Over the last decade much has been learned about what SOF (Special Operations Forces) are capable of using new technology (especially satellite communications, smart bombs, and new database and analysis software). Because of these new tools SOF forces have proved to be much more effective than in the past. Once (and often still) thought of as rugged commandos ready to undertake high risk combat missions, SOF has shown itself to be more useful by being able to quickly find out what is really happening in a hot spot and then rapidly coming up with and applying a solution that requires minimal violence. This does not please creators of adventure novels, movies, or TV shows. But it’s a lot cheaper (in lives and cash) than the high decibel solution SOF has always considered a last resort.
The SOF community has also managed to convince more of their military and political superiors in the Pentagon and Congress that SOF works only if you follow the rules. These include guidelines you have to follow if you want your SOF forces to succeed. The most crucial rule is that quality is more important than quantity. This applies to people and equipment but the people are key, not high tech gear. Good SOF operators (the highly trained Special Forces, SEALs, Rangers, marines, and air force specialists) can get a lot done with low-tech tools but low quality SOF personnel will fail even with the best tech available. Thus you must accept the fact that it takes years to select, train, and season (on actual operations) a fully qualified SOF operator. Thus any crises that shows up today has to be handled with whatever SOF people you have right now. And you have to be careful about losses, because new SOF operators will take 3-5 years to find and train. On the plus side, many of the support personnel for SOF units (intelligence, communications, transportation) do not take as long to mobilize and many of these services can be obtained from commercial suppliers. In short, SOF operators are a long-term investment that must be used carefully because losses take years to replace.
To put it into perspective, consider that the United States only has about 12,000 operators and that is the largest such force on the planet. In Afghanistan and Iraq SOF troops made an enormous contribution to whatever successes were achieved. The common attitude in the SOF community is that in Iraq and Afghanistan SOF accounted for about 5 percent of the personnel in action, consumed about 5 percent of the money spent on those wars but were responsible for over 50 percent of the successes. Most military commanders were well aware of this and were always asking for more SOF, but there was never enough to meet the demand.
Naturally, since 2001, SOCOM has gotten a lot more money. Annual SOCOM spending has gone from $2.3 billion in 2001 to over $10 billion. But while spending has quadrupled, personnel strength has only doubled, to a current strength of 60,000 troops. This includes many support specialists, as well as the Special Forces, Rangers, SEALs, Marine Corps, and Air Force operators. Most of these commando type troops are overseas, mainly in Afghanistan. Sounds good, doesn't it? Unfortunately there's a major downside: burnout. While most of the increased money has gone to buying better equipment, replacing worn out stuff, and providing better training, getting new people has been much more difficult.
Not surprisingly, 60 percent of SOCOM's 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 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 does not work well. The U.S. Army's effort to recruit another 2,300 operators (as members of the Special Forces are called) was 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.
Casualties are less of an issue than you might think for such dangerous work. SOCOM casualties are actually lower than in infantry or marine units. While SOCOM operators comprise about ten percent of all combat troops, they have only suffered six percent of the combat deaths and four percent of the wounded. The big issue has always been overwork. Combat operations wear troops out. Elite men like SOCOM operators can handle more stress 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 than 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 deal with. But now that this unique kind of war is under way, we find that those soldiers uniquely suited to fight 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.
Meanwhile, the SOCOM program to expand its Special Forces units has slogged forward. By 2013 the Special Forces has three-hundred ODAs (Operational Detachment A or “A" Teams), compared to the one-hundred and eighty they had on September 11, 2001. The army would like to add more ODAs to the two reserve Special Forces Groups (the 19th and 20th), which would increase the number of A Teams to four-hundred and twenty, but it is unclear if such an effort would be possible.
Since 2009, SOCOM has been shifting forces from Iraq (where it had 5,500 personnel in 2008) to Afghanistan (where it had 3,000 troops in 2008). By 2011 the ratio was reversed, with 7,000 in Afghanistan and under 3,000 in Iraq. Now there are no SOCOM troops in Iraq and over 8,000 in Afghanistan. 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 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).
SOCOM personnel are still in big demand overseas. But the United States has to say no more often to the seemingly inexhaustible demands. Otherwise there will be fewer operators (because of retirement and burnout) available.