November 17, 2010: The U.S. Army's effort to recruit another 2,300 operators (as members of the Special Forces are called) has been a hard slog. Qualified candidates are out there, but it's hard to convince them to endure the additional effort, stress and danger to become a Special Forces operator. Even with higher pay ($10,000 or more additional a year) and high reenlistment bonuses (about $10,000 more a year), it's hard to find the men who can meet the high standards, and are willing to put up with the large amount of time spent overseas.
Recruiting and training more operators is a time consuming process, as it takes about three years to get a Special Forces recruit up to a basic level of competence. It takes another few years in the field before such men are ready for anything serious. At least half of those recruited, are lost (quit, wash out) before they reach their full capability. Recruiting to expand the number of operators began right after September 11, 2001. Soon, SOCOM (Special Operations command) 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 lose them to resignations, retirement or, rarely, combat fatigue. It's not just the equipment that is being worn out.
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 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. While other nations have some operators skilled in understanding foreign cultures, 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 the past fifty years is that lowering standards just increases the chances of failure, and getting your people killed.
Earlier this year, a new Special Forces battalion (300 troops) was created for the 10th Special Forces Group. This is part of an expansion. Each of the five Special Forces Groups will receive a fourth battalion. Two other groups have already begun organizing their new battalion. The 3rd and 5th Groups have been doing most of the work in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are getting additional battalions first. The other Groups have also sent many of their A Teams to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the 5th Group is the one that was trained for that region, and has the lead responsibility.
In addition to more Special Forces battalions, and 400 more troops for the U.S. Marine Corps special operations forces, another battalion is being added to the army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Although SOCOM has been trying to expand since September 11, 2001, it has been very difficult getting the high quality recruits needed for the elite units (Special Forces, Rangers, Seals, commandos in general). Existing operators in these units were very opposed to lowering standards, so some innovative screening methods and recruiting methods had to be developed to get the qualified people needed.
By 2013, the Special Forces will have 300 ODAs (Operational Detachment A, or ¬ďA Teams), compared to the 180 they had on September 11, 2001. The army would like to add a battalion to the two reserve Special Forces Groups (the 19th and 20th), which would increase the number of A Teams to 420, but money has not yet been provided for that.
In the past two years, SOCOM has been shifting forces from Iraq (where it had 5,500 personnel two years ago) to Afghanistan (where it had 3,000 troops two years ago). The ratio is being reversed. Most American allies have moved all their commando forces from Iraq to Afghanistan, where they not only do what they were trained for, but also train Afghans for special operations tasks. This has already been done in Iraq, where it worked quite well. The SOCOM troops in Iraq and Afghanistan account for about 80 percent of American special operations forces overseas. The rest are in places like Colombia, the Philippines and Djibouti (adjacent to Somalia).