Special Operations: Too Few People For Too Many Jobs


October 29,2008:  The most heavily used troops in the war on terror are, no surprise, those of SOCOM (Special Operations Command). The U.S. Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs and operators from the marines and navy have been worked hard since September 11, 2001. While some 80 percent of them are assigned to Iraq or Afghanistan, others serve in over 40 other countries.

While SOCOM has about 5,000 more personnel than it did on September 11, 2001, it is still a small force (less than 50,000 troops). Most of the personnel in SOCOM are providing support for the 10,000 operators (Special Forces, SEALs, commandos. Rangers and other specialists) who are constantly overseas chasing down terrorists.

Recruiting and training more operators is a time consuming process, as it takes about three years to get a Special Forces or SEALs operator up to a basic level of competence. It takes another few years in the field before such operators are ready for anything serious. 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.

The plan calls for finding and training an addition 3,000 Special Forces and SEALs. In the meantime, retaining existing personnel is becoming a problem. SOCOM won't provide numbers, but does admit that some of their operators are being lured away by better paying civilian, or even government, jobs. There are also fewer SOCOM personnel staying in past twenty years, when service personnel become eligible for retirement at half pay. The army is considering invoking a little used regulation that can force troops to serve for 30 years before retirement (at 75 percent pay.) Before September 11, 2001, SOCOM was able to keep nearly half of its operators past the twenty year mark. But that is now falling below 40 percent. There's also a decline in the number of men who, after being in 8-12 years, have to decide whether to get out, or make a career of it and go for at least twenty years.

The main problem isn't operators concerned about getting killed, SOCOM casualties have been lower than in infantry or marine units. The big issue is overwork. Combat operations wear troops out. Elite men like SOCOM operators can handle more 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 love them to resignations, retirement or, rarely, combat fatigue.

Each of the five active duty Special Forces groups has three battalions (about 1200 troops altogether), and they are supposed to get another battalion over the next five years. In 2001, the 5th Group 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 specializes in on region of the world, and the 5th has responsibility for the Middle East and Afghanistan. The other four Groups help out, 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) find lots of people in Afghanistan and Iraq who speak 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 (and make more money). These men have experience and skills, although they can now expect to see 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.

There are only seven Special Forces Groups altogether, and, with the personnel shortages, not quite 7,000 "operators" available for action. And several thousand of these were initially held back for possible use in Korea, South America or Africa. That eventually changed. The Navy SEALs and U.S. Army Rangers are also aggressively recruiting, and trying to expand their numbers. The same with support troops, especially those involved with transportation, psychological operations, civil affairs and intelligence.

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 (as members of the Special Forces are called) 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. 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 dealing with. But now that this unique kind of war is under way, we find that those soldiers uniquely suited to fighting 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 past fifty years is that lowering standards just increases the chances of failure, and getting your people killed.


Article Archive

Special Operations: Current 2023 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close