As special ops conference opens in Tampa, CentCom works to ease commandos’ burden

Army Gen. Joseph Votel speaks with a Navy sailor during a visit to the USS New Orleans. Over Votel's shoulder, approaching the American ship, is an Iranian war vessel. [Howard Altman   |   Times (2016)]
Army Gen. Joseph Votel speaks with a Navy sailor during a visit to the USS New Orleans. Over Votel's shoulder, approaching the American ship, is an Iranian war vessel. [Howard Altman | Times (2016)]
Published May 21 2018
Updated May 22 2018

TAMPA ó As thousands of people flock to Tampa for the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, the general in charge of U.S. forces across the Middle East along with Southwest and Central Asia said efforts are underway to reduce the strain on commandos serving there.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the bulk of the 8,000 special operators assigned around the world have been deployed to the U.S. Central Command region.

From his headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Army Gen. Joseph Votel told the Tampa Bay Times Monday that conventional forces are increasingly taking over roles once exclusively performed by commandos.

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Most of those efforts involve training and helping Iraqi and Afghan security forces as well as proxies like the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have been played a key role in the battle there against the Islamic State.

"One of the great things Special Operations Forces have done over the years is help our conventional forces move forward in a number of areas," including advise-and-assist missions and organizing operations of intelligence and strike cells, Votel said.

These missions are being "done well by conventional forces and thatís been very helpful in the cases were we donít have enough (commandos) or donít want to commit them."

Votel, who previously commanded U.S. Special Operations Command, also headquartered at MacDill, pointed to new Special Forces Assistance Brigades, which are now working in Afghanistan. Created by the Army to help take the load of commandos, the units "have been absolutely sensational" in their missions to help train Afghan partners.

Training partner nations helps reduce the strain on U.S. commandos, Votel said. One example is the Afghan special operations forces, whose numbers have grown by about 4,000 during the past year.

"These guys are excellent," Votel said. "They are very capable and very aggressive and frankly, they lead the way in the Afghanistan security forces."

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The Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, held at the Tampa Convention Center through Thursday, kicks into high gear Tuesday morning and features a talk by SOCom commander Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas III, regional spec ops commanders, and James Smith, who leads SOComís multi-billion dollar acquisition efforts.

The convention center will also be filled with hundreds of companies pitching products such as drones big and small, small submarines, rifles and communications systems.

On Wednesday, between 1:30 and 2 p.m., during a capabilities demonstration outside the convention center, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn will be the victim "captured" by bad guys and "rescued" by international commandos in boats, helicopters and ground vehicles.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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