Special Ops veterans’ secret mission to rescue 500 Afghans in Kabul rivaled a ‘Jason Bourne thriller,’ commander says

People gather near an evacuation control checkpoint on the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Hundreds of people, some holding documents, gather near an evacuation control checkpoint on the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

  • An all-volunteer group of US Special Operations veterans carried out a covert nighttime mission on Wednesday.
  • As many as 500 Afghan assets, enablers, and their families were escorted to safety, ABC News reported.
  • The mission was modeled on Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, a former Green Beret captain said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

An all-volunteer group of American Special Operations veterans of the Afghan war carried out a secret nighttime mission, called the “Pineapple Express,” to ferry at-risk Afghans and their families to safety, according to ABC News.

The media outlet reported that the group worked under cover of night on Wednesday, and in tandem with the United States military and embassy, to transfer hundreds of Afghans into a US military-controlled zone of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

As many as 500 Afghan special operators, assets, enablers, and their families were handed over to the protective custody of the American military by Thursday morning, ABC News reported.

Read more: Conservatives haven’t cared about Afghans lives for 20 years, why are they pretending they do now?

Army Lt. Col. Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret commander who led the private rescue effort, told the media outlet that the Wednesday night operation was akin to a “Jason Bourne” thriller.

Covert movements were coordinated by more than 50 people in an encrypted chat room, ABC News said. The Afghans were known as “passengers” and were guided remotely by “shepherds,” who are former US special operations forces and CIA commanders, using GPS pin drops, and met by “conductors'” wearing a green chem light at the staging points, the media outlet added. Their identity was confirmed by a yellow pineapple graphic on their smartphones.

The operation was modeled on Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, the historic network of secret routes to help Black Americans escape slavery, former Green Beret Capt. Zac Lois told ABC News.

The Wednesday operation was an element of the “Task Force Pineapple,” an informal group that formed on August 15 to get a former Afghan commando who had been targeted by the Taliban into the airport, the media outlet said.

Task Force Pineapple was working on another rescue mission on Thursday night when an explosion near the airport killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 US troops, the media outlet said.

Some of the group’s Afghan passengers were wounded, and, according to ABC News, members of the Task Force Pineapple are assessing whether any of the Afghans they were helping had been killed.

“Dozens of high-risk individuals, families with small children, orphans, and pregnant women, were secretly moved through the streets of Kabul throughout the night and up to just seconds before ISIS detonated a bomb into the huddled mass of Afghans seeking safety and freedom,” said Mann.

Jason Redman, a combat-wounded former Navy SEAL and author shepherding Afghans, told ABC News that Thursday night was a “roller-coaster” ride and described it as “chaotic.”

He also expressed frustration that “our own government didn’t do this,” he said. “We did what we should do, as Americans,” Redman added.

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Air Force special operators face a ‘particularly hard’ transition after Middle East wars, top general says

Air Force Special Operations Forces airman gathers parachute after jump
A US Air Force Special Operations Forces airman gathers his parachute after a training jump in Romania, May 13, 2021.

  • Air Force Special Operations Command is has had two decades of success against terrorist groups.
  • That has set AFSOC up for a “particularly hard” transition to a new era of competition, its commander says.
  • “If it were easy, somebody else would would be able to do it,” Lt. Gen. James Slife, AFSOC commander, said in February.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In February, Lt. Gen. James Slife, the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), outlined the state of Air Force special operations and described how Air Commandos need to adapt in order to remain relevant and effective.

The top Air Commando said his force faces a hard transition from hunting terrorists to a potential conflict with Russia or China.

“Now’s the time for us to accelerate change,” Slife said, echoing the Air Force mantra for the new era of competition. “But I would suggest to you that for AFSOC in particular, there is a difficulty to this that I don’t think any of us should underestimate.”

Air Commandos

Air Force Special Operations Command special tactics airmen
Members of US Air Force Special Operations Command’s 23rd Special Tactics Squadron during an exercise in Jordan, May 11, 2017.

AFSOC provides air transport, close air support, precision strike, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) functions to other special-operations units.

Air Commandos operate several aircraft, such as the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, the CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, the MQ-9 Reaper drone, the MC-130J Commando II transport.

In addition to its air assets, AFSOC deploys battlefield airmen – pararescuemen, combat controllers, special reconnaissance operators, and tactical air control party airmen – to augment Navy SEAL platoons, Green Beret detachments, Delta Force assault teams, and other special-operations units.

These Air Commandos are an integral part of the US special-operations community but often go unnoticed because they are usually attached individually in other units instead of operating as dedicated Air Force teams.

New threats, new needs

Destroyed US helicopters after Operation Eagle Claw in Iran
A torched US helicopter in the desert of eastern Iran after a failed commando mission to rescue hostages in Tehran, on April 27, 1980.

Slife argued that US special-operations forces are at what he called a third inflection point.

The first inflection point was the Iran hostage crisis, a disaster that led US military leaders to create US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which revolutionized US special operations.

The second inflection point came in the post-9/11 wars, during which the Pentagon relied on commandos for almost everything, such as raids on high-value targets and training partner forces and even to topple the Taliban.

With the advent of great-power competition with China and Russia comes third inflection point, Slife said at the Air Force Association air-warfare conference.

Slife acknowledged that this transition will likely be “particularly hard” because the circumstances are different.

“At our previous two inflection points … we were in the aftermath of a failure,” Slife said. Now, however, AFSOC is coming off of 20 years of “virtually unmitigated success” against violent extremist groups.

US Air Force AC-130H Spectre gunship jettisons flares
A US Air Force AC-130H Spectre gunship jettisons flares as an infrared countermeasure during training, August 24, 2007.

Organizations can find it hard to accept change after having success, but change is necessary to address a new threat environment that comes with near-peer competition. People often quip that militaries prepare to fight the last war, so structured change is prudent.

According to Slife, AFSOC will have to excel in four areas: crisis response, countering violent extremist organizations, great-power competition, and near-peer warfare.

To do so, AFSOC will have to reexamine what capabilities it can offer to the special-operations community and the conventional military.

New limits on defense budgets mean AFSOC will have to choose its priorities carefully and avoid the temptation to find answers in expensive new programs and technology – in other words, it has to do more with what it already has.

“We will not be able to buy our way out of whatever challenges that we have in the future,” Slife said. “We have to take better advantage of the capabilities that are already resident in the force and leverage the power of our airmen to transform ourselves for the future.”

The fight for close air support

A U-28A, used by US Air Force Special Operations Command for ISR missions.

Providing support from the air is likely to be an area of increasing focus for AFSOC.

Air Commandos currently operate a small fleet of aircraft that provide ISR to special operators on the ground. Orbiting ISR aircraft can provide a live picture of a target and its surroundings, an unparalleled advantage over less technologically advanced enemies.

As the war on terror evolved, ISR capabilities became increasingly important. In some cases, ISR support was mandatory for an operation to be approved.

SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch Program – which seeks to develop organic close-air-support aircraft and free up sophisticated aircraft like F-22s and F-35s for more advanced missions – is one of AFSOC’s biggest bets for the future.

There have been several US military attempts to find a commercially available propeller-driven aircraft for support missions. The most recent was the Air Force’s Light Attack Experiment, which was shut down in early 2020.

The Air Force and members of Congress are either skeptical of or openly opposed to the Armed Overwatch Program, but SOCOM has made it clear that it wants the capability and is moving forward with a program to purchase 75 aircraft for AFSOC that would provide close air support, precision strike, and ISR in austere and permissive environments.

Beechcraft AT-6 Light Attack Experiment
A Beechcraft AT-6 at Holloman Air Force Base during the US Air Force’s Light Attack Experiment.

ISIS and Al Qaeda have largely been defeated in Iraq and Syria, but other groups are wreaking havoc across Africa and the Middle East, threatening to overthrow weak governments and cause regional crises.

Consequently, special-operations forces will continue to deploy in low-intensity hot spots where US interests are threatened, and they might need to call in close air support. The Armed Overwatch Program is designed to support that ongoing fight.

SOCOM providing its own rugged, cheaper-to-operate planes to support commandos aligns perfectly with some of AFSOC’s transition goals.

Although Air Commandos are trying to figure out their future roles, they will certainly be called on to perform challenging missions against multiple threats.

“If it were easy, somebody else would would be able to do it, but this is our moment in time to transform ourselves for the future,” Slife said.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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6 foreign special-operations units the US relies on to do what it can’t

A German Special Forces soldier lines his sites on a target 500 meters away, and awaits direction from an International Special Training Centre instructor to engage the target in 2006.
A German Special Forces soldier lines his sites on a target 500 meters away, and awaits direction to engage.

  • As good as the US military’s special-operations forces are, they can’t do everything.
  • US special operators often rely on other forces for support and to carry out missions.
  • These 6 are the cream of the foreign crop.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US has some of the best special operations units in the world, but they can’t do everything on their own.

The American military relies on allied special operators from places like Britain, Iraq, and Israel to collect intelligence and kill enemy insurgents and soldiers.

Here are 6 of those special-operations commands.

A quick note on the photos: Many allied militaries are even more loathe to show the faces of their special operators than the US. The photos we’ve used here are, according to the photographers, of the discussed special operations forces, but we cannot independently verify that the individuals photographed are actually members of the respective clandestine force.

1. SAS and SBS

A British Special Forces member from the 22nd Special Air Service at Hereford, England, uses binoculars to locate a target down range.
A member from the 22nd Special Air Service at Hereford, England.

These could obviously be two separate entries, but we’re combining them here because they’re both British units that often operate side-by-side with US forces, just with different missions and pedigrees.

The Special Air Service pulls from the British Army and focuses on counter-terrorism and reconnaissance. The Special Boat Service does maritime counter-terrorism and amphibious warfare (but will absolutely stack bodies on land, too).

Both forces have deployed with US operators around the world, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan where they were part of secretive task forces that hunted top Taliban members, ISIS, and Iraqi insurgents.

2. Sayeret Matkal

The Sayeret Matkal does all sorts of hush-hush missions for Israel, everything from intelligence gathering to direct action to hostage rescue.
The Sayeret Matkal does all sorts of hush-hush missions for Israel, everything from intelligence-gathering to direct-action.

Israel’s Sayeret Matkal has generated rumors and conjecture for decades, and it’s easy to see why when you look at their few public successes.

They rescued 103 Jewish hostages under gunpoint in Uganda after a plane hijacking. They hunted down the killers who attacked Israel’s 1972 Munich Olympic team, killing 11 coaches and athletes. The commandos in the unit are skilled in deception, direct action, and intelligence gathering.

The US is closely allied with Israel and Sayeret Matkal is extremely good at gathering intelligence, which is often shared with the US.

One of their most public recent successes came when they led a daring mission to install listening devices in ISIS buildings, learning of a plan to hide bombs in the battery wells of laptops.

3. French Special Operations Command

French army special forces
A French army special-forces team during a hostage-rescue demonstration, June 1, 2018.

French special operations units are even more close-mouthed than the overall spec-ops community, but they have an army unit dedicated to intelligence gathering and anti-terrorism, a navy unit filled with assault forces and underwater demolitions experts, and an air force unit specializing in calling in air strikes and rescuing isolated personnel behind enemy lines.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said that France deployed its special operators to Syria in April where they helped defeat ISIS.

4. Kommando Spezialkräfte

A German Special Forces soldier lines his sites on a target 500 meters away, and awaits direction from an International Special Training Centre instructor to engage the target in 2006.
A German Special Forces soldier lines his sites on a target 500 meters away, and awaits direction to engage.

Germany’s Kommando Spezialkrafte is a unit of elite commandos split into four companies with five platoons each, and each platoon specializes in a specific mission types, from airborne operations to sniper to polar. A support company provides medical, maintenance, and logistics support.

The commandos have reportedly deployed to Syria in recent years to fight ISIS. And while Germany is fairly tight-lipped about the unit, they have confirmed that the unit was deployed to Iraq for a few years in the early 2000s. On these missions, they help US-led coalitions achieve success.

5. Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service

Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force
Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service forces during an exercise at their academy at the Baghdad Airport Complex, July 23, 2015.

The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service was created by the US and, oddly, does not fall within the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, making this one of the few special operations units that isn’t part of the traditional military.

It has three special-operations forces brigades and, in recent years, has largely focused on eliminating ISIS-controlled territory and the surviving forces.

The operators have also fought against other groups like Al Qaeda-Iraq. The unit was originally formed in 2003, meaning it has only existed while Iraq was at war with insurgents, so the force has operated almost exclusively within Iraq’s borders.

It earned high marks in 2014 when its troops maintained good order and fought effectively against ISIS while many of the security forces were falling apart.

6. Afghan National Army Commando Corps

An Afghan National Army Special Operations Commando instructor assesses Commando recruits in training as they perform security duties during a training exercise in Camp Commando, Kabul, Afghanistan, May 6, 2018.
An Afghan National Army Special Operations Commando instructor assesses recruits during an exercise in Camp Commando in Kabul, May 6, 2018.

Afghanistan’s National Army Commando Corps is one of the great bright spots in its growing military.

While it’s had growing pains and the Taliban has infiltrated it at some times, it has a reputation for professionalism and skill and has led the way on top-level operations. It’s even capable of the rapid nighttime raids that US forces became famous for when they were in the lead in that country.

The Afghan president ordered the size of the unit be doubled between 2018 and 2020 because the soldiers, all expert marksmen and commandos, have a reputation for getting results.

Afghanistan also has the Ktah Khas, a counter-terrorism unit known for daring raids like their 2016 rescue of 59 prisoners in a Taliban hideout.

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What the IDF’s past special-ops missions reveal about how Israel takes out Hamas’ rockets and tunnels

Gaza v1
Fire and smoke rise from buildings after Israeli strikes in Gaza.

  • Fighting between Israel and Hamas has killed scores of people in recent days.
  • Israel has a number of secretive special-operations forces that engage in such fighting.
  • Those forces’ past operations indicate what kind of missions they might be doing now.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian militant group Hamas have clashed in Gaza and Israel for almost two weeks, with the death toll on both sides rising.

The violence – from riots and airstrikes to lynchings and rocket volleys – has reignited despite the signing of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries and were seen as potentially reducing tensions in the region.

Behind the headlines and the spotlight, it’s Israel’s special-operations units – among the world’s finest – that are moving the pieces and enabling the IDF’s operations against Hamas.

A mission gone awry

A rocket launched from Gaza city controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, is intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome aerial defence system, on May 11, 2021
A rocket launched from Gaza City is intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air-defense system, May 11, 2021.

For good reason, most Israeli special-operations in Gaza, the West Bank, or East Jerusalem go unreported.

Indeed, publicity usually means that a mission went south, as was the case in 2018, when a botched covert operation in Gaza offered a rare glimpse into the shadowy world of Israeli special-operations missions against Hamas.

Commandos from the elite Mista’arvim, an Israeli counterterrorism unit that conducts covert operations in denied or non-permissive areas, were compromised in Gaza during a highly sensitive intelligence operation.

The Israeli commandos had been operating inside Gaza for weeks when their cover was blown.

According to reports, the Israelis were trying to map out the location of mid- and senior-level Hamas leaders and plant tracking devices, presumably for follow-on strikes or another future contingency, such as the current conflict.

At some point, the Israeli team was compromised, leading to a shootout in which the Israeli commandos killed six Hamas terrorists, including a senior member of the organization’s military wing, but lost the mission commander to friendly fire.

Deception and special operations

IDF Israel security forces West Bank Palestine protest
Undercover Israeli security personnel detain Palestinians protesting US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, December 13, 2017.

The IDF certainly knows how to play the game, and its deception tactics are remarkable.

As the Iron Dome air-defense system intercepted thousands of Hamas’ rockets, the Israeli government suggested that a ground invasion of Gaza was imminent.

The IDF called up thousands of reservists while several brigades and equipment, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, moved to the border.

That was enough for Hamas’ military leadership to send its thousands of fighters into the very extensive and well-developed underground tunnel complex the terrorist organization has been building.

Hamas Gaza tunnel
Members of Hamas’ military wing in a tunnel in the Shujaya neighborhood of Gaza City, August 17, 2014.

However, instead of sending in the infantry and armor, the IDF commenced a heavy bombing campaign, with hundreds of airstrikes against the tunnel complex, where thousands of Hamas fighters were waiting to fight.

Not only did the Israelis avoid a protracted and bloody urban-warfare campaign – arguably one of the most difficult types of military operations, as battles from Stalingrad to Fallujah have shown – but they also put Hamas on the spot for hiding in populated areas and thus intentionally increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties.

Such an operation couldn’t have been successful without the necessary intelligence.

In the years and months prior, commandos from the Mista’arvim or from the Sayeret Matkal, which is also known as General Staff Reconnaissance Unit 269 and is the IDF’s equivalent to the US Army’s Delta Force, would have worked with Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, to create target packages for Hamas’ leadership and its infrastructure.

People inspect a damaged car after Israeli warplanes hit coastland in Gaza City, Gaza on May 17, 2021.
People around a damaged car after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, May 17, 2021.

Special operators serving in the Mista’arvim usually have an Arab background – much of the Israeli population is ethnically Arab – and can blend in to a hostile environment like that in Gaza, Lebanon, or Syria.

They would have been responsible for operating within the denied territory or for recruiting assets within Hamas who could provide intelligence to the IDF.

Details about safe houses, headquarters, and underground tunnel entrances, exits, and vents would be categorized for future use.

“The Israelis are top-notch, easily among the top five special-operations communities in the world. Although we work and have operated more closely with the Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, and Canadians, we do work with the Israelis quite often and have a reasonably close relationship with them,” a former Delta Force operator told Insider.

Underground fighting

Israel Hamas Gaza tunnel
An Israeli soldier at the entrance to a tunnel built by Hamas from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel, August 4, 2014.

The Israelis are certainly not the first ones to deal with complex underground tunnels that are meant to avoid enemy airpower.

During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong constructed hundreds of miles of tunnels alongside the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which snaked through North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to supply the insurgency in South Vietnam.

“The NVA had tunnels and underground facilities in Laos. We had teams that ran into air vents from underground structures. They could smell food cooking.” John Stryker Meyer, a former Special Forces operator who served in the covert Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), told Insider.

Eldon Bargewell, a highly regarded MACV-SOG and Delta Force operator, “chased an NVA into a tunnel that was an NVA underground structure of some sort and was shot in the chest by the enemy,” added Meyer, author of “Across the Fence,” which details covert operations during the Vietnam War.

“So the NVA/VC had tunnel structures, like at Marble Mountain, where SOG’s Command & Control North had caves under it,” which US special operators visited years later, Meyer said, referring an area near a US airfield south of Da Nang in South Vietnam.

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The Army is buying thousands of the ‘awesome’ new rifle that is fast becoming the sniper weapon of choice for the US military

A student of the Special Forces Sniper Course at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School moves quietly while avoiding detection during a stalking exercise at Fort Bragg, NC, on January 27, 2011
A student of the Special Forces Sniper Course at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, January 27, 2011.

  • The Army is buying 2,800 new Mk 22 Multi-Role Adaptive Design sniper rifles from Barrett Firearms.
  • SOCOM has also ordered this weapon, and the Marines have expressed interest as well.
  • The MRAD is a light, modular, multi-caliber rifle that offers extreme range and greater flexibility.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Army is buying thousands of a new rifle that Marine and special-operations snipers also want – the Mk 22 Multi-Role Adaptive Design (MRAD) rifle.

The service awarded Barrett Firearms Manufacturing in Tennessee a five-year, $49.9 million contract for 2,800 MRAD sniper rifles under the Precision Sniper Rifle program, which also includes the Leupold & Stevens Mark 5 HD scope and sniper accessory kit, the Army said Wednesday.

The main difference between the MRAD and other sniper rifles is that it can be chambered in 7.62 x 51 mm NATO, .300 Norma Magnum, and .338 Norma Magnum ammunition, giving the shooter greater flexibility without changing weapons.

“Army snipers will be able to conduct a barrel change and select calibers based on their mission operating environment,” the Army said in a statement Wednesday.

The new rifle is, according to the Army, “an extreme range weapon system that is lighter than current sniper rifles and includes features that will mask the sniper signature for improved survivability.”

Mk 22 MRAD rifle
The Mk 22 MRAD sniper rifle.

The Mk 22 will replace the Army’s bolt-action M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle from Remington Arms and the M107 Long Range Sniper Rifle from Barrett.

“It’s an awesome gun,” an experienced Army sniper told Insider last year. “I can tell you I never saw anything on that gun that I didn’t like. It shoots phenomenally well. What it does, as far as barrel changes and things like that go, is pretty exceptional.”

The Mk 22 is a “good gun coming at a good time that is going to increase efficiency and capabilities,” he said. “We’re excited about it.”

Special Operations Command was the first to express interest in the new modular, multi-caliber sniper rifle. In March 2019, SOCOM awarded Barrett a $49.9 million contract for the MRAD rifle through its Advanced Sniper Rifle program.

The command sent an initial production order for the new rifles to Barrett in November 2020 after the company completed production qualification and operational testing, meeting the requirements of the Department of Defense.

“We are pleased to have reached this milestone with the project and look forward to providing our warfighters with this highly capable platform,” Joel Miller, Barrett’s director of global military sales, said in a statement at the time.

The Marines has also shown interest in the weapon.

The Marines expect the new rifle to “replace all current bolt-action sniper rifles in the Marine Corps,” according to last year’s budget request.

In the budget documents, the Marines wrote that the new rifles offer “extended range, greater lethality, and a wider variety of special purpose ammunition.”

The Army said in its budget request that the weapon “increases stand-off distances ensuring overmatch against enemy counter sniper engagements and increases sniper capability.”

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Congress wants a closer look at US special operations after 2 decades of secret missions and scandals

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., speaks as the House reconvenes to debate the objection to confirm the Electoral College vote from Arizona, after protesters stormed into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Rep. Ruben Gallego speaks during House debate of an objection to Arizona’s Electoral College vote, after protesters stormed into the US Capitol, January 6, 2021.

  • Sprawling and secretive military operations over the past two decades have been a target for criticism.
  • With a new House Armed Services subcommittee, Congress hopes to provide more scrutiny.
  • “The landscape has changed in terms of what threats are out there,” Rep. Ruben Gallego told Insider.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The US military’s special-operations units have fought around the world over the past two decades, a period during which their successes have been marred by scandals and misconduct.

Now, with a new subcommittee on the House Armed Services Committee, lawmakers hope to exercise greater oversight over those shadowy operations and other emerging challenges.

“The landscape has changed in terms of what threats are out there and what the capabilities of our near-peer competitors are,” Rep. Ruben Gallego told Insider.

Gallego, the highest-ranking person of color on the Armed Services Committee, a Marine veteran, and progressive Democrat, will chair the new subcommittee.

“We’re right now having to be able to continue with the traditional roles [of the] military but then also having to figure out how to deal with hybrid warfare,” Gallego added.

Gallego and committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith announced the new subcommittee, officially called the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations, on February 3.

ISO emerges from a split of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, along with the Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems.

“A lot of the work in warfare that’s going to be coming up is going to be found in these two subcommittees,” Gallego said.

‘Very serious and sticky situations’

Ruben Gallego immigration Dreamers
Gallego and Dolores Huerta, right, outside the Supreme Court during oral arguments on then-President Barack Obama’s executive actions to help defer deportation for undocumented people, April 18, 2016.

The ISO subcommittee is responsible for military and national intelligence, countering weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, and special-operations forces. Special operations and military intelligence are likely to get the most attention.

“They both feed into each other” and “into the bigger portfolio in terms of preparing us for the great-power competition,” Gallego said. “We’re going to not neglect our actions in other areas, but making sure that those two areas are primed and ready to go, I think, is going to be really important.”

Demand has grown for more oversight of military operations conducted under the banner of counterterrorism. Special-operations forces, such as the Navy SEALs, are a minority among troops overseas but carry out many of those missions.

The lack of clarity about what they’re doing and the legal justification for it has been a major point of criticism.

“It definitely is a problem,” Gallego said of that opacity. “They are special operators, but they are still under the purview of civilian authority, and I also don’t appreciate that they’ve been essentially used to … go around Congress’s ability to wage war.”

“So we are going to bring that under control as much as possible. We want to see more transparency when it comes to their usage,” Gallego said. “At the same time, we also want to make sure that we guard their usage, because their consistent rotations, I think, [are] actually debilitating towards their effectiveness.”

Lawmakers have expressed concern about that high operational tempo. Like other troops, special operators face increasing mental and physical strain from frequent deployments. That strain, plaudits heaped upon those forces, and a lack of accountability have been blamed for repeated cases of misconduct – especially among SEALs.

Edward Gallagher
Navy SEAL Chief Edward Gallagher with wife Andrea after being acquitted of most of the serious charges during his court-martial at Naval Base San Diego, July 2, 2019.

Those units’ high profile may help recruiting, Gallego said, but it can also make policymakers “more likely to use them in very serious and sticky situations that they don’t necessarily want ‘normal’ forces in.”

In January, the Pentagon announced an evaluation of whether US Special Operations Command, which oversees those forces, and US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, implemented programs to reduce potential violations of the laws of war and whether violations that did occur were reported.

Accountability is needed for “any type of abuse” uncovered by that probe, Gallego told Insider, “but mostly what we want to see come from this probe are steps and checks to make sure that we don’t find ourselves going into mission creep in terms of use of our special forces.”

Policymakers have a habit of deploying those forces without public debate, hoping that “they never get ‘caught’ or create situations where then they have to answer to the public,” Gallego said.

In that respect, the Pentagon’s review “will be extremely important,” Gallego added, pointing to Congress’ inquiries after the October 2017 ambush in Niger that killed four US Army Special Forces members. (That incident prompted a restructuring of special-operations leadership to allow more civilian oversight, which was implemented by the Trump administration and is now being reviewed by the Biden administration.)

“Members of Congress were surprised that we had military in Niger,” Gallego said. “The fact that it is that pervasive, abuse of our military, that even people in the Armed Services Committee did not know that we were actively involved there is a problem.”

‘Toe-to-toe with any military’

Rep. Ruben Gallego

While special operations will be a priority for the subcommittee, challenges related to intelligence-gathering, cyber intrusions, and disinformation loom large after the 2016 and 2020 elections.

In a joint statement announcing the new subcommittee, Gallego and Smith singled out “the disruptive impact of disinformation attacks” among the “unprecedented threats” the US faces from “adversaries and competitors.”

Disinformation is a particular challenge because it spans “the civilian-military divide” and is created by both domestic and international actors, Gallego said.

“We are going to have to address it. How we address it with the assets that we have currently on deck, I think, is going to be really important,” Gallego added. “We have the capability. We have the talent. We don’t necessarily have the authorities nor the true understanding of how deep and problematic this is.”

Gallego mentioned the Defense Intelligence Agency as a partner for the subcommittee. DIA is one of 18 organizations in the US intelligence community, the size of which has been a source of internal confusion and external criticism.

The community’s size isn’t the problem but rather its responsiveness, Gallego said.

“If you’re big and you don’t move, that’s a problem. If you’re small and you don’t move, that’s still a problem,” Gallego added. “So I’d love to be able to work with all these different elements and make sure that they are interoperable, they’re talking to each other, and they actually want to have action and operations, instead of just informing the military … and us what’s going on.”

Ruben Gallego Capitol Hill building siege attack riot
Gallego directs traffic as staffers and House members get safety hoods from under desks as protestors breach the Capitol building, January 6, 2021.

The Trump administration resisted assessments from those agencies about the role foreign influence operations had in the 2016 election. Disputes about those assessments persist, and domestic actors, including Republican lawmakers, continue to invoke baseless allegations about the integrity of the 2020 election.

Gallego said he didn’t see that as an obstacle to working with Republicans on matters before his subcommittee.

“I think that was very much a Trump administration-led problem,” Gallego told Insider. “Now that Trump has gone, I think that is no longer an issue, and I think people want to work together across party lines to make sure we take care of that serious threat.”

The new subcommittee was announced a day before the Pentagon announced a review of the US military’s “footprint, resources, strategy, and missions” around the world, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said will inform his advice to President Joe Biden “about how we best allocate military forces in pursuit of national interests.”

The relevance of that review extends to information warfare and emerging technologies, Gallego told Insider.

“I’m sure we can go toe-to-toe with any military when it comes to man-to-man, hand-to-hand combat, but are we going to be able to win the hacking war of the next 20 years? Are we going to be able to win the quantum-computing competition that we may be already losing right now? What happens if China turns the corner when it comes to AI?” Gallego said. “These are the things that would have to have a full review.”

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National Guard snipers crushed in competition, beating even elite special operations sharpshooters in a test of their skills

Staff Sgt. Bradley Beeler, Arizona National Guard, lays still as stone before sending each shot downrange with devastating accuracy as the time to true each weapon was winding down one the day before the start of the 50th Winston P. Wilson and 30th Armed Forces Skill at Arms Meeting Sniper Championships
Staff Sgt. Bradley Beeler, Arizona National Guard, lays still as stone before sending each shot downrange with devastating accuracy as the time to true each weapon was winding down one the day before the start of the 50th Winston P. Wilson and 30th Armed Forces Skill at Arms Meeting Sniper Championships.

  • Snipers from across the US military recently participated in competitions that tested almost every aspect of what it means to be a one-shot warrior.
  • The All Guard Team representing the National Guard had the highest score by far, besting even special operations snipers.
  • “We’re all just trying to be the best that we can be and make everyone all around us better,” said a California National Guard staff sergeant on the winning team.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The results of recent sniper competitions revealed that some of the US military’s best snipers are in the National Guard.

Thirty-five sniper teams, each consisting of a shooter and a spotter, competed in the 50th Winston P. Wilson Sniper Championship and the 30th Annual Armed Forces Skill at Arms Meeting earlier this month.

The latter competition involves sniper teams from across the military, and the National Guard teams emerged victorious, beating even the special operations snipers.

Grabbing his weapon Staff Sgt. Jared Ramey, Ohio National Guard, prepares his equipment before stepping off toward his objective during the Stalk event December 9, 2020 at the 50th Winston P. Wilson and 30th Armed Forces Skill at Arms Meeting Sniper Championships hosted by the National Guard Marksmanship Training Center, with the help of the U.S. National Guard Sniper School, which were held at the Fort Chaffee Joint Maneuver Training Center December 4-10, 2020.
Staff Sgt. Jared Ramey, Ohio National Guard, during the stalking event.

The sharpshooter competitions hosted by the National Guard Marksmanship Training Center together with the US National Guard Sniper School at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas are designed to test sniper skills, such as shooting and marksmanship, fieldcraft, and other relevant skills. They serve as a kind of training exercise and are intended to mimic certain aspects of real-world combat.

For example, there are exercises like call on fire, infiltration and exfiltration, and stalking, among others. In total, there are 28 events in the AFSAM competition alone.

In the AFSAM, California National Guard Staff Sgts. Demetrios Iannios and Eric Vargas scored a 625.5, which put them in first place ahead of the Special Warfare Training Group Team and the Marine Raider Training Center Team, which came in second and third place respectively.

Sniper teams put rounds down range.
Sniper teams put rounds down range.

The 2nd place winners were Sgt. 1st Class Jeff D. and Staff Sgt. Bj J., members of the special operations community who currently serve as instructors, according to a public affairs spokesperson at Fort Bragg who withheld their last names to protect their identities as SOF soldiers. Their final score in the competition was 500.

And, the Marine sniper team that came in 3rd place in this competition was Staff Sgt. Dylan P. Deano and Gunnery Sgt. Eduardo L. Ocampo. Their score was 455.

Sgt. Triston Ivkov, Colorado National Guard, has a confirmed hit on a timed night fire event
Sgt. Triston Ivkov, Colorado National Guard, has a confirmed hit on a timed night fire event.

In the Winston P. Wilson Sniper Championship, which is just for National Guard participants, sniper teams from the Colorado National Guard, Iowa Guard, and Utah Guard took the top three spots.

The overall winners of the competitions were the California National Guard team with its score of 625.5. They were followed by the Colorado National Guard team, Sgt. Triston Ivkov and Spc. Max Miller, with a score of 546.5 and the Iowa National Guard Team, Spcs. Aaron M. McAndrews and Kyle R. Thies, with a score of 504.

“We’re all just trying to be the best that we can be and make everyone all around us better,” Vargas, humble in victory, said in a statement.

“We all wear the same flag on our right shoulder, and that’s what it is all about,” the staff sergeant said. “Coming together. Doing what we need to do. Being masters at our craft, shooting well, and just getting the mission accomplished the best way we can.”

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