2008: The most heavily used troops in
the war on terror are, no surprise, those of SOCOM (Special Operations
Command). 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
has about 5,000 more personnel than it did on September 11, 2001, it is still a
small force (less than 50,000 troops). Most of the personnel in SOCOM are providing support for the 10,000
operators (Special Forces, SEALs, commandos. Rangers and other specialists) who
are constantly overseas chasing down terrorists.
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.
calls for finding and training an addition 3,000 Special Forces and SEALs. In
the meantime, retaining existing personnel is becoming a problem. SOCOM won't
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. There's 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.
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.
Each of the
five active duty Special Forces groups has three battalions (about 1200 troops
altogether), and they are supposed to get another battalion over the next five
years. 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.
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.
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.
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.