WASHINGTON — A top U.S. commander is seeking authority to expand clandestine operations against militants and insurgencies around the globe, a sign of shifting Pentagon tactics and priorities after a grueling decade of large-scale wars.
Adm. William McRaven, a Navy SEAL and commander of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, has developed plans that would provide far-reaching new powers to make special operations units "the force of choice" against "emerging threats" over the next decade, internal Defense Department documents show.
America's secret military forces have grown dramatically over the last decade as the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community have increasingly merged missions, including drone strikes and counterterrorism operations.
But some Pentagon officials and outside experts warn that giving secret soldiers too much additional authority outside the normal chain of command might lead to abuses.
The Special Operations Command, which McRaven heads from his headquarters in Tampa, oversees more than 60,000 military personnel and civilians.
The command includes Army Green Berets who specialize in training foreign military forces; Ranger light infantry units; Navy SEALs; Air Force squadrons flying drones and aerial gunships; and the Pentagon's most elite combat units, Delta Force and the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known as DEVGRU, which conducted the bin Laden raid.
Congress has ordered the Pentagon to cut its budget growth, and President Barack Obama has proposed reducing ground forces by 80,000 soldiers and 20,000 Marines. The White House has proposed increasing the 2013 Pentagon budget in only two areas: putting more forces in the western Pacific to counter China's growing clout, and expanding special operations.
McRaven's ideas, outlined in draft plans, provide the first unclassified blueprint of how the Pentagon would achieve that goal.
"We are in a generational struggle," McRaven says in a draft paper circulating at the Pentagon. "For the foreseeable future, the United States will have to deal with various manifestations of inflamed violent extremism. In order to conduct sustained operations around the globe, our special operations forces must adapt."
His proposals parallel Obama's preference for using SEALs, remotely piloted Predator drones and other unconventional tactics.
But the draft plans appear to challenge assertions by Obama administration officials that the threat from al-Qaida and other terrorist groups has significantly diminished after a decade of unrelenting pressure by America and its allies.
"Non-state actors, such as (al-Qaida), will increasingly threaten our national security," notes an unsigned staff memo attached to the documents. "They will establish bases in places not under sovereign control. Moving easily across political boundaries and merging with indigenous populations, these non-state actors will seek to exploit our vulnerabilities."
The draft plans do not specify where special operations would be increased, but officers and officials familiar with Pentagon thinking say it probably would include remote and chaotic areas of the Middle East, such as Yemen, parts of northern Africa stretching from Somalia to Nigeria and the Maghreb, and to a lesser extent, parts of Asia and Latin America.
Currently, commanders responsible for each region, or theater commanders, largely control how many special operations troops are sent to their areas and what missions they undertake. In the Middle East, for instance, such decisions now rest with Gen. James Mattis, the head of Central Command, and with Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan.
McRaven's blueprint is still in the planning stages. He is scheduled to brief Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and civilian officials at the Pentagon in the next month.
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