get the job done.

Crisis Management. Now what you have is all of those things except in a very compressed environment. So when we have a crisis situation, which for some reason we seem to have crisis situations every day, when you are in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, we have to look at all these needs as compressed in time and space. And therefore, everything we have in terms of how we communicate has got to move at the speed of war.

Pass Assessment. This is a continuous communications cycle. We are not a linear organization, so everything is going on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. We are communicating in the ways I described, and in a thousand other ways across the globe, across the joint environment, across the interagency, across the coalition, across all possible networks. (Summarized in Figure 2.)

Special Operations Communication Needs

A Universal Domain. I would like to be able to pick up my iPhone or my Android, or whatever smart phone, and be able to communicate with all of the folks I talked about, but not worry about the security protocol or device. Do I have the right crypto on the other end? How do you tag the information so that if I'm going to write an unclassified email, it has a green border, or the text is green, and when it is sent, it can go to everybody that can receive green text? And if it's secret, there is a blue border, and only those people that have the ability to receive blue text get it, and if it is top secret it's red.

How do you use artificial intelligence to tell me whether or not that information is classified based on a number of screening criteria, and it allows me to use whatever medium I have to transfer or translate that information? That to me is a universal domain. We talk a lot about the problems of cross-domain solutions; it is hard for me to take information from my crypto-side and transfer it to my unclass-side. But this is a problem, and it slows up in the way we communicate.

Improved Reception. I'm new on the job as USSOCOM commander, and for about the last three years I've been overseas most of the time. So we are about to move into our new house, and I've decided I want a television. I just don't want any television; I want the biggest television out there. I saw a 70-inch television and that's what I want. So I was looking at televisions, and it's kind of like that commercial, I was fixated on this TV.

And this young man comes by and sees me looking at the TV and he says, "You know, that TV has yellow." I said, "Really?" He said, "Yeah, it's got yellow in it." And he looked at me like where have you been for the last couple years? Of course, I began to understand what he was saying, that most TVs display a picture in blue, green and red and this one also had yellow. As I looked at the TV, of course, the quality of the picture was a lot better because it had yellow. Who knew? But the fact of the matter is that made a difference in how I perceived the information.

[Another example] When I was in Afghanistan in a gymnasium on the treadmill doing my four-minute mile and watching Wolf Blitzer, the volume was low (as in most gyms) so there is a speech-to-text scroll. But we don't have that capability in our VTCs — but maybe we could.

So my challenge to the "6" community for those that manage information, is: Help me receive and understand information better. I've used some great products, perceptive pixel, telepresence, and they are light-years better than some of the other products in terms of my ability to receive information, but it is still not good enough.

Enterprise Cloud. On those six video teleconferences that I did a day — I can tell you that most of the time I only received about 50 percent of the information, or I'm only ingesting about 50 percent of the information. Therefore, I am losing a lot of information. We can't afford that. We need to have a SOF enterprise cloud that allows me platform independent ability to reach out and get the information I need from wherever I am on the globe because both in law, and as the SOCOM commander, I have the responsibility to synchronize the global war on terrorism, and because I am distributed across 76 countries daily, it is important that any of those individuals that are part of the 59,000 global users can access the cloud.

Full Spectrum Search Engine. We have stovepipes within our databases, but what I'm looking for is a universal or a full spectrum search engine that allows me to find what is in my top secret, secret and unclass databases, something that can work across domains to get the information I need.

Ironclad Protection. Then, as always, we need ironclad protection. With most of our systems, we have three means of protection: the Common Access Card, a password, and in a lot of cases, biometrics. But at the end of the day, I'm not sure any [of these security measures] gives me the ironclad protection I need as part of the SOF enterprise.

When you take a look at special operations, it is the global nature of SOF that makes us unique. It is not that the Army isn't global, clearly it is, and the Air Force, and the Marine Corps, but our 24/7 cycle, from command and control and operations, is not a linear process for us. It is happening every single minute of every single day across the entire globe. It is managed at smaller and smaller levels as you move from Afghanistan up to the SOCOM commander. These are the things I need your help in fixing.

For the latest news and information about U.S. Special Operations Command, visit

Adm. Bill H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, addresses the audience at the AFCEA International LandWarNet conference in Tampa, Fla., Aug. 24. The conference is designed to bring both government and industry together to discuss best business practices. McRaven outlined the role of USSOCOM and the communications challenges the command faces, while also challenging those in attendance to develop cutting-edge communications capabilities for Special Operators.
Adm. Bill H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, addresses the audience at the AFCEA International LandWarNet conference in Tampa, Fla., Aug. 24. The conference is designed to bring both government and industry together to discuss best business practices. McRaven outlined the role of USSOCOM and the communications challenges the command faces, while also challenging those in attendance to develop cutting-edge communications capabilities for Special Operators.

Figure 1 shows SOF Core Activites and Operations. Core Activities include preparation of the environment, special reconnaissance, security force assistance, military information support operations, direct action, civil affairs operations, SOF combat support, SOF combat support services, hostage rescue and recovery, and interdiction and offensive CWMD Operations. Core operations include counterinsurgency, stability, countering weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, supporting major combat operations and campaigns, foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare.
Figure 1. SOF Core Activities/Operations

Figure 2 shows how and why special forces communicate. They send 321,000 emails per day, participate in 210 video teleconferences a day, make 424,435 phone calls per day and 72,000 portal hits per day. Special forces use these communications methods for command and control, crisis management and pass assesment as well as to send and receive intelligence, target the enemy, pass information to higher headquarters, and build trust and establish relationships.
Figure 2. How and Why Special Forces Communicate
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