May 22, 2009: In the U.S. Army, battalion and company commanders know that what makes their units work real well are a small percentage of their troops who are, well, really good, dependable and able to take care of things. Thus the commanders dread the annual visit by the SOCOM (Special Operations Command) recruiters. SOCOM has teams of recruiters that constantly make the rounds, hitting just about every army base once a year, looking for good people for their Special Forces, civil affairs, psychological operations, explosive ordnance disposal, aviation and ranger units. SOCOM only wants the best people, just the ones that your average unit commander does not want to lose. But the SOCOM recruiters not only interview troops who have already made it known that they are interested, they also hold a "jobs fair", where they try to entice the more casually interested. Commanders cannot stop SOCOM from recruiting anyone willing to go. Almost all of SOCOMs troops come from those who are already on active duty or in the reserves.
The most heavily used troops in the war on terror are those of SOCOM. 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.
SOCOM is still a small force (50,000 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.
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.
Each of the five active duty Special Forces groups has three battalions (about 1200 troops altogether), and they are getting another battalion. 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.
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.