Senior officials at the U.S. Special Operations Command are grappling with
a looming force structure crisis. At their current level, special operations
forces can meet today’s demands, but it will be difficult for SOCOM to
sustain the pace, given the rapid growth in their worldwide commitments.
Nearly 20,000 special operators are involved in ongoing conflicts in Iraq (more
than 12,000) and Afghanistan (about 8,000). That is nearly half the entire special
operations force of 47,000.
Special operations forces can’t be mass-produced on short notice, said
Army Lt. Gen. Bryan Brown, SOCOM’s deputy commander. “The worst
thing we can do right now is to try to add a bunch of people. We have a thoughtful
system that has proven itself. We need to increase our recruiting and the troops.”
People cannot simply be assigned as special operators and be rushed through
the training process, he emphasized. It takes at least two years to train a
member of the Army’s Special Forces, for example. According to a SOCOM
spokesperson, the Army is continuing to recruit and train Green Berets even
during the escalating operation tempo.
SOCOM is not structured to meet the growing demands of the war on terrorism,
said Marshall Billingslea, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for
special operations and low-intensity conflict.
Despite funding increases, “we are going to fight the war on terrorism
with the resources that we have today for the next year,” he said. In
fiscal year 2004, SOCOM received a $1.5 billion budget boost, which brings the
command’s annual budget to $6.7 billion.
“There is a level of activity going on a daily basis, which only gets
noticed in a crisis,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. William Tangney, former
deputy commander of SOCOM. A large portion of SOF troops generally are committed
on a daily basis in support of the regional commanders.
In the case of the Army’s Green Berets, for example, before the conflict
in Afghanistan started, a couple of hundred operators were deployed to South
America to fight the war on drugs. The Seventh Special Forces Group deals with
South America. The First Special Forces Group was deployed to countries in East
Asia, while the 10th Group was assigned to support U.S. European Command, with
operators working in places like Bosnia and Kosovo. The Fifth Group focused
on the Middle East, while the Third Group has responsibilities in Africa.
Special operations units are heavily involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq
on a larger scale, “but they are still to be able to deal with their contingencies”
in other parts of the world as well, said a SOCOM spokesperson.
“Afghanistan spiced-up the op tempo, and now with Iraq is a lot higher,
plus, at the same time, you have the commitments around the world, even though
they have been reduced,” Tangney said. The operational tempo for special
operations started to grow after the Gulf War in 1991, he said.
“Ever since 1991, the op tempo has been fairly high, but manageable,”
he said. It increased even more a few years later with the conflicts in Bosnia
and Kosovo, he said. However, he said, that was still manageable.
In the Afghani war, “we were able to execute those months of conflict
without overly stretching the force,” he added. But with the fighting
in Iraq, coming so shortly after Afghanistan, “they stretched out,”
“With the size of the force that you have today, especially in the Army,
you are not going to be able to create another Special Forces group,”
Tangney said. But he noted that SOCOM has a larger force today than it had in
1991, even though the conventional services downsized dramatically.
When the Air Force went from 22 fighter wing equivalents to 13 fighter wing
equivalents, the size of the Air Force special ops increased, with the addition
of the MC-130H Combat Talon aircraft and the AC-130U gunships, said Tangney.
“There was a fair amount of growth when everybody was decreasing,”
Currently, the Navy Special Warfare Center is planning to increase the SEAL
teams from eight to 10. “We want to grow more SEAL teams into a crisis
response force, which will increase our ability to react,” said Capt.
Randy Goodman, from the Naval Special Warfare Command.
It takes about three years from the time a SEAL is selected into the program
until he is combat ready, said Cmdr. Ryan Zinke.
Ideally, the Navy would like to recruit about 250 SEALs a year, but right now
the service is falling short, with only 200 a year. The Navy selects operators
from a pool of 900 applicants out of which roughly 150 do not make it through
the first day of training, said Zinke. It costs about $800,000 to train one
SEAL in his first year.
He said that the Navy is competing with corporate America for the same people.
“Even though our retention is great among the special operations level,
it is still not at the level where we could sustain it,” Zinke said.
According to Zinke, the SEAL force structure is so small that NSW cannot find
enough SEALs to train the incoming freshmen and the rest of the SEALs. NSW is
looking at participating in the Army’s airborne trooper program and plans
to contract out some of the communications courses, as well as some of the shooting
One area of special operations that is hurting for both people and better technology
is the psychological operations, or PSYOPS units.
“The world has evolved greatly since the creation of PSYOPS,” Billingslea
said. “We are going to capitalize on the revolution in communications
technology that has happened and yet in some way passed us [PSYOPS] by today.
We are going to focus on things such as bandwidth, satellites, satellite radios,
unmanned aircraft, digital media, to upgrade our PSYOPS capability to increase
our reach and our ability to message into denied areas.”
Brown said that SOCOM intends to grow the psychological operations force and
“will increase our planning, our coordination capability and increase
command power to our geographic combatant commanders.”
SOCOM will be restructured and will take on a new leadership position, said
Billingslea. “We will move from a supporting commander role to one of
the supported commander roles for specific missions,” said Brown. “Since
its inception, SOCOM has always had such authority but was seldom executed.
Now it needs to do it more.”
Continuous regional presence and sustained operations in various theaters is
going to require additional combat and service support to SOF from the conventional
services, said Billingslea. “We are going to need conventional forces
to step in and [...] pick up certain missions that are not SOF unique missions
necessarily,” such as combat search and rescue and civilian evacuations.
Regional commanders are relying on the SOF troops to do such missions, “because
of the competence attached to their abilities.”
Regional combat commanders will also no longer be able to own SOF units assigned
to their area of operations. “Assets needed one day in one country are
going to be needed somewhere far the next day,” said Billingslea. “We
are going to change how SOF organize and execute their missions.”
He explained that the conventional services will have to provide more weapons
platforms and logistics support. “They have already done so,” he
acknowledged. “But we are going to be calling on them again.”
Brown explained that extended SOF missions mean that a new type of combatant
command headquarters will be needed. “The traditional trained organizations
and the equipped missions that we have done so well in the past will be joined
with a capability to execute the war against terrorism. We have established
a 24/7 joint operation center available to the CINCs and special operation centers
[of] command,” said Brown.
SOF units will be needed for missions such as special reconnaissance, information
operations and extended logistics. Improved reconnaissance capacities could
come from unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as unmanned underwater vehicles,
said Billingslea. More technicians and analysts are also needed to analyze and
interpret data, he added.
Extended logistics are under review right now, said Billingslea, because fighting
war on terror is placing an additional burden on the support systems that were
designed to react only in episodic deployments, in conjunction with conventional
forces. “SOCOM has a modest organic command and control and logistics
structure to enable SOF to conduct short duration contingency operations,”
Improving airlift capabilities is a top priority. The war in Afghanistan has
left the special operators’ community with aircraft shortages, particularly
MH-47 Chinook helicopters.
During the conflict, 11 MH-47s were damaged and two were totally destroyed,
said Brown. “Today, we can’t meet all the requirements we have with
this helicopter.” He said the increase in the SOCOM budget is going to
help replace those aircraft.
The C-130 fleet is also overtaxed, said Brown. “Resources are being made
available to quickly provide Air Force Special Operations Command with the additional
aircraft.” Four C-130s are going to be converted into AC-130 gunships,
one of the most popular platforms among special operators.
The new gunships will “include enhanced survivability assets, such as
directional infrared countermeasures, decoy and jammers,” said Brown.
“We are also looking at a single barrel 30-mm cannon to replace the 25-mm.”
Production for the MC-130 air refueling system has been accelerated to have
24 systems by the end of 2005, Brown noted.
Command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies,
meanwhile, need serious improvement, said Brig. Gen. (Select) Bruce Burda, the
vice- commander of AFSOC.
He said that the Air Force continues to work with stove-piped functions and
over-classification. That has resulted in incidents of fratricide and a “few
“Integration/deconfliction needs to be an area we need to improve on,”
he said. “Part of it is an education and training issue with our personnel,
[for] them to understand the conops [concepts of operation] better.”
He emphasized that the Air Force operators need to get a continuing flow of
information and “share the fratricide incidents with the force to make
sure that they know what happened and that it does not happen again.”
According to Brown, SOCOM is developing new technology for ground operators
to acquire precision locator data for the use and targeting of GPS satellite-guided
and laser-guided munitions.
“It’s got to be small, lightweight,” he said. “The
PTLD [Precision Target Locator Designator program] has envisioned such a device,
but we are not there yet.” The device needs to be able to transfer the
information directly to the overhead platforms, “so that we can eliminate
the problem of fratricide.”
The use of tactical UAVs in conjunction with other systems enhances reconnaissance
and helps with the positive identification of targets, said Burda.
UAV video feeds were made available to the AC-130 gunship during the war in
Afghanistan. Burda said that AFSOC “acquired the ability to integrate
UAVs into terminal attack control operations.”
Brown said he would like to be able to transfer UAV data directly into aircraft
platforms at all times. Real-time video and the ability to reach back to overhead
platforms and UAVs should be available to Special Forces and SEALs at “the
farthest end of the earth, without requiring to carry a myriad of computers
Navy Special Warfare is working to develop UAV programs for situational awareness,
NSW is also working with the surface Navy on futuristic programs, such as the
Littoral Combat Ship and the DDX land-attack destroyer. “They are building
these ships with the employment of SEALs and special operations as a big part
of the program,” he said.
The Advanced Seal Delivery Vehicle (ASDS) will achieve operational capability
this summer, after significant schedule delays and cost overruns, according
to Brown. NSW also developed a $5.5 million simulator for the ASDS. The ASDS
is a mini-submersible that transports SEALs from submarines to the shore.
Special operators play an important part in evaluating their new equipment
and making recommendations for future investments, said SOCOM officials.