February 15, 2011: Since September 11, 2001, SOCOM (Special Operations command) has nearly doubled its size, to a current strength of 60,000 troops. This includes many support specialists, as well as the Special Forces, Rangers, SEALs and Marine Corps and Air Force operators. Currently, 10,000 of these commando type troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sounds good, doesn't it? But there's a major problem brewing; burnout.
Not surprisingly, 60 percent of SOCOMs current troops signed up after September 11, 2001. But an increasing number are leaving the military, despite reenlistment bonuses of up to $150,000. The problem here is overwork. While the number of SOCOM personnel has doubled, the number overseas at any time has quadrupled. Many SOCOM personnel are spending more than half their time overseas, usually in a combat zone. There, Special Forces troops take the lead in intelligence gathering and capturing or killing key terrorists. It's mentally and physically exhausting work. Unlike past wars, these troops can remain in touch with families back home, for better or worse. While it's been a long war, most SOCOM operators realize that it could easily go on for another decade. Thus SOCOM has learned to say "no" more often, otherwise the expansion will go into reverse as many more exhausted operators leave the service.
Trying to recruit replacements is a solution that won't work. 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 (or a SEAL, Ranger, Pararescue Jumper). Even with higher pay ($10,000 or more additional a year) and high reenlistment bonuses (adding 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 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 sixty years is that lowering standards just increases the chances of failure, and getting your people killed.
SOCOM is in the midst of a program to expand its Special Forces units. Over the past two years, three of the five Special Forces Groups received a fourth battalion. The 3rd and 5th Groups have been doing most of the work in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they received the 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 three years ago) to Afghanistan (where it had 3,000 troops three years ago). The ratio is now being reversed, with 6,500 in Afghanistan and 3,500 in Iraq. 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).