Special Operations: Cash Rich, People Poor


July 3, 2007: Since 2001, the SOCOM (the American Special Operations Command) has gotten a lot more money (the annual budget went from $2.6 billion to $7 billion), but not a lot more people. On September 11, 2001, SOCOM had 46,000 personnel. Now it has 59,000. It's people that do the most important work at SOCOM. While an increase of 28 percent in personnel looks impressive, the number of "operators" (the commandos and other folks who do the deeds) have only increased by less than ten percent. SOCOM is reluctant to release precise numbers, but it is known that SOCOM has had recruiting and retention (keeping people they already have) problems.

In normal times, there is a lot of training and some traveling overseas. Actual operations were few. Now, there is still a lot of training, but lots more traveling and many more dangerous operations. Commando casualties are still very low, but the workload causes stress, especially for married commandoes. The appeal of a higher paying civilian job, that includes more time at home, is sometimes hard to resist. While losses to civilian security firms has not been high, every one hurts a lot. It takes about five years to train someone to be a first class operator. And these guys get better with age

The U.S. Army Special Forces, the most effective troops in the war on terror, are having lots of problems increasing their strength. The operators, Special Forces troops qualified to go out into the field and deal with terrorists, or any other situation, are not numerous. Five years ago, there were 3,850 of them. Special Forces training schools turned out about 350 new ones each year. Soon after September 11, 2001, it was decided to double the number of operators, but in three years, the number has only increased to about 4,000. The Special Forces schools are turning out 620 new operators a year. The major cause for the inability to increase the number of Special Forces is not casualties. Losses from death and disability have been less than a hundred. Most of the losses have been from experienced operators retiring (if they have at least 20 years of service), or just quitting (if not) to take better paying civilian jobs. SOCOM has been offering re-enlistment bonuses of up to $150,000. In addition, SOCOM is paying more attention to family situations. Most SOCOM operators are married. Although the wives and kids know daddy has to be away a lot, too much time in the field leads to problems on the home front.

But perhaps the biggest problem is making senior decisions makers (military and civilian) understand just how hard the operators are working. These guys, and a few gals, are out in the field a lot, and often under stressful and demanding conditions. The worst part of all this is that nearly all those operations have to be kept secret. You do not want the enemy knowing too much about how your operators do their work. But that means the American people, and leaders, don't know much about what the operators do either. This causes problems. The most dangerous one is the call for the recruiting problem to be "solved" by lowering recruiting standards. This seems like a perfectly reasonable solution. So far, SOCOM, both the operators and the leadership, have managed to prevent this. The operators know that many of their operations are near-disasters. Lose a little bit of that talent and training edge, and those near-disasters become real ones. And good people, as well as the not-quite-as-good ones you were forced to recruit, get killed.

The basic problem is that, out of a population of 300 million, you only get so many operators that can function at an acceptable level. Some people in SOCOM see their biggest recruiting obstacle as fast food and video games. There are a lot of bright people out there who could become operators, but are too out-of-shape physically. It's not enough to be smart, you have to be quick, and possess the stamina to keep going when needed.

At the moment, SOCOM is trying to come up with new ideas, to get more qualified people out of the recruiting pool they already have. New selection methods and improved training techniques are promising areas. In the end, however, there is no easy or quick solution.


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