Why Are We Misusing Our Special Op Forces Against the Islamic State?

In the wake of the attack in Brussels, the need to step up the fight against the Islamic State couldn’t be clearer. So it’s discouraging, to say the least, to see the Obama administration misusing our most elite military forces.

American special-operations forces, including Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, are designed to conduct high-end, politically charged warfare and do so better than anyone in the world, which is what we need against the Islamic State. It took some urging, but President Barack Obama has finally started to heed the call to dispatch these units. So what’s the problem?

The administration has ramped up the use of special operations forces, yes, but it has neglected another critical piece of the puzzle.

Specifically, we need a much more robust air campaign to go with the elite forces on the ground. Special operations forces are known as force multipliers who deliver big results with small numbers because they provide targets to aircraft, advise on mixes of munitions and provide accurate bomb-damage assessment.

These skills will have an effect in our fight against the Islamic State only if we dramatically increase the numbers of airstrikes we’re launching.

For the time being, coalition forces (almost all American) are making one to two dozen sorties a day against the Islamic State. To a civilian, that may seem like a lot. Trust me: It is not. In previous air campaigns, the numbers were in the hundreds.

A sortie involves a plane taking off, flying to a target area and returning. If one looks closely, nearly 70 percent of the sorties are returning with their ordnance still onboard. They’re not dropping bombs.

This can be attributed to the ridiculously restrictive rules of engagement imposed by White House leadership. While there are always going to be missions that get waved off to protect against inordinate civilian casualties, strikes against the Islamic State are not occurring because our leaders don’t want to spill oil on sand.

In short, we’re not fighting the Islamic State as effectively as we can and should be because the administration is concerned about environmental effects.

That is ineffectual and unnecessary.

Another development has come to light showcasing the misuse of our special operations assets. It seems that the command in Iraq has been providing Russia the exact locations of American special operations units operating in Syria.

The reason for this breach of operations security? So the Russians will not inadvertently target them with airstrikes.

To some, this may seem prudent — and it would be if Russia were an ally. It is not. Russia and its proxy, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, are striving to find and kill the exact units our special operations units are training and advising. Does anyone think the information given to the Russians will not be used to crush the very forces our people are supporting?

If the Obama administration wants to protect American soldiers from possible Russian air attacks, it needs to step up and tell the Russians that the U.S. will not allow Russia to fly at all in the northern and western parts of Syria, under threat of retaliation. The Russians will understand that sort of force protection.

Frankly, even if the Obama administration did do this, it is no longer clear that this sort of response will be enough to stop the Islamic State.

The dribble of military antibiotic used so far may only have built a super virus that cannot be stopped by anything but a much larger response. Obama might have created exactly the thing he fears most.

 - Steven P. Bucci, Ph.D., who served for three decades as an Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official, is a visiting fellow.

 - This piece originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.

About the Author

Steven P. Bucci, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot