As the US military struggles, some C2 challenges for special forces

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Reliance on the U.S. military special forces has increased steadily over the past 20 years. More operations using more people in more trouble spots. Auditors have found that the Special Operations Command has trouble with oversight of its command and control or C2 structures. Partly this is a data problem. For details, we turned to the director...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Reliance on the U.S. military special forces has increased steadily over the past 20 years. More operations using more people in more trouble spots. Auditors have found that the Special Operations Command has trouble with oversight of its command and control or C2 structures. Partly this is a data problem. For details, we turned to the director of defense capabilities and management issues at the Government Accountability Office, Cary Russell, who spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript: 

Cary Russell: What we’re talking about here, when we say C2, we’re talking about organizations, a task force is a common terminology. But there’s a lot of different terms for it but essentially, these are organizations, organizations that deploy overseas and oversee the operations of multiple special forces units and personnel conducting special forces missions. We were doing the work there with around 28 active command and control organizations or structures out there, all over the globe, primarily in the Middle East, and in the Africa area. But the importance of the issue is that all of these task forces or what have you, these command and control structures, they all require personnel and resources to be assigned to them. And those have to come from existing units. So it becomes, you know, really critical that the resources applied to these task forces are the most efficient, effective use of special forces, resources, which, as you mentioned,  are limited and stretched pretty thin.

Tom Temin: In other words, the special forces has like a cabinet of resources, and people come in and take things out of the cabinet. But it sounds like the left hand may not exactly know what the right hand is doing. And so things get either shortchanged or something can’t be obtained that’s needed somewhere.

Cary Russell: Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. So for example, in order to staff a command and control activity, they often pull personnel from existing units, but perhaps here at home station within the United States, and as those people are removed from those operations, and from these operational units into those task forces, that create shortages on the home station side, which can affect the ability to train and prepare for other operations. So it is absolutely critical, again, that there’ll be a good transparency and accountability for how many of these structures are out there, how big they are, how they’re comprised, what’s what types of skills are involved in them, so that the special operations community can make the best choices in terms of the allocation of these scarce resources,

Tom Temin: And the allocation of resources then is for the command and control structures themselves? And is it also for the task, and the actual firepower and human power for the task itself? That is being commanded and controlled?

Cary Russell: Right? Well, it’s all that, you know, obviously, we were focused here on the command structure, and then those units that do the operations would then come in and out underneath the task force, for example, if that’s the terminology you’re using. But it’s all of those things. In some cases, we found that sizing these task forces is a challenge. And as missions change, and requirements change, the special forces community hasn’t always been on top of modifying the task forces accordingly. So in some cases, we found where the task force is basically, these headquarters command units actually had more personnel then the operators that they were actually controlling and managing. So there are situations where it does get out of line, and they have to be reevaluated.

Tom Temin: Right. So the tail got bigger than the tooth, as they like to say. It sounds almost like a project management challenge.

Cary Russell: Yeah, I mean, it is, in a sense, you know, when it comes down to it, it’s a fundamental issue on data and visibility, what we found is that the Special Operations Command doesn’t keep good data on how many task forces are out there, what they’re comprised of, what they’re doing, and the numbers are involved in these task forces. And as a result, it’s very difficult. It’s difficult to manage that aspect of it. And then to come to make things even complicated. We had this conversation about what is a C2 structure. Essentially, they don’t have good terminology for what it is. And so when you look at different names with a detachment, or a group, or a taskforce, it’s hard to tell how big these things are, what they’re doing, what kind of personnel are in them. And as a result, it makes it very difficult between that and the lack of data to actually manage that enterprise of command structures to make sure that we’re optimized.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Cary Russell, Director of defense capabilities and management issues at the Government Accountability Office. Did you get the sense that this lack of coordination and knowledge about the C2 structures could add up to less effectiveness of special forces for what it is they’re called on to actually accomplish?

Cary Russell: Yes, it does create a challenge as we talked before, one thing in terms of resourcing those task forces or what have you, they’re pulling resources away from operational units and ability to prepare and be ready for whatever it is those other units might need to do. And then it’s also taking up space within the theater of operations in terms of operational units that are there and being able to effectively oversee those operations to make sure that they’re both efficient and effective in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish.

Tom Temin: And how did you get this information? It was most In this case interviews, or did you look at documentation, also?

Cary Russell: It was both. I mean, there have been some previous studies done, we obviously did a number of interviews with commands across the globe. And as we mentioned, because the special forces command and community doesn’t keep current data on how many there are, we had to go through and do a lot of digging in order to put this together. And we’re not the first ones to do that. Other studies within DoD and even externally have come to the same conclusion that it’s very difficult to get a handle on the current status of how many command and control structures are out there. And there was a lack of an easy  set of data. So we had to go  and track it down.

Tom Temin: Sure. And did special operations leadership kind of agree with your findings?

Cary Russell: Yes, they did. They  saw the need for it. And to give them credit, they’ve done a number of things, both before and during our study in terms of reevaluating on an annual basis, the requirements that these task forces or command structures are supposed to accomplish, as well as doing a baseline to review that has resulted in the actual changing of some of them, and then reduction of some of the control structures as well. But they did not at that time  created a way to collect and maintain that data and visibility and transparency? We made that recommendation and they agreed to do that.

Tom Temin: Right. So that’s a pretty tall lift, then I mean, do they have the systems to support that? And do they know what it is they need to put into the systems so that that picture emerges?

Cary Russell: I think that’s all part of it. I mean, they do have ad hoc data collection that comes from theater. So as they need information, they are able to spin it up and collect it. It’s a matter of institutionalizing some of those processes and systems. And there may be some changes as they go through in order to figure out how best to do that.

Tom Temin: And let me ask you this, each of the individual armed services has its own special forces component. Even the Marine Corps has one and you think they are the ultimate special force all in and of themselves. But be that as it may. Is this a cross cutting issue then for Special Operations Command? That’s a purple command that draws on all of the armed services?

Cary Russell: That’s good question. Absolutely. Yes, that’s correct. Because  the way it works is the individual military services, as you mentioned, will develop and maintain and train special operators, and then that will be assigned to the Special Operations Command. So having this structure in place, it’s critical for both the Special Operations Command to manage its activities, as well as the services to make sure that they’re providing the right resources, and that they’re most efficiently using those resources. And to give you an example, one of the things we found was that there was a task force in the Pacific that had Navy special operators assigned to it. But yet the  Navy Special Warfare Center that oversees all the Navy’s special forces didn’t even realize they had personnel assigned to this task force. And so it definitely affects not only the observer’s ability to manage its special forces personnel, but the U.S. Special Operations Command and how they employ and use those personnel.

Tom Temin:  And I guess we should answer a basic question too. Does this issue only apply to the people assigned to a command and control structure? But also the equipment?

Cary Russell: Yes, it would be all that because resources put into place whether there’s communications equipment or other logistical support equipment, but certainly the personnel are a key factor in all this.

Tom Temin: You can’t go to a battle with just a banana in your hand, in other words.

Cary Russell: It’s pretty hard. Yeah, exactly.

Tom Temin: So it could come to pass that a commander for some other purpose could say, golly, I’m going to need these four helicopters. Oops, they’re not there. They’re somewhere else.

Cary Russell: Yeah, there’s always those kinds of challenges. And you know, what we find too is that with respect to some of these these organizations is they may have been stood up for a certain requirement that has changed. And what often happens or has happened is units will transfer or come over underneath the task force in order to do one specific mission, but then they get repurposed to do other missions while they’re there. We’ve also seen that the task forces or the structures overseas have provided an opportunity to train commanders and how to work in task forces. So they provide training value. So in some cases, they’re actually used as that purpose, in addition to their own mission requirements that are being established.

Tom Temin: Alright, so the recommendation then is there to get this all coordinated, get into some kind of a data system? And then you’ll go back and check in a year and see if they’ve done it?

Cary Russell: Yes, that’s exactly right, come up with a way to collect and use the data to manage those structures as well as create some standardized terminology. So when you see those structures listed, you kind of have an idea as to what they’re for and how they’re sized. We will follow up on those recommendations as we go and see how what progress they’re making how well they’re doing. Towards that end.

Eric White: Cary Russell is director of defense capabilities and management issues at the Government Accountability Office

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