Tampa to become epicenter of international special operations coordination

By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa Tribune, Fla. | Published: October 18, 2013

U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, just launched a new initiative that will make Tampa the epicenter of international special operations coordination.

On Oct. 1, as the government shutdown and 1,500 civilian Department of Defense employees at MacDill were sent home, Socom was quietly starting up the International Special Operations Forces Coordination Center. The center, known as the ISCC, for the first time provides foreign special operations liaisons space in Socom headquarters to coordinate on special operations activities around the world.

“This is huge,” said Army Col. Stu Bradin, the ISCC chief. “This is a great commitment from our nation and their nations to do this.”

Though Socom has long worked with foreign partners, the center, now in its interim phase, will help integrate foreign special operations forces into Socom commander Adm. William McRaven’s vision for a global special operations force that ensures small regional issues don’t become major theater operations the U.S. can’t afford in blood or treasure, according to Bradin and other Socom officials in charge of the program.

The center was created for “frankly, preventing and deterring regional conflicts, facilitated at a strategic level at Socom,” said Army Col. David Athey, the ISCC deputy.

“We currently have 12 representatives from 10 nations here,” said Athey. “They are the senior special operations forces representatives from their nations. Adm. McRaven invited them here...”

The concept is simple enough.

Special operations leaders from around the world can increase cooperation, reduce inter-force and regional conflicts and better stop trouble before it starts, or react to it more quickly once it does, by gathering in the same room, with the ability to communicate on a secure, common system.

But turning that concept into a reality has been complex, Athey said.

Though McRaven runs Socom, he still needs the ok from the Pentagon to decide which countries take part in the new center. The Pentagon’s policy office, working with the State Department, negotiates 10-year Memoranda of Agreement so that countries can send liaisons and exchange information, said Air Force Lt. Col. Kurt Spranger. Those representatives pay their own way to be in Tampa, Athey said.

Those agreements will give the concept staying power beyond the tenure of McRaven, who took over Socom in August of 2011. Since Socom’s 1987 inception, commanders have averaged about three years at the helm, with McRaven’s predecessor Adm. Eric Olson the longest-serving Socom commander at a little more than four years.

And, though Socom will oversee coordination efforts, there will be no command and control at the ISCC. Any plans to use special operations forces must be approved by geographic combatant commanders like Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who runs U.S. Central Command and executed by theater special operation commanders like Army Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, who runs U.S. Special Operations Command Central. Both of those commands are also headquartered at MacDill.

The geographic combatant commanders like Austin and theater special operations commanders like Nagata are drawing up their priorities for the use of special operations force as well as providing input into which nations they want stronger partnerships with and should be invited into the ISCC, Athey said.

One of McRaven’s objectives is that the ISCC won’t just consist of military organizations. He wants organizations like the FBI, DEA and Department of Homeland Security to also take part, bringing their expertise and assets into the mix.

Additionally, the command is working on a campaign plan and will seek input from interagency partners. The plan has to be approved by the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Sometime next week, the command will send the campaign plan to the Joint Staff for review, said Bradin, “that brings together all the (special operations forces) activities.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel “has agreed to review that plan. It is a big deal for us. Huge. It’s never been done here before.”

For foreign military representatives, the ISCC will have some significant advantages over how their colleagues work with Centcom, said Athey.

Centcom has long had a coalition village, made up of about 50 countries who are assisting with U.S. military efforts in Centcom’s region. But senior national representatives from those countries work in a separate building from Centcom on separate computer systems.

It’s one thing to bring people into a room. But it’s another thing to have a communications system that not only allows international partners to communicate with their commanders, but also allows access to certain layers of U.S. classified information to fully manifest the special operations ethos of quick, decisive action.

To that end, Socom is using a modified version of the existing U.S. Battlefield Information Collection and Exploitation System - the NATO communications backbone - to allow communication between networks. In some cases, that will require an exception to the national disclosure policy prohibiting foreign access, an exception Socom is seeking, Athey said.

The Centcom system “was limiting and isolated” the coalition partners, said Spranger, the ISCC’s Partner Nation Integration Team Chief.

He should know.

For three years, he worked at Centcom’s coalition village running its information sharing division.

“Unlike Centcom, it won’t be a one-way flow of information,” said Spranger. “This is a two-way flow. It is not just information for information, but information for action.”

But foreign partners won’t be able to randomly surf through U.S. classified networks, said Spranger.

“There are a lot of firewalls,” to the new system, called BICES-X, he said.

Bringing foreign special operators into the Socom headquarters, and creating a new communications system, will encourage collaboration, Athey said.

“The sole purpose of the ISCC is that integration of allies within the Global SOF campaign plan,” said Athey, “so we can leverage where certain security interests align between nations.”

This is especially important with the coming end of combat operations in Afghanistan, said Athey.

“We are trying to build on the successes we’ve had in the past 12 years of conflict,” said Athey. “We integrate with our allies very easily in those constructs. We don’t fight by ourselves anymore. We rely tremendously on our allies to deconflict where their security interests are to what our objectives are.”

The problem, said Athey, “is what we don’t do is translate that in peace time. We don’t partner with our allies in peace time. We get into U.S.-specific operations and what we are trying to do here is leverage our experience over the last 12 years and better integrate our allies” into the early phases of operations.

Right now, Jordan, South Korea, Italy, Poland, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, Lithuania, Hungary and New Zealand are represented at the ISCC, said Athey. Over the next year to 18 months, another two dozen or so nations will be represented, he said.

Construction work is currently underway at Socom headquarters to accommodate the international partners, which is a complex undertaking.

“I am not sure when the renovations will be done,” said Athey, estimating that it might be by next Spring. “There are a thousand different engineering factors.”