Special operations forces battle away from spotlight

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FORT IRWIN, Calif.

You rarely see them or read about them, but they’re out there, fighting and sometimes dying. Soldiers, sailors and airmen from U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) wage war under a cloak of secrecy. Their deployments are not announced. Few reporters ever visit the units. When they fight, the results often make the news, but the commandos’ involvement is rarely fully explained.

It’s possible to glimpse special operations forces (SOF) only at the fringes. Recently, SOCOM invited The Washington Times to observe a special operations forces training event at Fort Irwin, in the Mojave Desert just east of Los Angeles. Before shipping off to East Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines or other conflict zones, commando units run a gamut of exercises meant to prepare them for the rigors of combat. Fort Irwin, home of the U.S. Army’s sprawling National Training Center, is one of the last stops.

The role of special operations forces has expanded significantly since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as the U.S. military has gotten involved in an ever wider range of counterterrorism and nation-building operations. Since 2001, SOCOM’s budget has tripled to nearly $10 billion annually. Last year, the Pentagon began an ambitious plan to add 13,000 new commandos to the existing 50,000-strong force.

More than 100 commandos have died in combat since 2001, not necessarily in Iraq or Afghanistan. In September, two SOF sergeants were killed when a roadside bomb hit their vehicle on Jolo Island in the Philippines. SOCOM has been training the Filipino military to suppress an Islamic insurgency.

Also in September, SOF ambushed and killed a Kenyan man suspected of ties to al Qaeda. Saleh Ali Nabhan was purported to have played a role in the 2002 bombing of a Kenyan hotel, among other terror acts. The Sept. 14 raid in Baraawe, in southern Somalia, reportedly involved as many as four SOF helicopters flying from a U.S. Navy ship. Official confirmation of the raid occurred only after international media had reported the presence of U.S. helicopters and soldiers in Somalia.

“The role of the SOF soldier is to train, engage and carry out operations that do not fall under the normal guise of military operations,” one SOF major told The Times.

Like many of his colleagues, the major asked that his name not be printed. Commandos’ missions might include “reconnaissance, direct action, counterterrorism and other unconventional warfare,” the major continued. The missions typically are “clandestine [and] high-risk,” he said.

At the National Training Center, exercise planners prepare simulations that attempt to mirror the complex conditions of a unit’s actual destination. In October, elements of the 3rd Special Forces group, permanently based at Fort Bragg, N.C., spent several weeks at Fort Irwin “war-gaming” their upcoming deployment to an undisclosed location. Portions of the 1,000-square-mile National Training Center have been dressed to resemble Iraq; others are modeled on Afghanistan. With its wide expanses of desert ringed by low mountains, the center also resembles arid East Africa.

During one daytime training event, several 12-man groups of SOF troopers, called “A Teams,” rolled into a simulated desert town in specially modified Humvees.

“A mobile can of whoop-ass,” is how 3rd group Staff Sgt. Dennis Corey described the Humvee model. Compared to the standard version, the Special Operations Command Humvee carries more fuel and water for long-range missions and has extra attachment points for heavy weapons.

The simulated town of Medina Wasl, modeled on a semiurban Iraqi community, features authentic-looking buildings and vehicles. Scores of actors, some of them Arabic speakers, populate the town. Each follows a detailed script outlining the actor’s background, job, motives and political affiliations. Some portray innocent civilians, local government, media and even aid workers. Others are insurgents in disguise, required by their script to attack the civilians or U.S. forces.

Part of 3rd group’s challenge in Medina Wasl was to “establish and influence relations between military and civil governmental and nongovernmental groups across the spectrum from friendly to hostile areas of operations,” according to 3rd group Capt. David Durante. In this scenario, Medina Wasl turned out to be very hostile. A small explosive charge simulating an improvised explosive device detonated alongside a Humvee, kicking up a tall dust cloud. “Insurgents” opened fire from windows, firing blanks from their AK-47s. The commandos fired back with their rifles and machine guns.

To lend a sense of mortal danger to the mock battle, all the weapons included a tiny laser gun fitted to the barrel. Every fired blank was accompanied by a burst of laser. Each participant wore a vest studded with laser-detecting sensors that beep when the wearer is “shot.” For an extra dose of chaos, referees roamed Medina Wasl, firing a blue plastic laser pistol they call a “god gun,” randomly killing or wounding commandos. Dead soldiers were required to sit out the rest of the battle. Commando medics evacuated and treated the “wounded” just as they would a real-life casualty.

In truth, 3rd group might see very little direct combat. While special operations forces occasionally orchestrate spectacular raids, such as that in Somalia in September, commandos spend most of their time on less dramatic but no less vital tasks. In Afghanistan, as in the Philippines, special operations teams represent the backbone of U.S. efforts to train local militaries. Capt. Durante called it the “blood-free” approach to winning wars, although even training teams sometimes get ambushed.

The commandos embrace even the seemingly boring aspects of waging America’s wars. The Medina Wasl exercise included staged interactions between 3rd group teams and local leaders.

“Humans are more important than hardware,” Sgt. Corey said.

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