TAMPA — The images showing on CNN at the Tampa Club feature two very different developments: President Barack Obama explaining why he is sending commandos into Iraq while the text crawl underneath reports NATO concerns about Russian tanks massing on border of Ukraine.
To Stu Bradin and Meaghan Keeler-Pettigrew, watching the broadcast while awaiting a meeting, the two developments speak volumes about their mission.
They’re helping launch the Global SOF Foundation, a nonprofit organization spreading the word about the importance of special operations forces.
The Association of the United States Army, the Air Force Association, the Navy League, the Marine Corps Association advocate on behalf of the individual services and service members. But there is no independent organization advocating for special operations.
Bradin and Keeler-Pettigrew call the group GSF for short.
“The threats nowadays are global,” says Bradin, a recently retired Army colonel with the global special operations forces network of U.S. Special Operations Command leader Adm. William McRaven.
MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa is headquarters for Socom.
Bradin pointed to what Obama was saying on TV: ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, working from Syria to invade Iraq with a number of European nationals among its ranks. The fear is that they will return to Europe and pose a threat to the United States.
“That is absolutely accurate,” Bradin said. “ It requires a global approach and there is nothing the U.S. can do alone to stop that. We won’t even get close to being successful.”
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The idea for the foundation arose about a year ago during the run-up to one of the nation’s largest intelligence gatherings.
Bradin, 52, was helping the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation plan its annual symposium in Tampa. He was planning to lead a panel discussion on global special operations, as a former deputy director of operations for Special Operations Command Europe and later tasked with setting up the new NATO Special Operations Forces Headquarters.
Working on they symposium, Bradin began to see that a model it developed over a decade of advocating for geospatial intelligence might make a good template to do the same for special operations.
Keith Masback, president of the foundation, offered advice and said Bradin’s initiative reminded him of the beginnings of his own organization.
“We offered to do whatever we can to help them as partners as they got started,” Masback said. “One of the things I like to say is that there is no reason for them to make all the mistakes we made. They could learn from our mistakes and feel free to make wholly new and imaginative mistakes.”
Masback’s advice included how to navigate the nonprofit status process and ensuring that the Global SOF Foundation stays mission-focused.
“There are phenomenal organizations in the special operations space doing great things for families, survivors, the wounded,” Masback said. “This is all very important and worthy. But what the Global SOF Foundation is doing is different.”
The new group’s role, he said, is in leading discussions of the future of special operations forces in the United States and worldwide.
Count Masback as an optimist.
“I think the potential is huge for them,” he said.
The CNN broadcast featuring the crises in the Ukraine and Iraq highlighted that potential, Bradin and Keeler-Pettigrew said.
“One is a conventional force doing unconventional activities, the other is a transnational terrorist entity trying to go conventional, stealing tanks and heavy weapons,” said Bradin, the foundation’s president and CEO. “All the battleships in the world and all the joint strike fighters in the world are not going to stop that.”
Special operations forces present an option.
The role of the foundation will be to reach out to domestic and foreign lawmakers and staff, thought-leaders, stakeholders, media and the public to spread the word about the value of special operations.
The effort, Bradin emphasizes, is to educate, not lobby.
“If you can change public perception, I guarantee you can change public policy.”
To that end, the foundation is planning to be the “go-to non-governmental organization to talk about these issues,” said Keeler-Pettigrew, 34, who before working for Bradin at Socom was on the Commander’s Action Group and Operations Directorate at U.S. Central Command.
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The foundation is planning a series of networking events in Tampa, Washington and California starting this summer, with a major forum planned in February at the TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach.
“We think of it as Davos meets the Aspen Summit meets a TED talk,” Keeler-Pettigrew said. “We want something dynamic, different and thought-provoking.”
The forum will differ from the annual Special Operations Force Industry Conference, the major annual special operations gathering, by seeking a more international focus with more conversation and no trade show.
Also next year, the foundation is planning a forum in Europe, Keeler-Pettigrew said. And there are plans to link job seekers with corporate sponsors.
One thing there will not be is any connection with Socom, which is prohibited from endorsing non-government organizations.
The GSF “does not represent Socom,” says command spokesman Ken McGraw.
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If the kickoff event was any indication, interest in the foundation is large and growing.
The goal was to have 500 people show up at the Tampa Bay History Center during last month’s Special Operations Force Industry Conference in Tampa. The turnout was more like 700, Keeler-Pettigrew said.
But that was only the beginning.
In the next year to 18 months, the organization will build a base of industry partners. So far, there are six founding partners, that, following the Geospatial Intelligence Foundation model, shelled out $100,000 each to join, Bradin said.
“That’s pretty darn good,” he said. “I’d like to have at least 12 to 15 additional companies.”
“We see SOF as a key player on the global stage,” says Scot Gagnon, director of Army/Special Operations Vertical for World Wide Technology, a technology-integration company.
St. Louis-based World Wide Technology joined as a founding partner because “the foundation can exist independent of any particular bias or driver,” Gagnon said.
Tampa-based Celestar Corp. joined at the $10,000 level, in no small measure because of Bradin’s connections to McRaven and other special operations leaders around the globe, said Greg Celestan, Celestar chairman.
“From a business standpoint there are connections with other business partners and SOF folks developing capabilities to meet their needs,” Celestan said. “On the policy side, they are advocating for issues related to SOF. The concept, I think, is a good one.”
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Global in scope, the foundation is also mindful of domestic issues.
In the most recent round of budget discussions, Socom was given a 10 percent funding boost. Pending congressional and White House approval, that would mean a base budget of $7.7 billion, supporting nearly 70,000 personnel in as many as 100 or so countries.
Still, Congress is calling for targeted cuts and a greater oversight of Socom efforts in a wide range of areas, including intelligence-gathering, establishing a greater presence in Washington, the purchase of undersea craft and even suicide prevention.
“Over the years, concerns have been raised regarding the ability of the Department of Defense to conduct the same level of oversight over Socom activities and funding as is applied to the services and other defense agencies,” says a House Appropriations Committee report on the defense spending bill.
“In an era of declining resources and when faced with difficult choices to preserve the most critical capabilities of the Department of Defense, vigorous oversight of all programs and activities is required.”
The report includes a recommendation that a $2 million increase be given to the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict for additional staffing to “provide necessary oversight.”
Given all that, Bradin says he is concerned about the future.
“We are out there advocating not necessarily for the growth of SOF, but to ensure it is prominently featured in everybody’s defense strategy and defense budgets,” he said. “Are we trying to protect that? Yes, absolutely.”