SOF LEADER: Contributing Security and Stability for Personnel


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice

Rear Admiral Sean A. Pybus assumed duties as commander, Special Operations Command Pacific, Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii, on June 12, 2009. Recently, he was given a new assignment: He will be commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command at San Diego, Calif.
He is a career Naval Special Warfare (NSW) SEAL officer with multiple joint special operations duty assignments. He graduated from the University of Rochester in 1979 with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and a regular Navy commission through NROTC. Pybus has served in SEAL, underwater demolition, special boat, and SEAL delivery vehicle tours within NSW, and has held operations positions at Joint Special Operations Command and United States Special Operations Command. Command tours include units in Panama, Germany and Bahrain, as well as duty as commodore, NSWG-1, San Diego. As a flag officer, he has served as J-3, Center for Special Operations, USSOCOM, 2007-2009.
He has participated in special operations in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Decorations include the Defense Superior Service Medal (2), Legion of Merit (2), Meritorious Service Medal (3), and various other awards. He is also a 1998 Distinguished Graduate of the Naval War College with a master’s degree in strategic studies.
Q: How well is your mission progressing, and what are your thoughts on the performance of your organization? What is the toughest challenge facing SOCPAC?
A: The Asia Pacific theater certainly has much potential for crisis and conflict, but there are few, if any, hot fights ongoing. USPACOM has done a great job in recent years to mitigate crisis and cultivate stability. SOCPAC’s mission is to contribute to security and stability in ways unique to a counter-terror and a special operations organization. We must also be ready to fight and win as a SOF component if called upon, but most of our time and resources are invested in shaping conditions and building capabilities that keep extremism or aggression “to the left” of actual terror or open conflict.
Our work in the Philippines is a great example of using small numbers of SOF, in the right ways, over a long period of time, to get to success. Most of our engagement in the AOR is built upon a by, with and through approach, with a long-term view and a deep understanding of regional cultures and characteristics.
So I would tell you our mission is progressing well. We are trying to improve the synchronization of our own, and others’, operations, activities and actions [OAAs] that will result in best effects and objectives, but we’re doing a pretty good job today and trying to get better. The toughest challenge at the moment is turning down additional work, because we’re near our limits and resources with current commitments. We have a mantra: If we can’t do something well, then we shouldn’t be doing it. So we set priorities and we review those priorities periodically, and we change them if circumstances dictate. I am proud of the efforts and the focus of SOCPAC and the components, and I see them continuing to be major players for the better in the Asia Pacific.

Q: How are special forces personnel progressing in learning the languages needed to communicate with native populations in theater areas? Are distance learning and computer-aided education useful here? And are there other ways of better understanding indigent populations and their cultures?
A: SOF in PACOM have very good capability and appreciation for regional cultures, languages and relationships. First Battalion, 1st SFG lives in Okinawa, alongside AFSOC’s 353rd SOG. First SFG continues to place most of its teams into the Asia Pacific. We’ve been in the Philippines on OEF-P for nine years now. So relative to other theaters, I think SOF in PACOM do extremely well in terms of their regional expertise and awareness. Of course, we have to do better, and I do see more immersion training taking place in China, Indonesia, the Philippines and other countries. SOF officers are attending war colleges in the region. Our PACOM augmentation teams provide continuous presence forward in key locations and inform all of us on issues of culture, politics, defense and relationships. So we’re in pretty good shape as a force focused on this region, but we still need to do more. There is no doubt that having a deeper understanding of this region, its languages, history, cultures and so forth, is extremely powerful.
Q: Do we have sufficient special operations personnel to meet contingencies in the Pacific theater?
A: We’ve assumed more risk in the Asia Pacific in recent years, with the re-allocation of SOF rotary wing aviation, SEAL platoons and other SOF elements going elsewhere due to important efforts in USCENTCOM. Much of USPACOM’s previous conventional strength has also been re-directed into CENTCOM.
The world’s six largest armed forces are in USPACOM—if there is serious conflict here we will quickly need additional resources. We do serious contingency planning at SOCPAC to clearly lay out exactly what we think we would need in a given number of scenarios. That planning has to be done, and in great detail. In the meantime, we have what we have. I want to make the best use of staff and forces on hand, and as I said above, I believe SOF has a key role in PACOM to work “to the left” of conflicts or terror, so we don’t have to press the “help” button. SOCPAC has an on-call SOF element in C/1/1, and 1/1 and 1st SFG have made significant investments in training and equipment to provide C/1/1 a more robust F3EA [find, fix, finish, exploit, assess], EOD and ASO [advanced special operations] capability. Naval Special Warfare maintains an on-call RHIB para-drop detachment in Guam, although the only SEAL platoon we have is in the Philippines on mission. And the 353rd SOG keeps part of their C-130 fleet always ready to go.
So a small part of our force is kept in ready status, in the event they’re needed. My concern relative to force levels committed to PACOM is towards the future, as the political and military dynamics in the Asia Pacific are changing significantly and are more pressurized than years past.
Q: What capabilities—hardware—would you most like to see provided to special operations personnel that they now lack, and what are your acquisition plans for the next 12 months?
A: USPACOM is the largest U.S. geographic combatant command. We’re challenged more and more to find mobility that can lift our engagement elements in and out of South and Southeast Asia. I don’t have to own this lift, but we need access to it, and we go places where no one else goes, so the flexibility to do that would be a positive.
AFSOC’s nonstandard aviation program is excellent for light lift; I’m challenged to get lift for larger, longer-duration engagements at longer distances. For tactical mobility, we don’t have SOF helicopters, which limits our capability and readiness. In the realm of information systems to support our important shaping activities in the AOR, we are investing money and manpower to map key geographic and population terrain. There are surveys and tools that help us gather data, and hardware and software that help to assess and present findings. I think this is battlespace where we marry the ability of SOF personnel to get into areas otherwise not accessible, and arm them with tools and processes that can build credible pictures of that battlespace, so we can make informed decisions about how, when, where and with what to proceed.
Q: How will the $150 billion defense budget cuts proposal affect SOCPAC and its ability to execute its mission?
A: We’re already feeling the impacts of stricter fiscal spending. I mentioned lift earlier—we’ve lost access to regional lift in past weeks due to dramatically lower budgets within PACOM components. We’re scrambling to find alternative mobility now, for a regional capability that had been provided virtually free of charge in the past. USSOCOM has also warned us to expect lower JCET [joint combined exchange training] funding in coming years, so this will have a significant impact in an AOR that is all about mutually beneficial SOF engagements and relationships. Otherwise, we’re scrubbing our requirements and adopting good fiscal practices that will see us through the new budget reality. More than ever, SOCPAC and SOF have to retain a AAA-rating for return on investment, and I’m very confident that we will.
Q: What impact does China’s rising People’s Liberation Army modernization and technological advancement have on the ability of our special forces to perform at will, without constraint, throughout the Pacific theater?
A: China is a huge influencer in this part of the world. They, in all their forms—military, political, economic—must be accounted for if we want to be successful in our activities and objectives in the AOR. They are part of the landscape and becoming more prominent. For our part, SOCPAC has reached out to the Chinese in the form of conference invitations and offers to visit our counterparts, but thus far, we have no SOF mil-mil relationship. We will continue to attempt to build one, assuming policy allows us.
But I would not say that China has limited what SOCPAC and SOF do in PACOM. As I said, they must be accounted for, and we have to re-double our information security practices and guard our critical tasks, techniques and procedures. Otherwise, U.S. SOF continues to have access and relationships all around the theater that we place a premium on. China certainly now outspends the U.S. within the region, and offers a greater quantity of engagement to Asian countries than in the past. But the Chinese cannot yet compete with the quality of engagements that U.S. SOF offers, and I don’t intend that they ever will. We have to continue to be an engagement partner of choice, offering the absolute best quality of training and interaction.
Q: What work is SOCPAC performing in the Philippines, and how well is that progressing?
A: Since January 2002, USPACOM has deployed forces to the Southern Philippines to provide counter-terrorism advice and assistance to Philippine security forces. In September 2002, a JSOTF was established from a SOCPAC core, and today, 600 men and women serve in Mindanao as part of JSOTF-Philippines. JSOTF-P personnel do not participate in combat operations. Instead, a truly joint force works closely with Philippine counterparts, as the sovereign nation executes operations to neutralize Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiya elements in Mindanao. This effort and the ‘by, with and through’ approach have been hugely successful. Although the investment in manpower over eight years has been modest by any measure, you have to have inordinate patience, persistence and cultural understanding in order to meet the mission. These are SOF strengths, as well as our ability to draw in our U.S. interagency partners and other Philippine and international actors. We must take the best lessons from this commitment and apply them elsewhere, with the understanding that no two insurgent or irregular conflicts are quite alike. I’m very proud of what our SOF, the U.S. government, and our Philippine partners have accomplished in the Philippines.
Q: How important are the partnerships with our international allies such as Japan and Indonesia in neutralizing terrorist organizations?
A: Containing over half the world’s population and covering more than half the world’s surface, the U.S. cannot hope to be the single guarantor of security and stability within the PACOM AOR. We absolutely must cultivate willing and capable allies and partners within the region to mitigate regional and transnational threats to our homeland. Indonesia is a great example of a partner who made investments in counter-terrorism capability, some provided by the U.S., and in the past 18 months has captured or killed the top two dozen terror actors within their country, several of whom were on Southeast Asia and global “most wanted” lists.
I continually reinforce to our people that the indirect approach we pursue in the Asia Pacific takes a long, long time to bear fruit. But it bears fruit. This region is far better equipped to handle terror threats now than 10-20 years ago. Of course, terror warfare advances as well, but Asian countries now see for themselves that no country is immune from the threat. Our partnerships … help each [to] develop better forces and processes, as well as to share information and intelligence. [They] are key to neutralizing those who would use terror to advance their causes… [building a friendly] network to defeat a [terror] network.
Q: How robust are your ISR capabilities in containing multiple threats?
A: SOCPAC has ISR, in limited amounts. We’ve become very creative and efficient to make best use of forces and sensors on the ground, in the water, and in the air to discover and maintain views of our adversaries. However, the national sovereignty of countries within PACOM severely restricts our use of platforms of any type to gather information. We depend upon more traditional analysis and sharedinformation to build a terror network picture.
Q: Are you satisfied with your ability to kinetically engage enemy forces opposing SOF?
A: Top to bottom, U.S. SOF is the best equipped and trained special operations force in the world. The community is battle-hardened with a fearsome capability. But I don’t think SOF leaders are ever satisfied that their teams can’t learn anything else or don’t need any other gear. I’m not concerned with our SOF arms and ability. I’ve asked my staff to incorporate conventional force weapons and networks into SOF operations, because our troopers are almost always at the tip of the spear, and should have our military’s full might in use or on call. We’ve seen the effects of small SOF elements leveraging conventional capabilities of every service in USCENTCOM battles, to great success. I want to be sure SOCPAC can use the best tactics, techniques and procedures learned from those engagements, and use them as capability within USPACOM, should we ever need them. We’re working most closely in the Pacific with the Navy and the Air Force, since those components patrol most of the AOR, and I’m optimistic about these collaborations turning into proofs of concept and ultimately into validated capabilities.
Q: Do you plan to hold your Pacific Area Special Operations Conference this year, and how important is that to developing relations with allies?
A: We’re hosting the Pacific Area Special Operations Conference [PASOC] again this year, in April, and this annual event has been tremendously successful and important. Every country in the AOR is invited, with only two or three exceptions, and the wide majority of countries choose to attend, as well as selected countries outside the Asia Pacific. Regional and international organizations with interests in Asia come also, and the U.S. government’s interagency is always well represented. PASOC has matured into a venue that addresses issues well beyond special operations, per se, and has become a conference about shared security concerns, irregular threats, and best practices and experiences. There is rich interaction among nations, organizations, diplomats and warriors, intellectuals and journeymen. I didn’t fully appreciate the uniqueness and value of PASOCs until serving here.
The fact that Hawaii, geographically and culturally, has a strong Asian identity as well as its draw as an island paradise, combines to provide an extremely positive setting for a conference like PASOC. In theory, there would be great value in other nations rotating to host PASOCs, but prohibitive costs and negative political dynamics work against that potential. So these annual conferences have become a capstone event for SOCPAC, and USSOCOM and USPACOM both support us very strongly. There is very good regional benefit, and the value of personal relationships made or reinforced each year is tremendous.
Q: Have you any closing thoughts on your organization and mission?
A: We’re at the beginning of the Asian century. There is so much happening in this part of the world, so much trade and resource interaction. What SOF does in the Asia Pacific really matters to U.S. strategic interests. We go where no other DoD goes and we have relationships at very high levels, and our credibility is extremely high. SOF has influence and effect out here in exponential terms. So it’s critical that we seriously plan our engagement strategy, retain flexibility to meet emergent situations, and continue to cultivate important relationships. This is a fascinating AOR with the full spectrum of SOF roles and capabilities on display. I love the challenge and I can’t be more proud of SOCPAC, our SOF components who do the heavy lifting forward, and our force providers in the homeland who resource us so well. SOF has a great and well-deserved reputation in USPACOM, and we will continue to earn it. Thanks!