Jade Helm 15 Kicks Off This Week. Here’s Why This Exercise Is So Important

A team of Green Berets from 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) watch an all terrain vehicle demonstration by an instructor, Feb. 11, 2013.
Photo by Spc. Steven Young

Don’t worry Texans the American Special Forces are not coming for you. It’s a good thing too; these guys are pretty special when it comes to unconventional warfare. But they can be better and that is why they need realistic training scenarios like Jade Helm that span multiple states and agencies.

On July 15, the military’s special operations forces and their partners will begin a realistic training event called Jade Helm 15 and it has caused some controversy. Tensions are high due in part to a misunderstanding of the military map-coloring system and the current use of the color red to depict Republican-leaning states. Red means hostile in the military and Texas has been painted red for this exercise because that is where the training is set to occur. The conspiracy theorists have tried to use this confusion and other so-called “insights” to whip up the Texas population. I live in the middle of North Carolina’s unconventional warfare center so have a keen interest in this topic and hope to shed some light on the value of unconventional warfare training.

Unconventional warfare is a longer-term approach to defeating our nation’s enemies in their own territory before they become a major threat.

There is one unit in the military that uniquely specializes in these operations and has since its inception, the Army Special Forces,or Green Berets. “By, with and through” is the mantra of unconventional warriors — how to get locals to take action with our warriors at their side. These missions are challenging to execute in real-world situations and require constant training. The simulations must be very realistic to ensure the SF team members are able to operate in the current technology and security climate; eye retina scanners versus a simple passport check can really change the way you enter a country, for instance. Once our SF teams get into a foreign country, they can undertake a myriad of operations to help develop and build a local friendly force that shares (roughly) the same foreign policy designs of the United States. The real trick here is who gets to conduct unconventional warfare and who decides when to launch it. For War on the Rocks, David Maxwell wrote a great piece that covers this ground, noting that “the decision, the strategy, and the campaign plan to enable a resistance or guerrilla force to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power is made at the strategic level…this is outside the sole purview of SOF and SF.” Bottom line for American citizens: unconventional warfare operations can head off large costly conventional deployments. They are meant to win wars before they get big enough to require brigades instead of teams.

So why is this exercise important and why must it be conducted inside America? Frankly, it’s cheaper to operate in Phase Zero (before a war starts) than it is to enter into full-scale combat with large formations, as we saw in Iraq. Second, given the current resistance to sending large ground forces into almost every chaotic country in the world, American SF teams offer an alternative to helping other nations help themselves without endangering thousands of U.S. lives and spending billions of U.S. treasure. Finally, having driven all over Texas and New Mexico while in the Army, I can think of few places that better simulate the varied terrain our SF teams will find themselves in. From vast unpopulated zones to massive cities, high-tech airports to small-town border crossings, and high deserts to thick green forests the American Southwest is the ideal training environment. Read the leaked slides for yourself and you will see that the Army has been in touch with local authorities to plan this event. Its intentions are clear: to build better warriors to send overseas.

Another key reason that our Army would want to train in the Texas area is the great people who live there. I have never served in a unit that didn’t have proud Texans in them. This area provides patriotic and diverse partners and role players to help our Green Berets to hone their skills. Current SF team members have cited the unique challenges created by these types of training exercises as some of the best training they can get short of real-world operations.

So what are these SF teams, other special operations forces, and their interagency partners doing? Over an eight-week period, the teams will be learning how to live and operate away from the normal large-scale military support systems — learning how to acquire food, materiel, and other resources to sustain themselves. They are going to have to adapt to the new terrain and the local social and economic life in their area, trying to blend in and not offend anyone while they train and figuring out what makes the locals tick. If you have ever been to Texas, you know there are multiple cultures as you travel along the highways (think Austin versus Bowie). SF forces will be trying to operate and not to make locals suspicious. This is a tricky thing to do in a foreign country and I think we would rather our military members practice here than overseas where getting caught could end their life. Finally, they will be trying to get civilians in their area to trust them and learn about their local issues. Not an easy task anywhere in America and our warriors should not expect it to be any easier in Texas.

It’s important that our Special Forces, their special ops partners, and the key elements of the U.S. government train together continuously and adjust to current threats that are rising. Being able to counter Russian forces as they challenge their neighbors, to train Arab and African forces to fight the Islamic State, and to continue assisting Colombia as they counter the FARC are critical, and for our SF warriors, a lack of training and collaboration with key partners is a life or death issue.

A clear example of a recent unconventional warfare operation was in the mountains of Afghanistan. In 2001, immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. special operators and their interagency partners built an anti-Taliban force out of the Afghans already in the country. Americans had been maintaining contacts with the United Front (named the Northern Alliance by the Pakistanis to make the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan distrust them). America used their unconventional warfare skills to build rapid trust with the United Front force and enabled it to defeat of the Taliban “Army” in days, not years.

Was the Pentagon clumsy in its rollout of information about the Jade Helm training exercise? Pretty sure painting Texas red on a map and choosing it as the “hostile” state in the scenario could have been handled better. Hostile to America is not a term that most Texans would agree with. But the state of Texas got a little carried away with conspiracy theory stories and should have just asked the Special Forces guys to give them the skinny on the training.

Our politicians have little to do with how the Army plans and executes training missions; this was all planned by military officers and sergeants because senior Army special operations leaders asked them to improve unconventional warfare across the force.

On a final note, I have many friends that are active and retired Special Forces — they would be the last unit that would ever turn its weapons on the American people, unless California rebelled then all bets are off for Hippie Hunting Season. That last part is a joke. Maybe.

From left to right: Naval Special Warfare Operator First Class Eddie Gallagher, Army 1Lt. Clint Lorance, and Army Special Forces Maj. Mathew Golsteyn

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