Special Operations: The New Shape Of Things


September 6, 2009: The U.S. Army Special Forces is reorganizing, officially, in recognition of changes that have already evolved since September 11, 2001. This happened because there are only seven Special Forces Groups altogether, and, with the personnel shortages, not quite 7,000 "operators" available for action. After September 11, 2001, it was decided to assign most of these troops, the best counter-terrorism operators America has, 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 1200 troops altogether), and they are getting another battalion over the next few years. 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 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.

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.

In the last few years, the 3rd and 7th Groups have been taking care of Afghanistan, swapping places regularly between home and Afghanistan. Under the new reorganization, the 3rd Group will have Afghanistan to itself, with one or two battalions from the 7th Group as needed. In effect, the 3rd Group will be responsible for Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The 3rd Group will still maintain a battalion for use in its original area (the Caribbean and West Africa). The 7th Group will also keep a battalion in its original area (Latin America). The 10th Group will now devote some of its troops to Africa (the new AFRICOM).

The 5th Group will concentrate 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 (53,000 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.

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.

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.

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. 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 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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