Special Operations: SOCOM Reverts to Pre-2001 Rules


July 7, 2015: The U.S. Army Special Forces is returning the 3rd Special Forces Group to Africa where, before 2001, it had long specialized in. But after 2002 the 3rd found itself spending most of its time in Afghanistan and after 2006 was hardly in Africa at all. This shift back to Africa is already underway and by 2016 the 3rd will again be specializing in Africa. The 3rd Group had specialized in Africa from its formation in 1990.

What is happening to the 3rd Group is part of changes that began in 2009 when the Special Forces began to plan “post war” changes to what had evolved since September 11, 2001. The post 2001 changes happened because there are only seven Special Forces Groups altogether, and, with the personnel shortages, only about 7,000 "operators" were available in 2001. Thus after 2001 it was decided to assign most of these troops, the best counter-terrorism operators America had, against Islamic radicals threatening the United States. Several thousand Special Forces troops were initially held back for possible use in Korea, South America or Africa. That eventually changed.

Each of the five active duty Special Forces groups has three battalions (about 1,500 troops altogether). In 2001, the 5th Group (responsible for the Middle East) was keeping two battalions overseas and one back in the states for rest and training. On top of the heavy work load, the 5th Group was also about twenty percent under strength.

Each of the five Special Forces Groups long specialized in on region of the world, and the 5th had responsibility for the Middle East and Afghanistan. The other four Groups began helping the 5th, even though they don't have the language and cultural awareness talents of the 5th Group. That said, the Russian speakers of the 10th Group (specializing in Europe) found lots of people in Afghanistan and Iraq who spoke Russian. The two National Guard Groups (the 19th and 20th), have also been called up, as these groups are full of Special Forces veterans who retired or got out to get away from the frequent overseas duty. These men had experience and skills, although they soon found themselves spending a lot more time overseas than the average reservists. Some Special Forces operators have spent 70 percent of their time overseas since September 11, 2001, and the average is close to fifty percent.

The 1st Special Forces Group specializes in East Asia and the Pacific (Southeast Asia, Korea, China and the Pacific in general). The 3rd Special Forces Group specializes in the Caribbean and West Africa. The 7th Special Forces Group specializes in Latin America.

By 2006 the 3rd and 7th Groups were taking care of Afghanistan, swapping places regularly between home and Afghanistan. By 2009 the 3rd Group had Afghanistan to itself, with one or two battalions from the 7th Group as needed. In effect, the 3rd Group was responsible for Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The 3rd Group still maintained a battalion for use in its original area (the Caribbean and West Africa). The 7th Group also kept a battalion in its original area (Latin America). The 10th Group also devoted some of its troops to Africa (for the newly formed AFRICOM). After 2009 the 5th Group  concentrated on the western half (Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt) of its original area of operations.

Special Forces belongs to SOCOM (Special Operations Command), which is itself still a small force (60,000 troops). Most of these are from the army, but SOCOM troops represent less than eight percent of army personnel. The majority of SOCOM people are providing support for the 13,000 operators (Special Forces, SEALs, commandos. Rangers and other specialists) who are constantly overseas chasing down terrorists.

SOCOM is who you call when you absolutely, positively have to get something done. But when it comes to dividing up the budget, SOCOM is not nearly as effective in lobbying for an adequate share of the defense budget. This will cause problems, which will show up when it's too late to just apply money to quickly solve it. For the moment SOCOM gets whatever it wants but SOCOM commanders know that is changing and are seeking to adapt.



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