Special Operations: Too Much Is Enough


January 18, 2012: The U.S. is planning to cut its troop strength 15 percent, with special operations troops picking up some of the slack. The defense budget will be cut at least ten percent, but SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is expected to escape cuts and may even gain a bit. SOCOM commanders now have to explain to the politicians that the real world doesn't quite work like that. While SOCOM is glad to hear that their budget (about $10.5 billion a year) won't be cut, they also remind everyone that you cannot mass produce more special operations personnel, especially the "operators" who seem capable of doing anything in the combat zone. Another problem is that a decade of fighting has worn out the current generation of commandos. Additional recruits are harder to come by, and SOCOM troops are really no replacement for soldiers and marines. The politicians may not listen and the results will not be pretty.

Nevertheless, while people are critical to the success of special operations (commandos and such), money helps a lot. Since 2001, SOCOM (the American Special Operations Command) has gotten a lot more money. Annual SOCOM spending has gone from $2.6 billion in 2001 to $9.8 billion last year. But while spending has quadrupled, personnel strength has only doubled, to a current strength of 60,000 troops. This includes many support specialists, as well as the Special Forces, Rangers, SEALs, Marine Corps, and Air Force operators. Currently, 10,000 of these commando type troops are overseas, mainly in Afghanistan. Sounds good, doesn't it? Unfortunately there's a major downside: burnout. While most of the increased money has gone to buying better equipment, replacing worn out stuff, and providing better training, getting new people has been much more difficult.

Not surprisingly, 60 percent of SOCOM's current troops signed up after September 11, 2001. But an increasing number are leaving the military, despite reenlistment bonuses of up to $150,000. The problem is overwork. While the number of SOCOM personnel has doubled, the number overseas at any time has quadrupled. Many SOCOM personnel are spending more than half their time overseas, usually in a combat zone. There, Special Forces troops take the lead in intelligence gathering and capturing or killing key terrorists. It's mentally and physically exhausting work. Unlike past wars, these troops can remain in touch with families back home, for better or worse. While it's been a long war most SOCOM operators realize that it could easily go on for another decade. Thus SOCOM has learned to say "no" more often, otherwise the expansion will go into reverse as many more exhausted operators leave the service.

Trying to recruit replacements is a solution that won't work. The U.S. Army's effort to recruit another 2,300 operators (as members of the Special Forces are called) was a hard slog. Qualified candidates are out there, but it's hard to convince them to endure the additional effort, stress, and danger to become a Special Forces operator (or a SEAL, Ranger, Pararescue Jumper). Even with higher pay ($10,000 or more additional a year) and high reenlistment bonuses (adding about $10,000 more a year), it's hard to find the men who can meet the high standards and are willing to put up with the large amount of time spent overseas.

Recruiting and training more operators is a time consuming process, as it takes about three years to get a Special Forces recruit up to a basic level of competence. It takes another few years in the field before such men are ready for anything serious. At least half of those recruited are lost (quit, wash out) before they reach their full capability. Recruiting to expand the number of operators began right after September 11, 2001. Soon, SOCOM was told to increase its strength by 43 percent, and do it by 2013.

Casualties are less of an issue than you might think for such dangerous work. SOCOM casualties are actually lower than in infantry or marine units. While SOCOM operators comprise about ten percent of all combat troops, they have only suffered six percent of the combat deaths and four percent of the wounded. The big issue has always been overwork. Combat operations wear troops out. Elite men like SOCOM operators can handle more stress than your average infantryman, but they have their limits as well. Moreover, most Special Forces operators are married and have families. Being away from the wife and kids for extended periods often causes more stress. Keep the operators out there for too long at a time and you'll lose them to resignations, retirement or, rarely, combat fatigue. It's not just the equipment that is being worn out.

Because the Special Forces troops are the product of an exacting screening and training process, they are in big demand by intelligence agencies as well. Special Forces operators who retired or quit in the last decade have been sought out and offered opportunities to get back in the business, if not with one of the five active duty groups, then with training operations, or to work with the intelligence agencies.

Most Americans tend to forget that the U.S. Special Forces are a unique organization in military, and intelligence, history. No other nation has anything like the Special Forces and never has. While other nations have some operators skilled in understanding foreign cultures, the idea of training thousands of troops to very high standards, then having them study foreign languages and cultures, is unique to the Special Forces. The war on terror is the kind of war Special Forces are perfectly suited to deal with. But now that this unique kind of war is under way, we find that those soldiers uniquely suited to fight it are in short supply. This is largely because Special Forces set high standards, and has resisted all attempts to lower those standards. One hard lesson the Special Forces has learned in the past sixty years is that lowering standards just increases the chances of failure, and getting your people killed.

Meanwhile, the SOCOM program to expand its Special Forces units has slogged forward. By 2013, the Special Forces will have 300 ODAs (Operational Detachment A, or “A" Teams), compared to the 180 they had on September 11, 2001. The army would like to add more ODAs to the two reserve Special Forces Groups (the 19th and 20th), which would increase the number of A Teams to 420, but its unclear if such an effort would be possible.

In the past three years, SOCOM has been shifting forces from Iraq (where it had 5,500 personnel four years ago) to Afghanistan (where it had 3,000 troops four years ago). Last year the ratio was reversed, with 7,000 in Afghanistan and under 3,000 in Iraq. Now there are no SOCOM troops in Iraq and over 8,000 in Afghanistan. Most American allies have moved all their commando forces from Iraq to Afghanistan, where they not only do what they were trained for, but also train Afghans for special operations tasks. This has already been done in Iraq, where it worked quite well. The SOCOM troops in Afghanistan account for about 80 percent of American special operations forces overseas. The rest are in places like Colombia, the Philippines, and Djibouti (adjacent to Somalia).

SOCOM personnel are still in big demand overseas. But the longer the United States tries to fill this inexhaustible demand, the fewer operators there will be to meet the demand.

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