Especially since September 11, 2001 American marines and soldiers have frequently found themselves working in close proximity and often in close cooperation with SOCOM (Special Operations Command) forces. SOCOM controls the army Special Forces and Rangers as well as the navy Seals plus some marine special operations units. Normally these SOF (Special Operations Forces) troops operate on their own. But in the last decade they have increasingly found it more effective to work closely with non-SOCOM troops. In part this was because entering the 21st century the army combat troops were at a higher level of readiness for combat than at any other time in American history. In short the SOCOM troops found they could rely on soldiers and marines to perform at a high enough level to work effectively with SOCOM “operators.” Now the army and marines are increasingly training for situations that would include SOCOM forces and sometimes have SOF troops actually participating in exercises with regular army or marine forces.
This is the result of two decades of slow progress towards that kind of close cooperation. This was not what special operations forces were designed for and for many decades senior army leaders were somewhat hostile to SOF, especially Special Forces. Most Americans tend to forget that the U.S. Army Special Forces are a unique organization in military, and intelligence, history. No other nation has anything like the Special Forces, and never had. 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 train to dealing with. But because of decades of operating independently, the Special Forces troops tended to operate on their own, with infrequent collaboration with regular army (or marine) troops. Many in the Special Forces and regular forces have long urged that there be more operations featuring closer cooperation and coordination between Special Forces and the more traditional combat troops. That’s what happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and a growing number of other places. One advantage the Special Forces have in this sort of thing is that nearly all Special Forces troops came from the army infantry and never forget it. Once the SOF and regular troops are allowed to operate together, they get along just fine.
Another advantage of close cooperation is that SOCOM can afford to buy new technology before anyone else and use it in combat. Over the last decade the regular forces have learned much about what new tech can do in combat because SOF (Special Operations Forces) have used it first and shared their experiences. The new tech or tactics (especially using satellite communications, smart bombs, and new database and analysis software) then quickly migrates to the regular troops. Because of these new tools everyone became 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 regular troops have adopted this as well and for the same reasons.
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 and 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.
The army and marines know that same quality rules apply to them and now get the money and attention they need to improve troop and equipment quality and then demonstrate greater effectiveness as a result. The regular forces have a new found attachment to the same quality rules that SOF has long used. SOCOM has also shown the better training, equipment and selection of personnel means getting the job done more quickly with fewer casualties. 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 for SOCOM 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.