Special Operations: Evolution In Action

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April 2, 2020: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has ordered the disbanding of the five CRF (Crisis Response Force) companies. These units were established after September 11, 2001, and were based on small units Special Forces Group commanders had already created for emergency situations that involved classical commando-type skills. This included “Direct Action”, as in hostage rescue or difficult raids or any operation that would involve combat situations where success was very important but difficult to achieve. The CRF companies were small, under a hundred men, and were heavily used for about a decade. But after American troops left Iraq in 2011 the war on terror, while not over, saw less demand for the skills that the CRF operators had in abundance. Acquiring those skills was time consuming and expensive. CRF members had to attend a number of special courses and excel in all of them. At the same time after 2011 counter-terrorism technology and tactics changed. There was more use of SOCOM operators for collecting intelligence and letting a missile-armed UAV take care of the direct action. The few CRF type missions were easily taken care of by the two elite direct action units; Delta Force and SEAL Team 6. These included the raids that killed Osama bin Laden and ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Same with hostage rescue and unexpected threats to embassies, where security had been improved since 2001 and other types of emergencies that did not occur as much anymore. As a result, the several hundred CRF personnel will be used to fill key vacancies in Special Forces units.

SOCOM is now concentrating more on traditional (pre-2001) functions which includes training troops of allied nations that are in desperate need of improving their ground forces. That was one task SOCOM has been dealing with since its beginning. One of the World War II organizations SOCOM evolved from was OSS (Office of Special Services) which, among other things, provided needed training and support for resistance units in enemy (German and Japanese) territory. Many countries are still threatened by Islamic terrorists, drug gangs and Chinese aggression and want to quickly upgrade their ability to deal with this. SOCOM has always had the ability to do that and the demand is stronger than ever.

SOCOM has greatly expanded since 2001 and evolved considerably. After 2001 SOCOM personnel strength has increased from 42,000 to 67,000. The budget went from $3.1 billion to nearly twelve billion dollars a year with plans to increase that to $16 billion. SOCOM personnel were 1.9 percent of Department of Defense personnel in 2001 and are now nearly three percent. But when you factor in the additional support and personnel involved, SOCOM is getting the use of over five percent of Department of Defense personnel. Spending on SOCOM is actually higher if you take into account additional spending on American special operations not part of the SOCOM budget. This non-SOCOM spending on SOCOM operations varies but in some years goes as high as $8 billion a year. The reason for this is that other services were always obliged to provide SOCOM with things like supplies, transportation, artillery and air support when SOCOM is carrying out a mission that aids the regular forces, or simply because SOCOM needs the extra help to get the job done.

One of the more telling statistics is the average number of SOCOM deployed on operations. In 2001 (before September 11) is was 2,900. By 2014 it was 7,200. So while overall SOCOM personnel has increased 48 percent the number of operators overseas has gone up three times as much. This has made it more difficult to keep the fighters (“operators”) in uniform since more frequent trips to combat zones make married life difficult and increase the likelihood of stress-related problems. At the same time, the greater number of SOCOM operators out there in combat means SOCOM more frequently must call on non-SOCOM units for support. While SOCOM does have its own support troops, SOCOM cannot afford to maintain such support forces for the high intensity of operations in wartime. Since 2001 the fighting has been the sort that SOCOM does best at and that is why SOCOM is so much in demand and non-SOCOM army, air force, navy and marine units are willing to help out. This is often because the supporting organization called on SOCOM to provide specialized troops to deal with a local situation. Thus while SOCOM strength has increased the need for the kind of people the CRFs had is even greater. So is the need to provide SOCOM operators with more “dwell time” at home with families or just away from a combat zone. While back in their American home bases the SOCOM personnel also have the opportunity to acquire new skills and help train new operators. It is also important to keep teams (the twelve-man ODAs or “A-Teams”) together and all this is easier to achieve it you don’t have chronic personnel shortages.

 


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