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Special Operations: Too Few People For Too Many Jobs
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October 29, 2008: The most heavily used troops in the war on terror are, no surprise, those of SOCOM (Special Operations Command). 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.

While SOCOM has about 5,000 more personnel than it did on September 11, 2001, it is still a small force (less than 50,000 troops). Most of the personnel in SOCOM are providing support for the 10,000 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 plan calls for finding and training an addition 3,000 Special Forces and SEALs. In the meantime, retaining existing personnel is becoming a problem. SOCOM won't provide numbers, but does admit that some of their operators are being lured away by better paying civilian, or even government, jobs. There are also fewer SOCOM personnel staying in past twenty years, when service personnel become eligible for retirement at half pay. The army is considering invoking a little used regulation that can force troops to serve for 30 years before retirement (at 75 percent pay.) Before September 11, 2001, SOCOM was able to keep nearly half of its operators past the twenty year mark. But that is now falling below 40 percent. There's also a decline in the number of men who, after being in 8-12 years, have to decide whether to get out, or make a career of it and go for at least twenty years.

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.

Each of the five active duty Special Forces groups has three battalions (about 1200 troops altogether), and they are supposed to get another battalion over the next five years. 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.

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jak267       10/29/2008 6:43:30 AM
Well I have a friend who was an experienced Air Force SOF Afghan combat vet who transferred to the Army because he wanted to become a Green Beret. They stop-lossed him from entering the selection program and made him an infantry grunt (in what was formerly an artillery unit) in Afghanistan.
 
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cwDeici       10/30/2008 2:01:37 AM
Sounds like a combination of bad beurocracy and a desperate need for troops.
 
I think these branches are part of the military that Obama won't decrease... he's expressed a wish to go fight in FATA after all. I hope he does so, properly. It'll be hilarious to watch him play at being a war president in his own war. Bet he'll constantly blame Bush for 'not doing the job properly the first time' so he can't help it.
 
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cwDeici       10/30/2008 2:03:21 AM
Obviously there should be some sort of free transferral for people who want to essentially 'upgrade' their servic, even if the army would lose that person's service over a few years.
 
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cwDeici       10/30/2008 2:10:15 AM
(Not that this person was technically in the army of course. I'm surprised stop-loss can have one transferred to another branch...)
 
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cwDeici       10/30/2008 2:14:27 AM
Especially someone with special skills like that should at least be recycled back into his service. I can understand sending sailors ashore to take grunt jobs, but this seems quite different. Maybe, if there isn't, there should be some sort of oversight committe?
 
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WarNerd       10/30/2008 6:01:36 AM

I think these branches are part of the military that Obama won't decrease... he's expressed a wish to go fight in FATA after all. I hope he does so, properly. It'll be hilarious to watch him play at being a war president in his own war. Bet he'll constantly blame Bush for 'not doing the job properly the first time' so he can't help it.


 It'll only be hilarious if neither you, nor anyone you know or will know, is in it.
 
It will be a war run by politics, not strategy, so expect it to be long, bloody, and inconclusive.
 
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ker       11/4/2008 5:35:06 PM
Speaking of politics there may be another set of jobs laid on SFs.  When politicians want to "do something" with out doing something they can use the SF.  It lets to pol have it both ways.  When they talk to anti-war types they can claim the number of troops is very small, law enforcement scale activity.  When the talk to people who want results they can play up how they are using very effective forces.  That double mindedness isn't good in the long run but it can get the politician through a few press cycles in good shape. 
 
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