I got to hear retired Lt. Gen. Ken Tovo last week at Research Triangle Park, talking to some retired military officers, defense contractors and state officials. Tovo served as commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, based at Fort Bragg, from 2015 until his retirement in 2018. He graduated from West Point in 1983 and went to the 82nd Airborne. Then he qualified for the U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets. His career took him to Iraq (five tours), Afghanistan, Europe and Africa.
Folks sometimes have a Hollywood idea of Special Forces, Tovo said. That it’s all jumping out of helicopters, charging in and killing bad guys.
“And we do some of that. But the focus of the Green Berets is really different, and that’s the other thing, is understanding the special operations community in the United States military is really a tribe of tribes. The tribe I’m from, the Green Berets, is focused on a partner. It’s how do we create a partner to help us solve operational problems for the nation.”
That partnership concept is particularly important today in the challenges our military faces. We rely on local partners to deal with everything from terrorist threats to large adversaries.
Back in the ‘80s
The Army Tovo joined 40 years ago was similar in its technology to the one that fought in World War II. “A World War II paratrooper in the 82nd would have been very comfortable with what we lived with in the ‘80s,” he said. “The rifle was a little bit improved over the M1. The parachute was essentially the same, marginally different harness, but it was, you know, a rifle, a rucksack, pair of boots, and we were actually still trying to solve some of the same . . . tactical problems that they had in the 82nd when they parachuted in Normandy.”
If the Soviets invaded Western Europe, his team’s mission was to get into Poland and help the Air Force target air defenses, opening up gaps “for the bombers to go even deeper and destroy the second, third echelon of the Soviet waves of armored thrust that were going to try to take over,” he recalled. “And then after we did this, we’re supposed to then roll over into what we call an unconventional warfare mission.
“We were supposed to then raise the resistance in the rear areas and cause problems for the Soviets. Didn’t look much different than what the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) did in World War II. Not technologically or operationally.” Communications were limited. Commanders at headquarters had to depend on subordinates in the field figuring things out.
Changes in technology began to be felt around the time of Desert Shield/Desert Storm, when the U.S. and its coalition partners pushed Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991. Tovo was assigned to work with “one of those other governmental agencies” and they had a device called a “Plugger,” a Precision Lightweight GPS Receiver.
If you were in the infantry or Special Forces, said Tovo, a lot of training was learning how to not get lost in the woods, using maps and compasses. Then comes a device that can tell you where you are. “We started to see the inklings of what technology could do.”
The problem, Tovo explained, is that our military has over 30 years gotten dependent on its technology, and technology can be disrupted. This wasn’t as big an issue when the focus was mainly on counterinsurgency and terrorists. Our military controlled the air, and had mostly uncontested supply lines and communications. None of those conditions may exist in a major conflict against a comparable adversary.
The Chinese and Russians wield many of the same capabilities that we do, he said, “and in many cases, they’re better capabilities than we have. We need to be prepared for the fact that the GPS may not give you the right answer.”
In a war with a large adversary, the U.S. military may need to operate in the decentralized, lower-tech manner similar to the early 1980s, very different from the experience of many of today’s officers. Senior commanders may not be able to watch operations in real time with satellite-enabled video, allowing them to give, as Tovo put it, “more help and guidance than you might think you need.”
“And that’s why I say, you know, as I watched in my last years in the Army, and we were having these discussions, I kept reminding people that, hey, this is not new. I told you about my mission. We’re going to parachute into Poland, etc. There was not going to be a constant flow of information back and forth to the higher headquarters. And the intent was you sent one message a day, and they wouldn’t worry about you until you had missed three days in a row.
“And that’s where the Army is trying to get back to. We’re going to have to be able to fight on a very lethal battlefield, lot of dispersion of units, and subordinate elements are going to have to be able to achieve their mission disconnected from a huge flow of intel and help from above, and commanders at the highest level are going to have to be comfortable with the fact that they can’t control each and every aspect.”
And that fits his management philosophy. “Empower down to your subordinates and make sure they understand what their authorities are.”
“You’ve got to understand what your left and right limits are,” said Tovo. In mentoring discussions, he advises to “never ask for permission for something that’s already in your authority, because once you do it, that’s the new SOP.”
War with China?
We are now in a tense situation with China. A top Air Force general just sent out a memo to his commanders warning that “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.” Gen. Michael A. Minihan, head of Air Mobility Command, which operates a fleet of transport and refueling aircraft, told his folks to speed up their preparations.
“We’ve got to be ready for that big war,” Tovo said. What Ukraine has shown is that modern conventional war “still has a mass and quantity aspect to it.” The Ukrainians are firing a lot of artillery rounds, which has strained our stockpiles. “We’ve got to figure out how to get the U.S. industrial base on a war footing.”
But we are still fighting terrorists. “We’re still in Iraq and Syria, with operators on the ground . . . helping partners, sometimes unilaterally, go after Al-Qaeda version 3.0 or whatever version we’re on right now. And we’re all over Africa, particularly Green Berets.
“So that war still is going on. And part of the Department of Defense just wants to say, ‘Forget it, that is so last year.’ But soon as you do that, you get 9/12, so you can’t ignore that either.”
The competition with China, so far, is on political and diplomatic fronts, but its outcome will influence what happens with Taiwan. If China can’t take Taiwan without a war, said Tovo, “the next best thing [from China’s perspective] is for them to set the conditions such that when they do send the boats across the water, the U.S. looks at it and says we can’t win that. They’ve built up enough of their island chains, they’ve got enough partners or some of the things that are critical to us, the Philippines says no, U.S., you’re not allowed.
“And if enough people did that to us, we would look at the strategic set, potentially, and say, ‘Wow, this may not be impossible, but it’s darn near close, or it’s not the cost we’re willing to pay to help the Taiwanese.’”
Our challenge is to ensure that we have a strong enough presence in the region. “Get Marines all over these islands. Creating partnerships. [Ensuring the] Philippines is on our side. This country, this country, this country’s got a strong relationship. And strong relationships are built at the tactical level over time with presence and persistence. Once again, this is what Green Berets live for. I like to tell people that what you’re seeing with the Ukrainian military right now, and their success over the last year, is largely the result of not just Green Berets, but Green Berets and a larger Army effort since 2014, to develop relationships, to teach them a different way of war fighting, change the culture.”
A couple of case studies from Tovo’s career can be found in the 2004 book, “Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces,” written by Linda Robinson, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Chapter 7 has Maj. Tovo in the Balkans in the mid-90s, where Special Forces were working to keep the Dayton Accords from falling apart. In Chapter 13, it was 2003, and Lt. Col. Tovo was helping to lead Task Force Viking, teaming up with Kurdish militia in northern Iraq. Turkey wouldn’t let a much larger, conventional force of the 4th Infantry Division come in through Turkey.
To blend in, according to Robinson’s account, Tovo and his Special Forces soldiers adopted the garb of the Kurdish Peshmerga, complete with scarves, ballooning brown pants and mustaches. They had to defeat the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group before they could turn their focus to the Iraqi divisions around Kirkuk, an oil center. And Tovo, in particular, had to keep the Kurds from doing something secessionist that would anger Turkey.
In the end, according to Robinson, Task Force Viking “had accomplished its seemingly impossible mission of disrupting and defeating 13 Iraqi divisions. It had prevented the wholesale movement south not only of the Iraqis but of its Kurdish allies, which succeeded in keeping Turkey out of the war.”
Tovo’s talk last week at the First Flight Venture Center in RTP was sponsored by DEFTECH, the state’s Defense Technology Transition Office, which focuses on building a relationship between North Carolina’s innovation community and the military, and by the North Carolina Military Business Center.