Special Operations: SOCOM Shrinks And Adapts


June 22, 2024: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is shrinking again and must lose 5,000 personnel over the next five years. Instead of just reorganizing units to include fewer people, SOCOM is retraining its remaining personnel to handle more technology as well as new weapons and equipment. SOCOM is also noting how Ukrainian special operations forces have adapted during more than two years of fighting the Russians.

SOCOM does not have any personnel in Ukraine and the number of active combat zones where SOCOM once operated has diminished. There are no longer SOCOM personnel in Afghanistan and far fewer in Iraq and Syria than in the past.

Most of the reductions are taking place through attrition. As existing SOCOM operators retire or resign, they will not be replaced. Over the last decade SOCOM has greatly reduced its spending on counterterrorism and that alone greatly reduced expenses. More importantly, SOCOM personnel spent less time overseas in combat zones. This was good for morale and necessary so training for new tasks can take place. SOCOM is returning to its traditional (pre-2001) missions that included training foreign special operations forces and developing relationships with military forces and civilians in foreign nations. This often involved working with the CIA and Department of Defense intelligence agencies. The SOCOM personnel spoke the local language and had learned about local customs. SOCOM personnel were often the best source of what was going on in nations where SOCOM was invited in to help with training and organizing forces to carry on the fight if that country was overrun by an enemy. After 2014 this applied to Ukraine and as is customary in such situations, details of SOCOM assistance in Ukraine were not publicized. It was understood that the SOCOM assessment of Ukrainian readiness for a war and willingness to fight the Russians was the most accurate available to NATO nations. SOCOM also passed on assessments of Russian forces in Donbas and the Russian military in general. SOCOM shared and compared assessments of Russian forces. All of this was done quietly, as was customary for this sort of thing since the 1950s when SOCOM did not exist yet. There was just the U.S. Army Special Forces component.

American military personnel were withdrawn from Ukraine after the 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea. Some SOCOM personnel remained nearby, attached to the U.S. embassy staff for a while as the rest moved across the border to Poland and Romania where there were already SOCOM contingents doing what they usually do. Many details of SOCOM activities in Ukraine after 2014 and especially after the Russian 2022 invasion were kept secret. SOCOM wasn’t doing any fighting but were often the best qualified NATO personnel to coordinate American and NATO support for Ukrainian forces fighting the Russians.

SOCOM greatly expanded after 2001 and evolved considerably. After 2001 SOCOM personnel strength increased from 42,000 to 73,000 in 2020. The budget went from $3.1 billion to nearly $13.7 billion dollars a year before declining after 2020. The 2022 budget is $12.6 billion for 70,000 personnel.

Before 2001 SOCOM specialized in training troops of allied nations that needed to improv 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 personnel were 1.9 percent of Department of Defense personnel in 2001 and that rose to nearly three percent by 2020. But when you factor in the additional support and personnel involved, SOCOM was getting the use of over five percent of Department of Defense personnel. Spending on SOCOM is actually higher if you consider additional spending on American special operations are not part of the SOCOM budget. This non-SOCOM spending on SOCOM operations varies but, in some years, went 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, it was 2,900. By 2014 it was 7,200. 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, known as operators, in uniform since more frequent trips to combat zones make married life difficult and increased the incidence 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, which 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. While SOCOM strength has increased, the need for the kind of specialists SOCOM had was 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 the twelve-man ODAs or A-Teams together and all this is easier to achieve if you don’t have chronic personnel shortages.

As part of the conversion to more traditional roles, in 2020 SOCOM 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 (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) 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 were used to fill key vacancies in Special Forces units.

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