Trained to fight behind the scenes-in tropical jungles, arid deserts and arctic
oceans-U.S. special operations forces often are called upon to diffuse crises
quietly and expeditiously.
But as the United States becomes increasingly involved in non-conventional
warfare and low-intensity military operations, it is likely that special operations
units will take on a much more visible role in the next century, officials said.
About 30 so-called low-intensity conflicts are ongoing throughout the world,
according to a Defense Department study.
Emerging threats to this nation's security, predict Pentagon planners, will
challenge military leaders to introduce into the conventional forces many of
the combat skills that so far have been unique to the special operations units.
These lite troops currently include 47,000 soldiers, aviators, and naval
specialists who train and operate under the umbrella of the U.S. Special Operations
Command (SOCOM) in Tampa, Florida.
The Army branch of SOCOM is headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; the
Navy's in Coronado, California; and the Air Force special operations forces
are based at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
Much like the conventional military services, special operations forces have
seen their rate of deployment skyrocket during the past decade. Since 1991,
that pace, or "optempo," has jumped threefold, said Rear Adm. Ralph
E. Suggs, USN, deputy commander in chief of U.S. SOCOM.
Suggs addressed the recent Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Symposium
in Arlington, Virginia, sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association.
The troops, he stressed, are "maxed-out." About one-third of SOCOM forces
are from the National Guard and Reserves.
In addition to combat assignments worldwide, SOCOM units conduct peacekeeping
actions, humanitarian assistance such as demining operations, counterterrorism,
drug-interdiction and monitoring of enemy arsenals.
Special operations forces, essentially, are charged with "numerous challenges
that are not easily overcome through traditional military means," said
Raymond Dominguez, deputy assistant defense secretary, forces and resources
for special operations. He cited duties ranging from preventing the proliferation
and use of weapons of mass destruction, averting attacks against critical U.S.
infrastructure, enhancing international stability and combating international
Dominguez boasted that "key leaders within the Pentagon are increasingly
cognizant of the important capabilities special operations forces have to meet
and overcome these challenges."
High praise from the Pentagon notwithstanding, U.S. SOCOM is falling short
financially in a number of areas, Dominguez said. "This era of tight fiscal
constraints has been a formidable obstacle, preventing [U.S. SOCOM] from doing
all the things it would like to do to maintain and modernize itself.
"We've fallen about $300 million to $500 million a year short for research,
development and modernization," he said.
During the next six years, SOCOM will receive about 1.3 percent of the Pentagon's
budget. Funding for special operations forces is expected to grow from $3.5
billion in Fiscal Year 1999 to nearly $4 billion in 2005.
The increase, however, "is not going to get us out of this [modernization]
dilemma," said Dominguez, because the funding boost is earmarked for salaries
and operational expenses.
SOCOM officials are not hopeful about the chances of getting the additional
$300 million to $500 million for technology and new equipment. Given the current
budget, said Dominguez, "I am fairly comfortable in predicting that special
operations forces will continue to have unfunded requirements of at least this
magnitude for the foreseeable future."
This fiscal year, about 20 percent of SOCOM's budget, or $650 million, will
be spent on research and new equipment purchases.
Much of the funding is devoted to the command's "flagship programs,"
explained Harry E. Schulte, SOCOM's acquisition executive. These programs are
the CV-22 tiltrotor aircraft, the advanced SEAL delivery system and a submarine
The CV-22 is a special operations variant of the Marine Corps' MV-22 aircraft-which
can take off and land like a helicopter but flies like a turboprop plane. The
CV model is designed to facilitate long-range insertions and extraction missions.
It has a third seat in the cockpit for a flight engineer and 900-gallon internal
fuel tanks that double the MV-22's fuel carrying capacity. It also features
a multimode terrain avoidance/terrain following radar and enhanced electronic
SOCOM plans to buy 50 aircraft from prime contractors Bell Helicopter and Boeing,
based in Philadelphia. Deployment begins in 2004.
By 2005, the command will have invested nearly $800 million in CV-22. That
funding only pays for the modifications to the Marine Corps' version.
The 50 tiltrotors will replace 89 rotary and fixed-wing aircraft-a combination
of MH53J and MH60K helicopters and C-130 planes, explained Brig. Gen. Ed LaFontaine,
USAF, vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).
The average age of AFSOC aircraft is 30, he said.
LaFontaine said aviators at the command are anxious to have CV-22s in the fleet.
Compared to the MH-53s and the C-130s, he said, the tiltrotor is "way ahead
in capability." He conceded, however, that there are still some aspects
of the aircraft that need further improvement, but "we can't get there
The advanced SEAL delivery system (ASDS) is a battery-powered, clandestine mini-submarine
designed to transport Navy sea-air-land (SEAL) forces in and out of the battle
zone. The idea is to be able to move SEALs in a dry, warm environment. The system's
prime contractor is Northrop Grumman, Annapolis, Maryland. A company spokeswoman
declined to comment on this program.
Under SOCOM's third major modernization project, the command will take advantage
of a Navy program to upgrade Trident submarines to meet SEAL-unique demands.
Schulte explained the boomers offer significant advantages to commandos because
they can carry up to 102 SEALs. The Tridents, which are being retired from their
nuclear mission, still have about 20 years of operational life left. The converted
subs will offer precision fire and land attack capabilities with up to 154 strike
Between 2000 and 2006, SOCOM will invest $519 million to convert four submarines.
Two will be operational in 2003 and the other two in 2004.
But, although the submarines "would be a great asset for SOCOM and the
commander-in-chief would very much like to see it happen, the Trident conversion
program is still a Navy program," said SOCOM spokeswoman Edie Rosenthal
in response to written questions from National Defense.
The submarines will be launching platforms for SEAL delivery vehicles such
"Converted boomers are the answer if you don't want to be detected,"
said David Murphy, a military expert based in Vienna, Virginia. These platforms
are among the quietest currently in existence, he said in an interview. That
is clearly an advantage in covert missions that SEALs likely will conduct, such
as tracking the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Even though the Trident will be configured to host more than one hundred SEALs,
said Murphy, it would be unusual to send that many of them, at one time, in
Capt. John McTighe, USN, chief of staff at the Navy Special Warfare Command,
said SEALs expect to see increasing involvement worldwide because they are the
most capable force for water-based clandestine operations.
"When a rogue state such as North Korea wants to transport weapons of
mass destruction to Iraq or Iran, chances are high they will go by sea,"
said McTighe. "That's where we think we provide the most important capability,"
giving U.S. officials valuable intelligence.
He noted, however, that one of the most daunting challenges for SEALs is surviving
in frigid water environments. That is because they do not have adequate garments.
"We need an active thermal protection suit. It's hard to believe but we
don't have one," said McTigue.
SEALs also are seeking improved stealth technology for their suits so they
can move furtively in areas close to the enemy.
Another item on their wish-list is a portable communications suite "that
can be worn as a belt, covering the whole spectrum of communications,"
Special operations forces in the field expect to receive new gear later this
year under a modernization program called SPEAR, or special operations forces
equipment advanced requirements. SOCOM is investing about $11 million through
Fiscal Year 2000 on more than 10,000 SPEAR systems, said John Harrison, who
manages the project at the Army Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg. The
equipment will be shared by all special operations branches, he said in an interview.
Recent enhancements to the program include body armor and load carriage. The
improved body armor protects against fragmentation from handgun and rifle rounds.
It has a soft armor vest, front and back interchangeable armor plates, and modular
neck and groin protection. A new backpack allows troops to carry up to 120 pounds.
Officials at the conference, meanwhile, readily agreed that air mobility is
a top priority for future SOCOM investments.
LaFontaine outlined plans to build new generations of aircraft. The follow-on
to the AC-130 gunship is called ACX, a future MC-130 Combat Talon is known as
MCX, and an ECX would be the next generation to the EC-130 Command Solo broadcast
aircraft used for psychological warfare.
Details are sketchy, however, as to how SOCOM will develop and acquire these
new systems. AFSOC's chief of plans and strategy, Lt. Col. Dan Baradon, said
the EC-130, for example, has "significant limitations" and the command
may consider a commercial platform for the future.
Emerging requirements notwithstanding, experts said, it is clear that SOCOM
will face an uphill battle to get funding for new platforms.
Tim Davidson, a former AFSOC official and now a consultant in Potomac, Maryland,
said in an interview that buying new aircraft in the current budgetary environment
is almost impossible.
"With other Air Force procurement priorities such as the F-22 [air superiority
fighter] and the joint strike fighter, who's going to be able to afford three
new aircraft for special operations forces?" he said.
He suggested SOCOM work with a common airframe that can be tailored for various
functions and to make the procurement of these aircraft part of a large Air
Force acquisition project-in order to secure funding.