What’s a JSOTF? Fisking Thpenther Ackerman (long)

The worst of the writers on the worst website on defense matters is legendary Internet Tough Guy Spencer Ackerman, or as the SF community refers to him, Thpenther. It’s not that he can’t write coherently: he can (well, it isn’t really difficult, is it?) It’s that he’s a glaring example of Dunning-Kruger Syndrome every time he addresses something military.

When young (class of 2002) Thpenther writes about special operations forces, about which he knows less than a tiger knows of thermodynamics, hilarity ensues. Since no one in SF reads his stuff, it takes a while for us to be asked about it. A typical example of his expertise will be autopsied momentarily.  But first, a capsule bio.

Thpenther is one of several writers for Wired’s “Danger Room,” the tragically-hip tech magazine’s take on the military and defense subjects. It’s one of the least trustworthy sites on the net — which is a hell of an assertion to make. Butf you want to see what happens when you get a bunch of sunken-chested, prison-pallor, passive-aggressive urban Jewish high-verbal, low-math nerds writing about the military, go there. Yet some people take their stuff seriously. Christ knows why.

Thpenther likes to talk tough: he’s always throwing someone through a plate glass window, verbally of course, or suggesting that some third party bigger and stronger than he (Bradley Manning, perhaps, or Lady Gaga) will beat someone up. But for a guy much given to bella in verbum, he’s rather cowardly in physicality, not to mention in the moral dimension. His country’s been at war for ten-plus years, and far from visiting the recruiting office, he prefers to snipe and snark at those doing the work he considers beneath him and his little tribe at “Danger Room.” (Where’s the danger? “Danger, danger! The WiFi’s slow again!!”) He has actually nicknamed himself (in our world, doing that is a poseur’s faux pas) “attackerman,” when the only attacks he had or could make come steaming off a computer keyboard. And have an effective range of zero meters.

So, Thpenther’s subject today is a mysterious entity called a JSOTF — a Joint Special Operations Task Force. Specifically JSOTF-GCC, which Thpenther theems… excuse us, seems… to think is some kind of SPECTRE on steroids, rubbing people out with blind abandon. Unfortunately, the real case is rather more dull and boring.

OK, here’s what a Joint Special Operations Task Force really is: a headquarters element for a deployed special operations effort. It may be a combat effort or a training one, or have elements of both. Because it is “Joint” it may include members of all services but it’s usually built around the headquarters staff of a special forces group. All elements of Special Forces, at all sizes from ODA on up, can fall in on staff functions and cover them as necessary. The SEALs work the same way and we can (and do) all interoperate on JSOTFs. The staff functions are:

S1: Personnel

S2: Intelligence

S3: Operations

S4: Logistics

S5: Civil-Military Operations

S6: Signal

“S” level staffs are for units commanded by a colonel and below. “G” level staffs are for units commanded by a general. “J” level staffs are joint at any level (joint meaning multi-service). Not all staff functions are manned on all staffs — a Joint Task Force by definition is task-organized towards a specific mission. One JTF may need a logistical or intel plus-up. Another may not need a signal officer on staff.

A Joint Special Operations Task Force is different from any other JTF only in that the operations it plans, organizes, commands and supports are special operations, and the people doing the operating (and a good deal of the supporting) come from special operations’ many units. From Joint Pub 3-05.1 (p. I-6):

A JSOTF is a joint task force (JTF) composed of SO units from more than one Service, formed to carry out a specific SO or prosecute SO in support of a theater campaign or other operations. The JSOTF may have conventional non-SO units assigned or attached to support the conduct of assigned missions.

“Special Operations Forces”  does not equate to James Bond: one of us does not crack the safe whilst the other keeps the sexy KGB lady busy between the sheets. (We suspect that sexy KGB ladies have a higher incidence in fiction than reality, but alas, we have no live sightings to report). It means they are specially selected, trained, and equipped. They still don their trousers one leg at a time.

Every active-duty Special Forces Group conducts some kind of exercise in which it sets up an SFOB or JSOTF annually, unless it’s actually doing it deployed. A JSOTF can be as small as a dozen officers and men, or it might comprise hundreds of special operations troops and supporters. And, unlike the units that services create, like SEAL Team Three or the 7th Special Forces Group, task-organized JSOTFs exist for the duration of the task alone.

To add to the deadly dull nature of the factual rebuttal of Thpenther’s hyperbole, let’s quote us some more doctrine. From the version of Joint Pub 3-05.1: Joint Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Joint Special Operations Task Force Operations that we had handy:

A JSOTF may be tailored to accomplish any of the SO principal missions. These are: direct action, combatting terrorism, foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, psychological operations, civil affairs, information operations (IO), and counterproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. A JSOTF also may conduct collateral activities using inherent capabilities. SO collateral activities are: coalition support, combat search and rescue, counterdrug activities, humanitarian de-mining, foreign humanitarian assistance, security assistance, and other special activities. As one element of the joint force, the JSOTF must be capable of accomplishing any of the above stated missions or collateral activities. (p. x Executive Summary)

Now, this is the 2001 version and it is somewhat aged doctrine. It is quite reasonable and possible for a JSOTF in 2012 to have as primary missions, missions that were thought to be collateral in the days before 9/11. Specifically, Coalition Support in a FID environment.

Most of the combat-oriented JSOTFs are CJSOTFs — the C meaning “Combined,” which is a term of art meaning that foreign and allied forces participate. The JSOTF-GCC is a unilateral, or US-only, JSOTF which does support our Gulf Cooperation Council allies. The GCC is well described in many places online, but essentially it is a group of small nations who want a big brother — the USA — to keep them from being trod upon by the regional bullies.  So, now that you know more facts about JSOTFs than Thpenther can fit into a brain bulging with unmerited self-regard, let’s take a few lines of his artticle and apply the Mjolnir of truth to them. Trust us: this’ll leave a mark.

It’ll be easy to tell Thpenther’s words from ours below. His will be indented and italicized. Not to mention, dishonest and stupid. Let’s begin with the headline:

Exclusive: New U.S. Commando Team Operating Near Iran.

Er, no. a JSOTF plans, organizes and supports. “Operating” kind of implies it’s moving around. In this case, JSOTF-GCC is in Bahrain. Thursday it will still be in Bahrain. It is true, it is near Iran. That is because Iran is about 180 miles away on the other side of the Persian Gulf. We considered putting the JSOTF further from Iran to please Internet Tough Guy and armchair general Spencer Ackerman, but the problem with supporting the GCC is that you can’t do it smashingly well from Botswana. You need to be where the GCC is. Mirabile dictu, that’s in Bahrain.

Shocking, isn’t it, that despite not being nearly as smart as Thpenther they managed to hit Bahrain with the JSOTF first shot.

…the U.S. has a previously unacknowledged weapon in reserve: a new special operations team…

You mean, the “previously unacknowledged ” JSOTF that’s been on all kinds of publicly available briefing slides for years now? The one the commander of was at the SOLIC conference in 2010, presenting, with his title and duty station on the slides? That one?

Honest, Thpenther, when Mommy leaves the room she doesn’t disapper. We know you’re young, but didn’t think you were that young. And just because you didn’t  know about it — you, who know little and understand nothing of the military — doesn’t mean that the information is new. Sure, it’s new to you. Sure, it’s new to the gormless hordes who choose to rely on your overwrought “scoops” of publicly available information. But that’s not the same as being new. 

Danger Room has confirmed with the U.S. Special Operations Command that a new elite commando team is operating in the region.

Hmmm. Catching up on public information from three years ago may be a scoop in Thpenther’s playpen.

The primary, day-to-day mission of the team, known as Joint Special Operations Task Force-Gulf Cooperation Council, is to mentor military units belonging to the U.S.’ oil-rich Arab allies, who collectively are known as the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Gee, how about that. A doctrinal FID and Coalition-Support JSOTF. Stop the presses! Oh wait, he’s an Internet Tough Guy, not a Print Tough Guy.

The U.S. military has not previously acknowledged the existence of the team, known as JSOTF-GCC for short.

This is, as noted above, just a lie. And he keeps misusing the word team which is a term of art with specific meanings in special operations.

The unit began its existence in mid-2009

Actually, the unit replaced previous coalition-supoort arrangements in 2009. We didn’t just suddenly start doing special operations training with the UAE, Qatar, and other Gulf Arab forces, we’ve been doing it for forty years. They’ve paid us back in myriad ways, whether it’s buying our defense equipment (which increases production, reducing the unit costs we pay for the stuff our warfighters need) or actually deploying alongside our own Special Operations Forces here and there. GCC liaison officers have been, unlike Thpenther, instrumental in the war on islamist terrorism.

[W]hatever the task force does about Iran — or might do in the future — is a sensitive subject with the military.

Translation: No matter how much I insisted this was a move on Iran, I couldn’t get the SO world’s PR guys to agree with me.

“It would be inappropriate to discuss operational plans regarding any particular nation,” [an SOF spokesman] says about Iran.

A classic non-answer, used by Thpenther to support innuendo directly contradicting what the guy said.

There is no direct evidence that JSOTF-GCC has been involved in offensive action against Iran.

“However, that won’t stop us in the Danger Room tree house from hinting that it is!”

It is unlikely, for instance, that JSOTF-GCC killed Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan last week, an assassination the U.S. has firmly denied any role in and for which the Israelis, reports Eli Lake of Newsweek, are all but openly taking credit.

“But we’ll just let the innuendo hang here a while longer. We don’t expect Thpenther to believe this, his idea of what the military does having been formed by Steven Seagal movies and long sessions with his PlayStation, but a JSOTF doesn’t do assassinations. None ever did.

Some special-operations veterans — who did not wish to be identified or quoted — downplayed the significance of the new task force, expecting it to primarily advise Gulf nations on how to train their own forces, and speculated that its actual role against Iran was indirect at most.

We’re shocked, shocked, that SOF veterans don’t want to be a part of one of Thpenther’s stories. We can’t imagine why. But we note that these veterans, stipulating that they exist outside Thpenther’s PlayStation, are telling him the same thing we’re saying: this isn’t much of a story. But who’s he going to believe, the special ops vets or the voices in his head telling him to go “ZOMG elite commando killaz!!!1!!1! Operating near Iran!!!1!!!1!!”  We’ve already seen the answer.

Col. Tim Nye, the chief spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command, says the task force is responsible “for coordinating all SOF [Special Operations Forces] engagements and training with Gulf Cooperation Council nations.”

OK, so the voices un his head won out over the special ops vets and the senior spokesman for USSOCOM, who unlike the voices went on the record. You could call this journalistic malpractice, if you thought journolists [sic] had standards.

The special operations forces of those nations have shown a notable improvement over the past year.

This is the considered professional judgment of Thpenther Ackerman, Internet Tough Guy. What is his analysis rubric? What metrics has he based this on? What was his baseline? Was it the Hell Week of meeting deadlines on the campus paper? The veritable Star Course meets Nasty Nick of writing for the Washington Independent? Or the grueling Reistance Training Lab that the combat stress of making empty threats has put him through?

Or maybe he’s just typing words and making shit up.

Qatari commandos quietly traveled to Libya ahead of Moammar Gadhafi’s downfall to prepare Libyan rebels for the successful capture of Tripoli. The United Arab Emirates, another close U.S. ally, has also made its elite forces a priority, even hiring Blackwater’s founder to bolster their training.

Gee, what were they doing last year? Ten years ago? Would you believe we have friends who have been involved with some of these forces for twenty years? Maybe the tale of improvement isn’t just since Thpenther noticed these elements, new to him, ever the baby duck of defense analysts.

Not many details are available about the task force.

Thorter Thpenther: I don’t have facts so stand by while I make some up. (Note that we have, by posting two short excerpts from an unclassified manual that he was too lazy to look up, or too ignorant to imagine existed, supplied more facts than he was able to find). Tell you what, we’ll throw in an org chart from the same manual. This is a notional (as there’s no real “typical”) JSOTF:

 

Of course, you probably need a military background, or at least a willingness to learn, to truly understand the chart. The J-5 is now usually CMO, and Plans is now an adjunct to J-3.

It’s built around Naval Special Warfare Unit Three, one of the elite Navy SEAL teams.

NSWU != Seal Team. Tio understand the SEALs in depth, skip the Charlie Sheen movie that informs Thpenther’s analysis and read Dick Couch’s books. Dick, unlike Thpenther, writes only what he knows to be fact. We doubt Thpenther has ever heard of him.

But the “Joint” in the task force’s name signals that it draws from the special-operations forces in the Army, Air Force and Marines as well. Its commander is a Navy captain or equivalent in a different service.

There is a specific Joint Manning Document defining every JSOTF, and yes, positions can be filled with a qualified person from any of the services. The JMD specifies an O6 as a commander, a Captain (Navy) or Colonel (other services).  Usually the bulk of the JSOTF is from one command (like a single Special Forces Group or a NSWU) , plussed up by logistics and communications elements, with a lot of individual gaps plugged by people pulled from other units or qualified volunteers from the reserves. So here Thpenther, his canines gripping a rare fact, is trying to sell common, boring knowledge as an underpinning for a “scoop.”

Two more facts that Thpenther is missing: (1) the unit forming the framework of a JSOTF periodically rotates out, and (2) it is the commander of the incumbent framework unit that most commonly has the JSOTF command. However, NSWU-3 has been resident in Bahrain for quite a while. And a little google-fu tells you what it does, in its officers’ and sailors’ own words. Example.

Officials would not identify missions of the task force, its leadership or its headquarters.

How dare they.

Even if JSOTF-GCC is primarily a training team

Translation: even if what the responsible officers told me is true, despite my determination to cling to my fantasy instead…

Again, let’s look at what the supply officer of NSWU-3 said the unit’s mission was, two years ago in print and on the internet:

… a unit that functions as the command and control element, logistics base, and the principal planner for all SEAL detachments in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR).

The Naval Special Warfare Unit’s mission to provide support to NSW Forces deployed within their respective AOR has changed from emphasizing direct logistics support, to ensuring logistics integration within the theater of operations. This change provides the Logistics Officers at the NSWU the unique opportunity to work in both the NSW community and the joint arena through interaction with their respective Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOC).

That’s probably a bit acronym-heavy for an Internet Tough Guy. Too bad. But let’s pick up Thpenther’s sentence, already in progress:

“…when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says the U.S. could reopen the [Strait of Hormuz by force, there might be an elite commando team nearby to help do it.”

Er, unlike Thpenther, we’re not experts in naval warfare, but we’re thinking the Navy has a plan for doing that, in which special operatiions forces play a variety of peripheral roles. To open a closed strait, one probably needs those big grey steel ship things. And maybe some of the black underwater ones. Just sayin’.

We could continue this fisking line by line but this is already over 3000 words of ignorance and vitriol — his ignorance, our vitriol. We’ve seen enough of this report to dispose of any notions of Spencer Ackerman’s “journolistic [stet] integrity,” the quotes reminding us that integrity means something very different to an attention-craving, sensation-pimping reporter than it does to an operator. Let’s wrap up this post by clearly contrasting his character with that of the sort of person he impugns with his “work.”

Meet Ben Wise.(.pdf). Ben is no longer with us, or more to the point, with his wife, two sons and daughter, or his surviving brother, parents, and teammates. He was not a lot older than Thpenther, but the exact opposite of an Internet Tough Guy; we didn’t know him personally but we know many like him, and we knew him and his two brothers by reputation. As unique as Benjamin Wise’s life of selfless service was, he’s as typical a member of the special operations profession as you’re going to find, a guy whose toughness was real and not an effete Washington hanger-on’s internet pose. His older brother was a SEAL and then went on to put his life on the line for the officers of another institution that Thpenther frequently revles from his comfy chair, the CIA. Jeremy Wise was killed by terrorists in 2009. Ben died of small-arms wounds on January 15th. These men and those like them do not deserve Ackerman’s supercilious contempt.

But he surely deserves theirs, and ours.

If he wants to prove us wrong, there’s even a recruiting office in Washington, although the sergeant or petty officer there is probably lonelier than the Maytag repairman. Hot tip, bro: when the phone doesn’t ring, it’s noted combat expert Spencer Ackerman not calling.