Special Operations: Wearing Out Men And Machines


January 21, 2009: Even though U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has received nearly $4 billion for new aircraft since September 11, 2001, it's not enough. Their budget is shrinking too, from $8 billion in 2007, to $6 billion last year and $5.7 billion this year. Procurement has taken the biggest hit, going from $2.6 billion, to $1.8 billion to $1.5 billion. Meanwhile, troop strength has gone up from 46,000 in 2007 to 50,000 this year. Then again, in 2003 had 46,000 people and a budget of $4.8 billion.

The big problems are aircraft (some 300 MC-130s MH-53s AC-130s MH-6s MH-60s CV-22s and a few other types) and logistics. What it comes down to is that the aircraft are worn out from heavy use and combat losses. Worse, there's never been enough logistics support to service all the jobs SOCOM is called on to do.

In response, SOCOM has improvised. They borrow aircraft and logistics support from other units. SOCOM is a high priority outfit, and can usually get what they need. Since SOCOM is usually providing specialized support for the combat units they borrow resources from, they don't many complaints. But it still means troops are operating at less than peak efficiency because they don't have all the tools they need to get the job done. Missions get cancelled, and opportunities are lost.

The SOCOM aircraft actually provide a lot of the logistics support, which is why they are so heavily used. The MC-130P mainly does aerial refueling, but can drop cargo via parachute. This is what the MC-130H spends most of its time doing. When SOCOM operators need re-supply anywhere in the world, it's the 72 ton MC-130 that will usually deliver it, either by parachute or landing on rough airfields. SOCOM has been receiving new MC-130Ws, to replace aircraft losses over the last few years. The W model provides the additional capability of refueling helicopters in the air. The MC-130W is basically a recently built C-130 that is refurbished and reequipped to the MC-130W standard. The army helicopters do a lot of logistics work when long range is not required.

 It's not surprising that the most heavily used troops in the war on terror are those of SOCOM. 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.

SOCOM is still a small force (50,000 troops). Most of the personnel in SOCOM are providing support for the 13,000 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 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. It's not just the equipment that is being worn out.

Each of the five active duty Special Forces groups has three battalions (about 1200 troops altogether), and they are getting another battalion. 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.

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.


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