Special Operations: What Makes It All So Special


April 28, 2016: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is a unique organization that emphasizes quality over quantity in a big way. Thus most of the 69,000 SOCOM personnel are highly trained specialists. They have taken the lead in the war on terror and as a result about 14 percent of SOCOM personnel are overseas at any given time. To keep these high-quality personnel alive and willing to stick around the usual rules for how you can operate are somewhat different.

Although SOCOM receives about $10 billion a year and most of it goes to operations and procurement. SOCOM can buy pretty much anything it wants and can afford. Given high quality of SOCOM personnel there is not a lot of research and development (R&D) as SOCOM personnel have found that there is plenty of new commercial tech out there and they keep an eye on this. Since the wide-spread availability of the Internet in the 1990s SOCOM personnel have been able to quickly and easily exchange information and opinions.

SOCOM spends a lot on the latest computer, networking, communications and software available. This actually saves the army and marines a lot of money (on R&D) because whatever SOCOM gets and promptly uses in combat provides proven new stuff that the army and marines can use. This especially true for infantry weapons, body armor, battlefield medical care, communications and intelligence gathering.

Since 2001 much has been learned about what SOF (Special Operations Forces) are capable of using new technology (especially satellite communications, smart bombs, and new database and analysis software). Because of these new tools SOF forces have proved to be much more effective than in the past. Once (and often still) thought of as rugged commandos ready to undertake high risk combat missions, SOF has shown itself to be more useful by being able to quickly find out what is really happening in a hot spot and then rapidly coming up with and applying a solution that requires minimal violence. This does not please creators of adventure novels, movies, or TV shows. But it’s a lot cheaper (in lives and cash) than the high decibel solution SOF has always considered a last resort.

The SOF community has also managed to convince more of their military and political superiors in the Pentagon and Congress that SOF works only if you follow the rules. These include guidelines you have to follow if you want your SOF forces to succeed. The most crucial rule is that quality is more important than quantity. This applies to people and equipment but the people are key, not high tech gear. Good SOF operators (the highly trained Special Forces, SEALs, Rangers, marines, and air force specialists) can get a lot done with low-tech tools but low quality SOF personnel will fail even with the best tech available. Thus you must accept the fact that it takes years to select, train, and season (on actual operations) a fully qualified SOF operator. Thus any crises that shows up today has to be handled with whatever SOF people you have right now. And you have to be careful about losses, because new SOF operators will take 3-5 years to find and train. On the plus side, many of the support personnel for SOF units (intelligence, communications, transportation) do not take as long to mobilize and many of these services can be obtained from commercial suppliers. In short, SOF operators are a long-term investment that must be used carefully because losses take years to replace.

To put it into perspective, consider that the United States only has about 12,000 operators and that is the largest such force on the planet. In Afghanistan and Iraq SOF troops made an enormous contribution to whatever successes were achieved. The common attitude in the SOF community is that in Iraq and Afghanistan SOF accounted for about 5 percent of the personnel in action, consumed about 5 percent of the money spent on those wars but were responsible for over 50 percent of the successes. Most military commanders were well aware of this and were always asking for more SOF, but there was never enough to meet the demand.


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