The United States is spending more money on more missions to send more elite U.S. forces to train alongside more foreign counterparts in more countries around the world, according to documents obtained by The Intercept via the Freedom of Information Act.
Under the Joint Combined Exchange Training program, which is designed to train America’s special operators in a variety of missions — from “foreign internal defense” to “unconventional warfare” — U.S. troops carried out approximately one mission every two days in 2014, the latest year covered by the recently released documents.
At a price tag of more than $56 million, the U.S. sent its most elite operators — Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and others — on 176 individual JCETs, a 13 percent increase from 2013. The number of countries involved jumped even further, from 63 to 87, a 38 percent spike.
The JCET program is a key facet of a global strategy involving America’s most secretive and least scrutinized troops. Since 9/11, special operations forces (SOF) have expanded in almost every conceivable way — from budget to personnel to overseas missions. On any given day, 10,000 special operators are deployed or “forward stationed,” conducting missions that vary “from behind-the-scenes information-gathering and partner-building to high-end dynamic strike operations,” then-chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year.
In 2014, more than 4,800 elite troops took part in JCETs, compared to just over 3,800 the year before. “The purpose of JCETs is to foster the training of U.S. SOF in mission-critical skills by training with partner-nation forces in their home countries,” Ken McGraw, a spokesperson for U.S. Special Operations Command, told The Intercept. “JCETs allow U.S. SOF to use and further develop their language skills and cultural knowledge plus hone their skills training indigenous forces.”
Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, who is Votel’s successor as head of SOCOM, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that “working with our international partners allows us to share the burden more appropriately. We must engage, not only where problems occur, but also in places critical to our vital national interests where no visible threat currently exists.”
The recently released documents note that, in addition to the training opportunities afforded to elite U.S. troops, the JCET program also provides “incidental benefits,” namely building military-to-military contacts, improving interoperability with foreign forces, and “gaining regional access with a minimal footprint.” The files further refer to JCETs as “low signature” missions.
A 2015 investigation by The Intercept revealed JCETs were regularly conducted with foreign militaries implicated by the U.S. State Department in gross human rights violations. And a more recent effort by The Intercept and 100Reporters found JCETs formed one facet of a global training network typified by a lack of coherent strategy and effective oversight.
A 2013 Rand Corp. study of JCETs conducted in areas covered by Africa Command, Pacific Command, and Southern Command found “moderately low” effectiveness of the missions in all three regions. Asked for comment on the findings, McGraw of SOCOM had little to say. “I have not and do not have the time to review the Rand study,” he told The Intercept, noting that he was aware of no one at the command who had read Rand’s analysis. “We are not going to comment on the study.”