The Next Major Operation

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Forida - Foreign journalists, including an Israeli, were invited last week for a rare glimpse of MacDill, the home base of two important United States commands: SOCOM, the Special Operations Command, and CENTCOM, Central Command, which includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Egypt and Jordan, among others.

These commands like to remain far from the public eye, but on rare occasions an aspect of "open concealment" is exposed to emphasize the cooperation with nearly 80 countries.

Until the war in Iraq in 2003, CENTCOM refused any direct contact with Israelis. Dan Shomron, who visited MacDill as chief of staff in 1989, visited only SOCOM; he was not permitted to cross the fence to CENTCOM, lest the shocking presence of an Israeli officer become known to the Saudis and others. In recent years the Americans have been more daring, but it is still unusual for an Israeli to speak openly with a commander of CENTCOM Special Forces.

For the visitors, a V-22 Osprey takes off, lands and hovers like a helicopter, vertically and slowly, but boasts the speed of a plane and turns with the same flexibility. Those sitting inside next to the rear ramp, which remains open during flight, are likely to imagine they are in the belly of a familiar transport helicopter, the Yasur. But at 400 kph one can pull out a pilot who jumps plane before his pursuers reach him; fly high or low to escape; go to the middle of the ocean or a major outflanking movement on land; and also bring in an invasion force riding in all-terrain vehicles and take them out before they are seen.

The cost of each of the five planes in the Special Forces squadron is about $85 million, apparently beyond the reach of the Israel Defense Forces. Had the Israel Air Force had such an aircraft on the day when Ron Arad parachuted in Lebanon, the price tag might have become a negligible issue.

Downstairs, at the Special Forces permanent exhibition, items stand out, such as a Navy Seals sailing vessel and Commando Solo, a plane for psychological warfare, a broadcasting studio inside a Hercules plane (which Israelis used to call a "karnaf," or rhinoceros). Israel is likely to be interested in another, more revolutionary version of the rhino, still on the drawing board: The plane will carry a tactical laser cannon for a targeted strike (for example, against a terrorist surrounded by civilians) from a distance of several kilometers, so its noise will not betray its whereabouts to missiles.

But the V-22 was the star. When it flew along the Gulf of Mexico, one could see from it the auditorium that would host Barack Obama within a few hours. The V-22 represents American determination never again to suffer the humiliation of the unsuccessful embassy hostage rescue in Tehran in April 1980.

That failure is remembered as Desert 1, the name of the landing strip in the Iranian desert where a lethal crash between a transport plane and a helicopter led to the cancellation of the operation. An investigative panel recommended establishing a unified command for the Special Forces: no further random cobbling together of a commando unit from the ground forces, helicopters from the Marines, ships from the Navy and refueling from the air force. The Pentagon did not like the recommendation and tried to ignore it. But an angry Congress passed legislation forcing the establishment of the command, SOCOM, headed by a four-star general.

The command has at its disposal about 50,000 soldiers and an annual budget of $7 billion. A senior officer in SOCOM, who is very familiar with similar units in the IDF, said a few days ago he does not understand why the plan to set up a similar command has yet to be implemented in Israel.

The commander of SOCOM, Admiral Eric Olson, who visited Israel recently, is the first Navy Seals commander in the post. He was preceded by officers in the air and ground forces. He formerly commanded Team 6 of the Navy Seals, which specialized in fighting terror.

Olson said the concept of counterterrorism has changed since 9/11: no more a wait for a bargaining-attack and a release of hostages, or a pursuit of wanted men, but a prolonged, continual and difficult war all over the world against organizations such as Al-Qaida.

A general, one of Olson's subordinates, dared to walk the borderline of expressing an opinion about the U.S. elections: The strategic interests are basically unchanging, and the next administration must, after studying them, determine its policy accordingly. In other words - words the disciplined American officers would not utter - an operation in Iran is definitely being planned, no matter who is the next president. Iran's nuclear arming is supposed to be ready at the beginning of the decade, and there is the assistance to America's enemies in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon and in Gaza. The outcome of the presidential election is more likely to affect the definition and timing of the mission than the decision itself.

When Olson finished speaking to journalists at the Convention Center in Tampa, Obama was about to begin his speech in an auditorium across the road. Presumably few of Obama's supporters attended Olson's event. The dozens of guests of International Special Forces Week were representatives of dozens of armies, including a colonel and two other IDF officers, as well as close friends, such as the head of the Operations Directorate in the Romanian army, General Ion-Aurel Stanciu, former military attache in Tel Aviv. General Stanciu keeps a photo in his wallet of the Apropos coffeehouse blast in 1997. He and his son were there but saved. Stanciu understands what terror is and what kind of war should be waged against it.

In the 2000 presidential election, Florida tipped the balance in favor of George W. Bush and is expected to play a central role this November. Senator John McCain is very popular in Florida, where there are quite a few former and current military personnel. With the exception of the European Command, EUCOM, which is located in Germany (it is responsible for the continent), all the other nine U.S. commands are located in the U.S., three of them in Florida. Florida also has many other air force, navy and ground-force bases, and those who end their military service there often settle nearby.

The New York Times columnists want Obama, readers of the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune prefer McCain. Like Obama, the Republican hopeful came to Florida last week. McCain said Obama's willingness to sit down for talks with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is "hasty," because talk will not persuade Iran - which is eager to destroy Israel and "is responsible for the deaths of brave Americans"- to stop trying to obtain nuclear weapons.

The Bush legacy, a vow to uproot the Iranian danger, can wait to be implemented by McCain. That is not the case if Obama wins. Bush is likely to decide, by virtue of his obligation, his authority and his responsibility until he hands over the job on January 20, 2009, that he must act quickly. The likely reason will not be the Iranian nuclear program - which is serious, even critical, but not urgent for the American public - but the terror in Iraq.

In the mess hall of the officers' club at MacDill, Olson can meet his neighbor from CENTCOM. Soon, it will be General David Petraeus. Olson and Petraeus can gossip about job placements in the Pentagon, but they can also decide between themselves on a work plan in Iran, under the aegis of SOCOM, which will somewhat reduce the burden on Petraeus, who faces two active fronts, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. For an operation against the training camps of the Revolutionary Guards (the Al-Quds Force) on the other side of the Iranian border, which support organizations fighting and killing Americans in Iraq, SOCOM forces will suffice. Eight thousand soldiers of the command are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They center around the ground-force Special Forces, which are organized into four support units, each with 52 teams of a dozen fighters. These teams can also operate against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, separately or in coordination with attacks by missiles and bombers of the strategic command, STRATCOM.

One of the SOCOM officers mentioned that a "special patrol" (an undercover intelligence penetration of the target, without the enemy noticing even after the force departs) is distinguished from a "direct operation" by the fact that silent penetration becomes noisy and violent. One concludes that undercover intelligence gathering during routine times, in the absence of unusual preparedness around Iranian nuclear targets, will pave the way for quiet stealth in advance of a thundering attack.

The Americans will not allow the Iranians to go on killing their soldiers undisturbed, to attack the forces expected to leave Iraq gradually in the coming years, to dominate the Persian Gulf and its increasingly expensive oil, and to cause conflict inside Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. At SOCOM headquarters they boasted last week of the command's ability to immobilize far larger enemy forces by means of a connection with local forces - the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and the Kurds in northern Iraq.

The parallel in Iran could be an organization with a different ethnic affiliation (the large Azeri minority) or one based on regular army discontents who reject the Revolutionary Guards and the religious regime. Whatever the case, a war of alliances is anticipated: the Americans, the Israelis and perhaps additional special forces (Poles, Australians, British) against Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Al-Qaida. Removing Syria from this alliance could have great importance in terms of the price of the clash, although not in terms of its outcome.

The question hovering over the U.S. Special Forces is whether they really are flexible. Are they capable of improvising and moving "out of the box" of their country and their army. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, while visiting the Special Forces last week, said that when he headed the CIA in 2002, he envied Israel's investment in unmanned aircraft, and asked the U.S. Air Force to help the CIA to fund their development, but met with refusal because pilots wanted only aircraft with jobs for air crews.