[UPDATE: For information about the volunteer effort to monitor Jade Helm 2015 in the field, see my new post here. The monitoring effort is called “Counter-Jade Helm,” and is operating through branches in 7 states. Jade Helm starts on 15 July.]
News of this thing – Exercise Jade Helm 2015 – has exploded all over the web, and much of what’s out there is attended by wild hyperventilation.
Let me say two things up front. First, in my judgment – and you can quote me on this – Texas is not being invaded.
Second, the exercise nevertheless has some interesting and potentially troubling features. Might as well get this out of the way up front too: as designed, the exercise doesn’t appear to violate the Posse Comitatus Act. There’s no aspect of it that will put military personnel in an inappropriate position; i.e., wielding law-enforcement powers over citizens.
But this is because of the warfare competency that’s being exercised. If the exercise forces were drilling in another discipline of irregular warfare – and we’ll get to that in a minute – the potential for really probing that edge of Posse Comitatus, and even crossing over it, could increase.
There are other reasons for concern. It’s not that there’s nothing to see here. But the speculation about what’s going on does border on demented, at least in some quarters.
Orientation: Jade Helm 2015
Jade Helm 2015 is a major unconventional warfare exercise to be held across seven Western states from July to September 2015. It’s not clear how many total participants there will be; according to briefs given to county officials in Texas, there will be some 1,200-plus people deployed in Texas. We can reasonably assume that’s the largest concentration of live players to be deployed anywhere in the exercise, although the 1,200 probably won’t all be there at the same time.
That said, this is an exercise focused on irregular warfare, and therefore, although it brings together conventional forces as well as Special Forces, its boot-by-boot footprint in any one place is small. Special operations have a huge tail but a very light footprint on the ground in the operations area.
At any given time, the largest concentrations of people may well be at the headquarters facilities reflected on the map, at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and Camp Shelby in Mississippi (a major reserve forces training center). The administrative “tail” of the exercise – which is typically quite large for an exercise of this scope – will probably be bigger than the concentration of front-line forces for many events.
The map shows the notional geography of the exercise, with the status of the states involved reflected as “friendly,” “hostile,” or “leaning” (including a “pocket” of insurgent concentration on the southern border of California). It appears that Texas will be the state where the most land area is affected by the exercise.
The key to understanding this exercise is the fact that it will practice “unconventional warfare.” That has a specific meaning in U.S. military doctrine: it’s a special discipline of irregular warfare, which encompasses multiple forms of operations conducted (mainly) by Special Forces. Fortunately for us, the Department of Defense Directive on Irregular Warfare was just updated, in August 2014, and provides these handy definitions.
IW can include any relevant DoD activity and operation such as counterterrorism; unconventional warfare; foreign internal defense; counterinsurgency; and stability operations that, in the context of IW, involve establishing or re-establishing order in a fragile state or territory.
Unconventional warfare (emphasis added):
Activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.
In other words, unconventional warfare refers specifically to assisting insurgencies in the “denied areas” of foreign countries. Denied areas are areas to which our forces will not have conventional access, but will have to insert and sustain themselves by unconventional means.
The participants who operate in the red areas of the exercise geography will thus be sneaking around as if they were trying to enter unseen, remain unidentified (even when they are seen), and assist a local insurgency.
As background: the sense has been growing in the special operations community that many of its irregular warfare skills have fallen into disuse since 2001, when the emphasis for SOF shifted to largely “direct action” missions (like killing Osama bin Laden), and combat support for occupation troops. In fact, the impetus for putting out the new 2014 directive came from this community dialogue. (A good introduction to it by a Small Wars Journal writer can be perused here.) The push to build irregular warfare competencies back up is behind the initiative for the Jade Helm exercise.
The incomplete view we have of the exercise comes from a PowerPoint document used by exercise planners to brief county officials in Texas over the last few months. (Embedded below. Sorry about the “WW3” tag on the Scribd embed. It’s silly but it doesn’t affect the original document.)
The live-play participants will include Special Operations Command, the special forces of the military services, the 82nd Airborne, elements of Marine Expeditionary Unit(s), and interagency partners, which refers to other departments and agencies of the federal government, including – reportedly – the FBI and DEA.
There’s nothing weird or nefarious about this participation, given the competency the exercise will work on. The various forces and agencies bring capabilities that would be used in a real-world unconventional warfare operation. The public hasn’t been given a view of every participant’s role, but an agency like the FBI could role-play as well as acting straightforwardly in its own capacity.
The other military participants will undoubtedly be present – anywhere in the exercise, field or HQ – only in the numbers they would typically muster to support irregular warfare missions. We might expect elements of a Marine Expeditionary Unit or the 82nd Airborne to be deployed over the “border” from the red areas, for example, perhaps with small contingents “in-country” (in red) to facilitate rapid response operations if necessary. That’s just one example. The bottom line is that we won’t be talking about large concentrations of troops anywhere, at any time. Not for an unconventional warfare exercise.
A feature of minor interest in this exercise is the terrain chosen for it. It’s a combination of the Texas “hill country” and “coastal bend,” and remote, arid Western localities, including high country in Utah, the Rio Grande at the New Mexico-Texas border, and the Imperial Valley of southern California. It seems we don’t expect to have to do much insurgency-assisting in tropical jungles or alpine forests.
But we probably could have guessed that anyway. Of greater interest are a couple of other features of the exercise that emerged as I was researching this.
From what I can tell, Texas is the only state where exercise planners have traveled to brief county officials ahead of time, and seek support from county governments for the live deployments that are envisioned. (See, for example, here, here, and here.) It may simply be that there is no online record of such briefs for southern California or Utah, the other “red” areas where there would putatively be unconventional warfare deployments.
The notional geography map indicates that there is, in fact, an exercise event planned for Utah. But no record is readily discoverable of officials in Utah being briefed, as the officials in Texas have been. One possibility is that the live-play in Utah will occur on federal land; there is both federal and privately owned land in the area indicated on the map, so we can’t be certain.
That point introduces another one, however. The exercise planners have emphasized that unconventional warfare training needs to occur, as they put it, in “large areas of undeveloped land with low population densities with access to towns.” The areas of Texas that they’ve chosen can be said to fit that description.
But so do any number of areas in the rest of the West where there is vastly more federal land to operate on (see map 2): not military land, but land managed by the federal government, with plenty of “access to towns” to go with the “low population densities.”
Headquarters on private property
So it is interesting that so much is being done in Texas, where the exercise will unfold almost entirely on city/county-owned or even private land. And this brings up another interesting feature. In at least three of the Texas counties – and probably in more of them – the exercise participants will be setting up local headquarters on the private property of large landowners. See the links above; in Schleicher County, the HQ will be at the Steve Blaylock Ranch, and in Victoria and Goliad Counties, the HQ will be T. Michael O’Connor’s ranch, which spans both counties.
Putting up local headquarters this way is readily explained by the mission. Unconventional warfare in the real world would probably entail using the property of friendly supporters in-country as local bases.
And the whole enterprise is couched in the friendliest of terms as a request for local accommodation from the armed forces conducting the exercise.
Moreover, it’s not unprecedented for Special Forces to conduct training in the “realistic” environments afforded by the civil population. The Jade Helm brief given in Hudspeth County referred to smaller-scale training events held there in 2011 and 2012. (Many who’ve been been stationed in Virginia Beach may recall noticing activities that look an awful lot like SEALs practicing their warfare skills among unalerted civilians.)
But it’s not paranoid to point out that the precedent being set could turn easily from innocuous to dark. It’s one thing to conduct training on such a minimal scale that the public doesn’t have to be briefed on or aware of it. It’s actually another thing – a significant shift in the proposition – to say that the public needs to be aware of it, and needs to give its assent and cooperation.
That proposition means we’re setting a precedent of buy-in for the conditions of this exercise. But suppose one of the Texas counties did not want to participate? Would the county really have the option of saying no?
Can we actually trust that the day will never come when county officials and ranchers are asked to make an accommodation they don’t feel right about? It seems to me that that is trusting in an awful lot.
We don’t need a specific, conspiracy-minded hazard in view here to know that it’s a dangerous practice. Anyone whose thoughts went immediately to the Third Amendment, on hearing about the ranchers hosting the Special Forces headquarters, is simply showing good sense.
And it’s particularly striking to see the military seeking from the public such overt agreement to a training event in our midst, at a time when the president says we are not at war with anyone, and the secretary of state says Americans have never been safer.
You don’t have to wear a tinfoil hat to find that troubling. It raises what is perhaps the most important question of all. If we don’t draw the line here – where do we draw it?