Special Operations: July 29, 2004


The war on terror is, without many knowing it, largely a special operations war, and there aren't enough highly trained and experienced special operations people to keep the effort going. The 45,000 personnel in SOCOM (Special Operations Command) are mostly providing support for the 10,000 operators (Special Forces, SEALs, commandos. Rangers and other specialists) who are constantly overseas chasing down terrorists. Over two thirds of the operators are currently working in Afghanistan and Iraq (and nearby areas.) 

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. Recruiting to expand the number of operators began right after September 11, 2001. The plan calls for finding and training an addition 3,000 Special Forces and SEALs over the next seven years. In the meantime, retaining existing personnel is becoming a problem. SOCOM wont 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. Theres 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 isnt 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 youll love them to resignations, retirement or, rarely, combat fatigue. 

SOCOM is trying to share some of the workload with the CIA, which has expanded its own force of paramilitary field operatives. The CIA wont say how many of these it has, but the number could be several thousand at this point. The CIA has long recruited its field operatives from among SOCOM, and other military, retirees. Some were brought in directly from civilian life, and trained by the CIA. While the CIA and SOCOM sometimes work at cross purposes, there is also a fifty year old tradition of the Special Forces and the CIA cooperating. SOCOM is also now using some of its operators for espionage work, overlapping on turf previously controlled by the CIA. But the agency isnt complaining, because they need all the help they can get to avoid being tagged as ineffective at getting leads on terrorist organizations. After the war on terror is over, which may be a decade in the future, the CIA may complain about the competition. But not now. At the moment, SOCOM and the CIA are mainly concerned about holding on to the people they have, and recruiting more of them. 


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